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‘We’re Here to Help the Philippines’

7 minute read
Phil Zabriskie/Zamboanga

Col. David Fridovich calls himself a “quiet professional.” But after 26 of years military, he’s finding himself in the spotlight as the Army Special Operations Commander for Joint Task Force 510. That translates as the officer in charge of U.S. forces in the Philippines, deployed to help that country’s army fight terrorism. The immediate enemy is Abu Sayyaf, a splinter faction of the wider Muslim secessionist movement in the southern Philippines. Years of fighting the Philippine military has reduced it to a group of around 80 fighters, mostly engaged in kidnapping and other forms of banditry. They currently hold three foreign hostages, two of them American. The hot, thick jungles have made it hard to eliminate Abu Sayyaf altogether. But the Philippine military has also been accused of mismanagement and corruption.

Now, the Americans have arrived to help. Special Forces personnel will soon begin patrolling Basilan island along with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Carrying only side arms, they’re there as observers to guide the AFP to victory. Col. Fridovich spoke with TIME last week at AFP Southern Command headquarters.

TIME: When will U.S. personnel begin joining their Philippine counterparts on patrol?

Col. Fridovich: We anticipate starting work with our counterparts by about the end of February, maybe a little bit earlier. We’re only going to have about 160 advisers over on (Basilan). This is a training exercise, but we’ve got to face it a bit differently because this is the first time that the training has been done in a combat zone. There’s no exclusions to it in terms of where we go and what we do, except that it’s Philippine-led and we advise, consult and assist them as they require. There’s some added risk because they’re in a combat situation, but what we’re trying to do is mitigate those risks.

How do you mitigate risk?

You figure out your constraints and limitations, you figure out the things you must do, you figure out what you can’t do. Understanding the operational environment — we call it plugging in — the intelligence, the battlefield, everything from the terrain to the weather to politics in some situations. That’s something pretty unique to Special Operations Forces anyway — being aware of the political environment. And the enemy. We put that all together and figure out how we can optimize their loss and minimize our risk. Once you figure how you want to do it, you train, you rehearse, and then you say, okay, let’s go try it.

Do the advisers have specific experience in this type of thick jungle terrain?

First Special Forces group is theater-apportioned to the Pacific. Quite a few of the guys have a Philippine interest. They’ve studied the Philippines; they’ve worked here before. I’ve been coming here personally off and on since 1985. That’s routine. Some of the teams won’t be specific to the Philippines, so they might have had recent experiences in Thailand or somewhere else in Southeast Asia.

Is there a decision before committing forces that the risk of casualties is acceptable?

Yeah, there is. We were told, “You’re going to go there, and the reason you’re going to go there is that you all are built for accepting that risk and mitigating it down to the lowest level,” which I guess we are. We’re older guys, you can tell — I’m not making fun of myself — but we are older guys. The junior guys on the teams is a staff sergeant who’s got, at a minimum, six years in the Army and probably more, maybe eight to ten years before he even comes to us. Our guys have more maturity, more experience. They have theater and regional orientation, country-specific orientation, and that’s what decision-makers take into account before saying we’ll go forward. It’s not a unilateral decision, either. You’ve also got to go back to the Philippine government and work through those issues. And we’re still working through some of those issues, but I’m real confident that we’re going to go.

Locally, some people have charged mismanagement in Philippine Army operations, or even collusion with the Abu Sayyaf rebels. It seems you’re entering into a contract with a group that is facing some serious accusations. They’ve denied those accusations, but does that in any way affect your preparation?

I understand there’s a legitimacy question. I’m not concerned about it. And I’m not in any way trained to assess that. What I’m trained to assess and help them work through, is their military skills and the application of those skills.

Is the U.S. going to war in the Philippines?

No. Everything we’re going to be doing is going to be in a support role. The situation here persisted before our global war on terror heated up. We’re going to do what we can. It’s their country, their sovereign territory. We’re going to give them added or enhanced skills and application of what they already have to go ahead and take care of the situation by themselves. It’s not anything unilateral. I want to clear up that misconception. There’s nothing unilateral here at all, because it’s not our country.

Are conditions on Basilan conducive to tackling Abu Sayyaf?

There is some popular support (for Abu Sayyaf) there. You might have a support system in excess of a couple hundred throughout the entire island. That’s going to be a big challenge. That’s not just a military answer; there’s a civil-military piece to this whole thing. If a guy grows a crop and takes it across a mountain, and he takes it to market and he sells it, but coming back from the sale he gets robbed, and the government can’t do anything to protect him, then there’s a problem. So what we want to do is look at the bigger picture and say, okay, how do you stop all those things? You’re always going to have bandits in this part of the world, just like we have bandits in our part of the world. You’ve got to project power, you’ve got to project presence, you’ve got to project peace. The people have to believe the government is doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

Speculation here is that if things go well against Abu Sayyaf in Basilan, the next target may be other members of the group in Jolo, or Moro Liberation Front guerrillas in Mindanao or even the communist New People’s Army insurgents in Luzon

That will be for the political decision makers to decide. From a military perspective, if we’ve given them an enhanced capability, they should be able to go ahead and do it on their own. It’s teaching a guy how to catch a fish rather than just giving him a fish. I think they prefer us to come in and give them what they need to do the job themselves, and then move on.

If we’re doing our job, you won’t see anything. It’s nothing sinister; it’s just that it’s real quiet. We are quiet professionals. This is very counterintuitive for us, to even do (interviews) except that we need to tell the press what’s going on. There’s nothing going on here except what we’re talking about.

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