Americans in The Philippines Watched a Massacre Take Place
They were powerless to stop it
by GARRETT MCKINNEY SAMPLES
On Jan. 25, 392 members of the Philippine Special Action Force police commando unit entered the town of Mamasapano in the southern island of Mindanao.
The men hoped to kill or capture Zulkifli Abdhir and Basit Usman, two of the most wanted terrorists in the country.
Once there, the commandos encountered hundreds of local insurgent forces, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which quickly opened fire on the SAF intruders.
In the hours that followed, at least 44 Philippine commandos died as government forces scrambled to secure a rescue. Six U.S. nationals at a nearby military base struggled to provide what help they could.
Zulkifli died in clash. But the SAF’s extremely high casualties were a disaster for the U.S.-backed counter-terrorism mission. In the weeks following the battle, we’ve learned more about what happened.
The presence of U.S. advisers isn’t unusual for The Philippines. American commandos from the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines were among the most active — and overlooked — fighters in the U.S.’s global counter-terrorism campaign.
These soldiers put the concept of “foreign internal defense” — the training and equipping of other friendly countries to fight their own battles — into practice. They helped decrease the threat of Al Qaeda-linked groups, such as Abu Sayyaf, in the region.
The Pentagon deactivated JSOTF-P in 2014 But around 250 American soldiers and contractors remained in the country, helping The Philippines fight Abu Sayyaf remnants and other insurgent groups.
The Americans resided at military base in the town of Sharrif Aguak, which borders the southwestern edge of Mamasapano. From there, they provided technical support for those monitoring the operation.
As the SAF’s stealthy mission deteriorated into a losing battle, Americans provided surveillance feeds, joined Philippine army meetings and even demanded artillery strikes in support of SAF members.
The artillery, however, wasn’t used.
Howitzers, specifically of the 105-millimeter variety, would have been the weapon of choice. The Philippine military has a fondness for its 155-millimeter howitzers, but 105-millimeter variants are more easily and cheaply maneuvered through the wet, hilly and overgrown terrain near Mamasapano.
The smaller weapons have a deadly kill radius of 160 feet when firing high explosives. They would have been even more effective if loaded with controversial “shake and bake” mixes of explosives and incendiary white phosphorous shells.
While less useful against conventional threats such as enemy armor, the combined ordinance approach would excel at halting the progress of light infantry forces, such as those attacking the SAF commandos.
But military commanders in charge of the weapons thought their use was too risky, given the lack of clarity insurgent positions in relation to friendly troops as well as the nearby civilian population.
The U.S. advisers were also unable to provide any direct support of their own, as Philippine law bans American forces from direct participation in military operations in country.
Artillery units eventually fired rounds of white phosphorous, though the shots lacked accompanying loads of high explosives necessary to maximize damage. But it didn’t matter, as the barrage occurred largely after the fighting had ended.
Forty-four members of the SAF had died by the time medevac units, with U.S. assistance, arrived on the battlefield. Another 10 members of security forces died in a large anti-insurgent offensive that followed — an offensive that was likely supported by U.S. advisers.
U.S. soldiers have a troubled history in The Philippines, one that strains U.S.-Philippine military efforts, despite the great strides made toward cooperation in recent years.
Recent scandals have done little to lessen distrust of the American military, meaning that U.S. forces will not be fighting in The Philippines any time soon, and that future disasters may have to be watched from the sidelines as well.