Bob Gates is right to leave a Joint Special Operations Task Force in place in the Philippines. My colleague Rick Bennet and I visited with JSOTF-P in 2008; you can read about the visit in this Weekly Standard article.
What we found is that this Special Operations Task Force is doing important work in helping the Philippine government and military beat back the threat from Islamic terrorists, some of whom have links to al-Qaeda. Their work is not kinetic; they are not allowed to fire weapons except in self-defense. Their main concern is the softer side of counterinsurgency—for example, doing reconstruction projects and strategic communications. They also train Philippine soldiers and marines to hunt down the bad guys while providing them some intelligence assistance in that task.
This is a small-footprint operation that doesn’t cause resentment of the United States and doesn’t get a lot of soldiers killed—but that does a lot of good. It is a model operation in the global war on terror, with first-rate leadership by Colonel Bill Coultrup, a veteran special-operations officer with a long list of classified achievements, whose affability and intelligence make him an ideal diplomat in uniform.
Nevertheless, there has been a push on for some time within certain sectors of the military to call it a day—to declare that the special operators have done as much as they can and to pull them out to more urgent assignments. It is precisely such a short-term mindset that could allow Abu Sayyaf and related terrorist groups to stage a resurgence.
Kudos to Gates for realizing that we cannot be successful without making a long-term commitment in places like the Philippines.