- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2017

The Pentagon has no plans of pulling back or reducing American counterterrorism efforts in the southern Philippines as Manila continues to battle Islamic State affiliates looking to gain a foothold in the country and the Pacific region writ large.

The small team of U.S. special operations forces, based in the Philippine city of Zamboanga, will continue to provide intelligence and logistical support to Philippine forces as their offensive against the Maute group — a radical militant group tied to the Abu Sayyaf terror organization and the group known as ISIS or ISIL — in the city of Marawi in the country’s south.

The small team of American troops had been part of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, one of the earliest U.S. counterterrorism operations launched in the wake of 9/11. As the height of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, over 400 task force members provided combat support to Manila’s efforts to quash groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf.

While remaining largely out of the fray inside Marawi, American forces have been critical in supporting Manila’s military offensive to drive members of the Maute group from the city, a campaign that is entering its third month since fighting broke out in late May.

“We want to support them … we want to see ISIS defeated” in Marawi and throughout the southern Philippines, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Monday, noting U.S. forces have supported the Philippine government’s war on extremists since the days just after Sept. 11 attacks.

Maute group leader Isnilon Hapilon declared allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014 and was subsequently named the group’s emir in Southeast Asia. The assault on Mawari was triggered by a failed raid by Philippine military and police on Mr. Hapilon’s base near the city, local reports say.

At the beginning of the Marawi offensive in May, a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition on anonymity with The Times acknowledged the Islamic State’s focused efforts to expand its footprint on southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines, as the group continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria.

On Monday, Capt. Davis declined to comment on whether some inside the Pentagon are considering formally reinstituting the U.S. special operations task force in the southern Philippines in the wake of the Marawi operation. The task force was officially shuttered in 2015, but since then, Washington has continued to funnel weapons and support to the Philippine military.

In February, the Pentagon green lighted a weapons deal with Manila, delivering over 400 grenade launchers, 85 sniper rifles and three RQ-11B Raven surveillance drones to Philippine forces based in Mindanao, a statement from the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines said. Last month, Washington delivered a pair of Cessna 208B Grand Caravan intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to the country’s air force, as part of a $33 billion military aid package designed to bolster Manila’s counterterrorism capabilities.

Capt. Davis’ comments come as Philippine forces are on the verge of retaking Marawi from Islamic State-affiliated militants. Local troops under Task Force Marawi have boxed in Maute group fighters into a 30-mile quadrant near the city’s center, spokesperson Capt. Jo-Ann Petinglay told the Philippine Inquirer.

Philippine fighters launched a fresh round of airstrikes against the extremists’ positions Monday in an attempt to dislodge fighters from the area. Meanwhile, three Philippine soldiers were killed Monday during ongoing operations, raising the death toll to 122 soldiers killed during the fighting.

News of the latest casualties came days after after a surprise visit to the embattled city by President Rodrigo Duterte. On Sunday, Mr. Duterte said as many as 20,000 additional Philippine troops may be needed to retake Mawari from Islamic control.

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