In 2002, the Defense Policy Board was created thereby allowing the US to control the policies and decisions of the Philippine Department of National Defense. Another mechanism called the Security Engagement Board was created in March 24, 2006 purportedly to serve as the mechanism for consultation and planning of measures and arrangements focused on addressing non-traditional security concerns such as international terrorism, transnational crime, maritime safety and security, natural and man-made disasters, and the threat of a pandemic outbreak that arise from non-state actors and transcend national borders.
Also the year 2002 marked the start of a series of Balikatan Joint US-RP military exercises. This paved the way for the “semi-permanent basing” of US troops in the country. The joint exercises and other trainings conducted by the U.S. are also aimed at improving the capacity of the U.S. and Philippine armed forces to conduct joint operations under the former’s command and direction; improve the capability of the AFP in waging wars against the perceived enemies of the U.S. and its local puppets; and contribute to the combat experience of U.S. troops. From then on, US troops were sighted joining AFP troops in combat operations against the bandit group Abu Sayyaf and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
U.S. military assistance to the Philippines increased dramatically. IBON Foundation computed that U.S. military assistance increased 1,111 percent from 2001 to 2002.
In May 2003, President Arroyo signed a U.S.-RP Non-Surrender Agreement thereby granting U.S. forces in the country immunity from prosecution before the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Philippines has refused, up to the present, to sign the Rome Statute which created the ICC, in deference to the desires of the U.S.
After tighter strategic and tactical control over the AFP was accomplished, the US-AFP partnership came out with the counterinsurgency program Oplan Bantay Laya, which was implemented beginning 2002.
Oplan Bantay Laya, A Trademark of US Counterinsurgency Operations
Oplan Bantay Laya, which was launched in 2002, is the latest in a series of counterinsurgency programs of the AFP. As in other counterinsurgency programs of the AFP it had the trademark of US counterinsurgency, counter-terror operations.
The first “comprehensive and coordinated” counterinsurgency program implemented by the AFP, during the Marcos dictatorship, was Oplan Katatagan (Operation Stability) in 1982.
This was followed by Oplan Lambat Bitag I , II, III, IV of the Aquino and Ramos administrations. The Estrada Regime launched Oplan Makabayan in 1998 and Oplan Balangai in 2000.
Essentially, Oplan Bantay Laya is the same as previous counterinsurgency programs. It divided military operations into four stages, clear-hold-consolidate-develop. Military operations are conducted to “clear” the area of insurgents, paramilitary groups and an intelligence network are formed to “hold” the area; the AFP then “consolidates” the area by improving its relations with the civilian population through civic action operations such as medical and dental missions; and at the last stage the AFP “develops” the area by introducing livelihood and development projects. This is an adaptation of the four stages of US counterinsurgency operations.
In terms of military tactics, Oplan Bantay Laya employs the same combination of intensive military operations, intelligence, and civic action or triad operations.
AFP documents reveal that Oplan Bantay Laya has three strategies namely, Strategic Holistic Approach, Win-Hold-Win, and Sustained Operations.
The Strategic Holistic Approach is the AFP’s solution to what it perceived as the lack of coordination between and among government agencies, the AFP and Philippine National Police (PNP), and civil society institutions such as NGOs. On paper, the objective of this strategy is to comprehensively approach the insurgency problem. The president heads the machinery for the Strategic Holistic Approach while the AFP and PNP are in-charge of military operations and Area Coordinating Centers. These centers coordinate AFP and PNP units, local government agencies, and other sectors such as NGOs in an area for the purpose of conducting counterinsurgency operations.
As part of the Strategic Holistic Approach, the counterinsurgency program is directed by the Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security, currently the most powerful cabinet cluster on the national level. At the local level, local officials are virtually stripped of decision-making authority and are even threatened by AFP commanders if they question the latter’s actions. Under Oplan Bantay Laya, civilian authority is practically subjugated by the chain of command of the AFP. Even NGOs and other civil society groups are forced to surrender their independence and to cooperate with the AFP or risk being branded as “terrorist or front organizations” and be dealt with accordingly
The US calls this the “whole-of-government” approach to counterinsurgency engagement. “Diplomacy, development and defense are interdependent at every level of a COIN effort, and civil-military integration is required at the strategic, theater/operational and local/tactical levels. Most successful COIN campaigns have achieved this unity of effort through unified authority.” (US Government Counterinsurgency Guide, January 2009)
Consistent with the strategies of Win-Hold-Win and Sustained Operations, the AFP identified thirteen priority areas in seven regions namely, Ilocos-Cordillera, Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog, Bicol, Bohol in Central Visayas, Caraga, Compostela Valley in Southern Mindanao. These areas were subjected to heavy troop deployments and sustained military operations. Only when the AFP has achieved its military objective of wiping out the insurgency and has formed a civilian self-defense force in an area does it transfer majority of its troops to another area which it then subjects to intense and sustained military operations.
An example is Mindoro. The island was subjected to intense and sustained military operations that resulted in numerous cases of political killings and other human rights violations. When the AFP thought that the island was saturated enough and that all political and people’s organizations had been destroyed, they transferred the troops and the operations to Batangas. In Central Luzon, Tarlac and Pampanga were subjected to heavy troop deployments and military operations before the AFP units were transferred to Bulacan and Nueva Ecija.