Involving Philippine Military in Duterte Drug War Could Force Cuts in U.S. Aid

By Murray Hiebert —

A U.S. Army officer briefs Philippines Army Soldiers on helicopter insertions during Balikatan 2014. Source: Wikimedia, U.S. Government Work.

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte announced in early February that he planned to remove the police from his war on illicit drugs and put the anti-drug agency in charge with support from the military.  So far, the military appears to be staying out of the bloody campaign, although some officers have said that they would comply if asked.

If the military were to join the drug war and participate in extra-judicial killings, congressional regulations could force the United States to suspend military aid and training to the units involved.  This could potentially have a devastating impact on the bilateral military relationship, introducing major complications to long-standing training and military education programs that could take decades to resolve.

While the Trump administration is still cobbling together its Asia teams in the State and Defense departments, members of U.S. Congress have in recent weeks been discussing whether and how the Hill should respond to Duterte’s deadly drug war in which over 7,000 have been killed since late June.  In September, Senator Patrick Leahy warned in a colloquy with Senator Ben Cardin that Congress may need to consider imposing conditions on general assistance to Manila until the government demonstrates a commitment to the rule of law.

Leahy’s voice on this issue matters. He is the author of the so-called Leahy amendment, a 1997 provision to the foreign aid bill that bars the U.S. departments of Defense and State from providing equipment or training to foreign military units that commit “gross human rights violations” such as murder, torture, or rape. Over the past two decades, the Leahy amendment has been used to bar aid to military forces of key U.S. partners like Indonesia, Pakistan, and scores of other countries.

In his colloquy, Leahy said he wrote the regulations “to ensure that the United States is not complicit in human rights violations committed by forces that might receive U.S. assistance, and to encourage foreign governments to hold accountable perpetrators of such abuses.”

In 1999, Washington imposed a ban on the training of the Army Special Forces (Kopassus) in neighboring Indonesia after some of its members were convicted of kidnappings, beatings, and other abuses in East Timor. This training ban remained in force after the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the 2002 Bali bombing in Indonesia and after Washington and Jakarta stepped up cooperation, particularly in intelligence sharing, in the fight against Islamic extremists.

The Obama administration began easing this ban in 2010 as part of its rebalance to Asia. Cooperation remains limited, however, with Washington’s plan to gradually increase training with Kopassus units whose troops were too young to have been involved with past atrocities hitting a roadblock after Kopassus soldiers were implicated in extra-judicial killings during a 2013 prison raid.

Should Philippine troops get involved in Duterte’s drug war, the Leahy amendment would kick in primarily against units that can be credibly linked to killings and abuses. That does not mean, however, that killings by the military would not have a broader negative impact on Capitol Hill and prompt Congress to be reluctant to approve significant funding for military ties with the Philippines.

If the military joins the drug war, this would likely mainly affect the army, and not the smaller navy, air force, and coast guard. Any training involving the army could be affected, including the flagship annual Balikatan exercise, which has been running for over three decades. Balikatan is intended to deepen security cooperation through crisis planning, training for counter-terrorism operations, and boosting interoperability between the two countries’ forces.

If the Leahy amendment kicked in, it could affect International Military Education and Training (IMET), of which the Philippines is one of the world’s largest recipients. IMET is intended to train the next generation of military officers and deepen understanding of the United States. Under the Leahy provisions, anyone training in the United States would need to be vetted to ensure that he or she had not been involved in abuses.

The Leahy provision could also impact Foreign Military Financing grants to buy U.S. defense equipment if it was intended for units involved in abuses. In 2016, the Philippines received $79 million in military assistance, much of it focused on boosting the capacity of the navy, coast guard, and air force to operate off the country’s coast. Likely, these services will not be recruited into the drug war. Manila has also acquired nearly $1 billion worth of military equipment from the United States over the past four years, including two former U.S. coast guard cutters.

The Philippines received $42 million last year under the U.S. Maritime Security Initiative to increase the country’s maritime security capability. This program benefits primarily services that probably would not be involved in the drug program.

The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), inked between the United States and the Philippines in 2014, calls for the increased rotational deployment of U.S. troops, aircraft, and ships at five Philippine bases and allows the storage of equipment and supplies for humanitarian operations. The EDCA should be largely unaffected by the Leahy amendment since four out of the five bases are air force or naval facilities unlikely to be involved in the drug war. But funding for upgrading these bases has not yet been approved by Congress, so it is possible the budget levels could be affected by general concerns in the United States about Duterte’s drug war.

Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior advisor and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1.

Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert

Murray Hiebert serves as senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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