Filipino Colonel to America: Reinforcements Welcome

One thousand Moro National Liberation Front rebels encircled 180 of Lieutenant Colonel Pablo Lorenzo's infantrymen in the coconut groves outside Panamao, a small town in the predominantly Muslim south of the Philippines. It was February 6, 2005, and the separatist Islamic rebels violated their peace agreement, firing down on Lorenzo and his men with mortars, machine guns, and 90-millimeter recoilless rifles.

Reinforcements from the Philippines Marines were ambushed in the adjacent town of Patikul by fighters from Abu Sayyaf, a group connected with al-Qaeda that is increasingly considered simply a racketeering outfit. Air support was spread thin. So Lorenzo and his men had to wait out their attackers in trenches and foxholes.

Sound familiar? asks Lorenzo, now on a break in Manila. He says Americans in Iraq can learn from the lessons of the the Philippine military’s three decades of experience fighting insurgency on its islands. And he believes U.S. military involvement in the Philippines is essential to professionalizing the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), providing humanitarian assistance to the Muslim south, and hopefully ending the Islamic insurgency here.

Throughout the two-day siege, Lorenzo's men successfully held off wave after wave of rebel advances, suffering only twelve serious casualties and one death, and killing at least eighteen rebels. But their success had more to do with the battalion's strong location and tenacity than any technological advantage. In fact, the rebels wore the exact same camouflage uniforms as the Filipino Army, and bore the same guns.

Lorenzo’s real technological advantage didn't arrive until almost a year after this attack, when a U.S. Army ‘Liason and Coordination Element' embedded fifteen Special Forces members into Lorenzo's unit. The Americans brought surveillance and intelligence support, along with increased funds for humanitarian aid.

But with increased U.S. military presence came political controversy. Picking up on a long tradition of anti-U.S.-military statements that harkens back to the country’s colonial legacy, Filipino nationalists in Congress warned that America’s increased military role post-9/11 threatened their sovereignty. And Muslim communities down south were skeptical of U.S. intentions. So Lorenzo had to work hard to justify his support for the Americans in his unit.

Lorenzo has had a long history of positive experiences with the United States Armed Forces. At the Military Academy in Baguio City, which he joined at age seventeen in 1981, “All our field manuals for operations were from the U.S.; our teachers looked up to the U.S. military; so did we.” Lorenzo even watched Hollywood combat movies admiringly, critiquing their tactics with friends over meals.

In 1999, the Filipino military sent Lorenzo to a selective seven-month “U.S. International Military Education and Training Program” at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was one of fifteen foreign officers to attend, along with three hundred Americans. That’s when the American military machine he’d heard so much about proved its mettle.

A non-commissioned officer (NCO) greeted Lorenzo at the airport. He was “authoritative, firm and efficient,” recalls Lorenzo. In the Philippines, “Our NCOs don’t usually have that kind of exposure or confidence.”

“Our army here is very much officer-driven. We cannot [always] rely on the enlisted in terms of their supervising others…[or] letting them make their own innovations at their respective levels with smaller units.” But the American force is more “NCO-driven.” This is a testament to its leadership training and professionalism. “I envy it,” he says, “the way it frees up officers to deal with big-picture,” strategic decisions.

But U.S.-Philippine military engagement is not a one-way street, Lorenzo insists. “We are fighting a war here that pits Filipinos against Filipinos,” which cannot rely on military might alone. To increase the support of locals, “We’ve developed strong Civil-Military Operations,” he says, like building roads and providing medical care. These projects help isolate radicals and contain insurgencies.

“There is no doubt the Americans are learning from us, too,” he says, by observing "our efforts to increase local support in contested areas" with humanitarian aid programs.

The medical, educational and governmental support programs also helped Lorenzo sell the U.S. presence to the predominantly Muslim Sulu province. He went door-to-door in rural villages, highlighting joint U.S.-Filipino work.

"The Americans helped rebuild a mosque. They worked with Filipino troops and villagers, stimulating the economy by buying local goods. So communities felt ownership,” says Lorenzo. "And the populace was star-struck because they came into close contact with Americans for the first time. All this helped temper the anti-Americanism,” he says.

But most importantly for Lorenzo, decreased anti-American sentiment allowed the U.S. military to stay here longer, professionalizing his forces and providing needed aid in contested communities. "It was a virtuous circle."

"That's why I am very optimistic about the U.S.-Philippine military partnership," he says. "Together we can finally end this insurgency."

PhilippinesAmar Bakshi