By Roy Mabasa and Francis Wakefield
United States (US) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Manila that Washington has decided to keep supporting the Philippines in fighting ISIS-affiliated extremist groups, while a report that came out in America said the US Department of Defense is already considering plans to allow its military to carry out air strikes in Mindanao.
Tillerson, who was in Manila during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministers Meeting Monday, said there is no contradiction between Washington’s support of the Philippines fight against local terrorists and its criticism of the human rights abuses allegedly committed by the Duterte administration in its campaign against illegal drugs in the country.
“With respect to the assistance we’re providing the Philippine government to respond to ISIS, there is… there really is no, I think, contradiction at all in the support we’re giving them in the fight down in Marawi and Mindanao,” Tillerson told a press briefing in Manila.
“I see no conflict, no conflict at all in our helping them with that situation and our views of other human rights concerns we have with respect to how they carry out their counternarcotics activities.”
The US government has been very vocal about its concerns over President Duterte’s controversial war on drugs.
In fact, last March, a report by the US State Department has flagged “significant concerns relating to human rights and due process” and other “multiple challenges” facing the Philippines’ war on illegal drugs on the watch of President Duterte.
Still, the US gave its assurance that it will continue to provide support to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) through both grant assistance and expedited sales of arms and munitions to support both long-term AFP modernization goals and urgent counterterrorism requirements.
Just recently, the US government donated two new Cessna 208B aircraft to the Philippine government to enhance the Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) counterterrorism capabilities and help protect security forces who are actively engaged in counterterrorism operations in the southern Philippines including Marawi City.
The Cessna 208B aircraft is equipped with advanced sensors, cameras and communications equipment.
Tillerson noted that most of what the US government is providing the Philippine military is “information, some surveillance capabilities with some recent transfers of a couple of Cessnas and a couple of UAVs to allow them to have better information in which to conduct the fight down there.”
“We’re providing them some training and some guidance in terms of how to deal with an enemy that fights in ways that is not like most people have ever had to deal with,” Tillerson pointed out.
Although what is happening in Marawi is “tragic,” he expressed his belief that the Philippine government is “beginning to get that situation under control.”
“But the real challenge is going to come with once they have the fighting brought to an end how to deal with the conditions on the ground and ensure it does not re-emerge,” Tillerson emphasized. “And so I think our – bringing our knowledge of having dealt with this enemy in other parts of the world is useful to them, and I think that is also in our national security interest as well.”
Meanwhile, NBC News in the United States reported that the US Department of Defense confirmed on Monday (yesterday in Manila) that it is actively considering the adoption of plans that would allow the US military to carry out airstrikes on Islamic State-affiliated fighters in Mindanao.
Asked to comment, AFP Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año said “we at the AFP is yet to receive any formal notice or offer for such air capability deployment.”
“We appreciate Pentagon’s reported desire to help the Philippines in the fight against Daesh-inspired Maute Group because terrorism is a global menace that the community of nations must unite to fight against,” Año said.
“However, such proposition if any, has to undergo a process. And a covenant must be had between the Commanders-in-Chief of both nations before that option may be adopted,” he added.
Ano said the existing Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) provides that only technical assistance and training may be allowed under the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB).
He said direct military actions may only be allowed during actual invasion of the Philippines by another state.
The alleged “new plan” would allow direct combat engagements for US aerial assets — most likely unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). The adoption of such a plan would be a boon to Philippine forces and make a marked uptick in US involvement in the ongoing fight against terror in Mindanao that has displaced thousands.
As fighting in Marawi enters its third month, the Singaporean government donated relief goods for displaced Marawi residents.
AFP spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the Singaporean Air Force C130 landed at Laguindingan Airport in Misamis Oriental before noon Monday and unloaded tents, blankets, assorted medical supplies and medicines, drinking water, dynamo lights, food ration packs, and water filtration units worth SGD 93,944.
NDRRMC spokesperson Romina Marasigan said the goods were already sent to evacuees currently sheltered in evacuation centers in Iligan City.
“Singapore didn’t promise anything but has expressed a possibility of another round of relief,” Marasigan said.
“There are talks ongoing for our needs list,” she added.
The Singaporean Air Force left three hours after unloading the goods.