Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that in 2006, U.S. forces fired missiles from a Predator drone at Indonesian terrorist Umar Patek, who was involved in the deadly Bali nightclub bombings in 2005. (Patek survived. Just last month, he was sent to prison for 20 years.) Of course, American forces order drone strikes relatively frequently. But this case was remarkable because the strike was reportedly ordered in the Philippines — a sovereign nation where kinetic military operations by foreign governments are specifically forbidden by the local constitution.
Last week, Col. David Maxwell, former commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, vehemently denied the allegations. "In all my time in the Philippines in between 2001 and 2007, there has never been a Predator or Reaper deployed, and there have been no Hellfire missiles, let alone 'a barrage of Hellfire missiles,'" he told the Rappler. Still, according to the Times' Mark Mazzetti, a well-respected, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with a fine record for accuracy, "three current and former intelligence officials" confirmed the story. If the charges are indeed true, it might prove catastrophic to U.S.-Philippine relations.
We were fighting in the Philippines when William McKinley was president — this goes way back.
Some context is useful to understand why the United States might have launched the strike. In many ways, 2006 was a landmark year in drone warfare. Whether because of advancements in targeting capabilities, or new confidence in the platform as a weapon of covert warfare, that's the year the United States seems to have become more comfortable with drone deployment against high-profile targets. It started in January 2006, when Ayman al-Zawahiri was targeted in a strike on the village of Damadola, Pakistan. Though al-Zawahiri survived, the diplomatic fallout with our "ally" was far less than it might have been if American F-15s had pounded the village. (Later that year, al-Zawahiri was targeted in Chenagai, Pakistan. Again, he survived.) For whatever reason, and putting aside the debate over the morality of drone use, the mechanized weapons are simply seen as a more clinical form of warfare. So why not target some bad guy in the Philippines, a place where absolute deniability would be essential for a kinetic U.S. military operation? Plus, 2006 was also the year that the Philippines acquired Predator drones of their own. That helps make the denial more plausible.
What was this bad guy even doing in the Philippines? Remember: Even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States was engaged in training missions in the Philippines, helping the country develop its counterterrorist capabilities. Al Qaeda has long had a beachhead there. So too did Jemmah Islamiyah (which would later launch the horrific bombings in Bali, with the aid of targeted terrorist Umar Patek) and Abu Sayyaf, responsible for a massive kidnapping operation across the region. In 2000, Abu Sayyaf snatched its first U.S. citizen. Months after his rescue, three more Americans were kidnapped — one of whom was beheaded. First Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) was deployed to fix the situation. After 9/11, their mission became Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines.
Officially, and by most accounts, U.S. forces have remained in a support role, helping the armed forces of the Philippines build a command-and-control structure and integrate a proficient response force. It's proven enormously effective, but not without cost. At least five U.S. special operators have been killed in action.
So why does a six-year-old missile strike against a known terrorist matter so much? The Philippines has a long history of occupation, dating back to its subjugation as a Spanish colony through 1899, and then de facto U.S. control through World War II, when it was finally granted independence. (We were fighting in the Philippines when William McKinley was president — this goes way back.) Accordingly, the Philippine government is wary of foreign forces, and of slipping back into servitude.
Uncertainties in the region make it important for the United States to remain on good terms with the Philippines. We've overstayed our welcome in Japan. This year, 9,000 U.S. Marines were relocated from Okinawa to Guam (a U.S. territory), and Japanese opinion seems to be in favor of further cuts to the American military presence. As China grows as an economic and military power, we need to bolster our presence in the Pacific Rim, not lessen it. That helps explain the new Marine base in Canberra, Australia, and the 2010 Wellington Declaration with New Zealand, formalizing years of diplomatic progress after a complete severing of ties in the 1980s.
The Philippines matter. It is imperative that the United States somehow restores confidence with the Filipino people. These are uncertain times in an uncertain region. The only way to order is through cooperation. And that isn't achieved by ordering drone strikes in sovereign nations that explicitly forbid them.