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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

“Teka muna,” the Filipino general said.

We had just exchanged pleasantries, so I started to peruse the menu at a quaint café in the quiet neighborhood of McKinley Park, away from the daily chaos of metropolitan Manila. In Tagalog, “teka muna” roughly translates into “wait a second.” The general had to take a phone call.

It was May 23, 2017, and the general was the same officer I had worked with on my first deployment to the Philippines as a Special Forces officer seven years earlier. When he hung up, he explained that an important mission was occurring at that moment, and he was simply getting updates. The call reminded me of how we used to talk during that first deployment to the country. What I didn’t know was that the mission he was tracking was particularly significant: the first engagement in what would become the Battle of Marawi. That siege would rage in the southern city for five months.

As the capital of Lanao Del Sur province, Marawi serves as a symbol of the government. More importantly, it represents the Muslim capital of the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country. The fight to retake the town after its capture by Islamic State group fighters received less Western attention than the battle for Raqqa, Syria, which took place over roughly the same period. But while media attention tended to focus on the fighting in Iraq and Syria, on the other side of the world, the Philippine Army slowly expelled Islamic State group fighters and regained control of Marawi, killing the group’s leader in the Philippines, Isnilon Hapilon, and other high-value targets along the way.

However, victory does not come easy. The battle holds a number of important lessons to be learned, especially given the role of a U.S. special operations task force known as SOTF 511 in the country. Specifically, the special operations experience lends insights into how the key concept of Mission Command can be made to work under difficult circumstances—working with foreign partners in a precarious situation.

Flat Communications

A key to SOTF 511’s success hinged on the robust linkages it formed with key partners throughout what’s known as the JIIM—joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational—enterprise, which in turn relied on flat communications throughout the network. This network encouraged vertical and lateral coordination and information-sharing, which produced disciplined initiative, improved the situational awareness of every member of the team and allowed JIIM stakeholders to federate information and collaborate efforts. Additionally, for time-sensitive and crisis-response situations, the robust linkages and flattened communications facilitated rapid and judicious decision-making through delegated authority and trust.

Internally, SOTF 511 incorporated liaisons from an array of other U.S. military entities. Special operations forces from multiple services, intelligence personnel, civil affairs soldiers and others worked together with SOTF 511’s joint operations center. Each liaison brought its parent unit’s strengths to the SOTF team and provided reach-back support from those units. To complement this effort, SOTF 511 supplied its own personnel to subordinate task forces. Thus, in the vertical chain of command, each element provided direct representation to each other. Critically, this setup also increased mission buy-in and ensured dedication to mission objectives.

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The Philippine military offloads equipment to help fight insurgents on the island of Mindanao in May 2017.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Robust Liaison Network

Externally, SOTF 511 invested in a similarly robust liaison network. It sent liaisons to the Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) Logistics Support Facility in Singapore to increase collaboration and ensure smooth logistics support. Interagency liaisons at SOCPAC and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii facilitated transparency and improved deconfliction with other government stakeholders. This healthy checks-and-balances system helped build trust and cooperation between SOCPAC, SOTF 511 and its interagency partners.

In the Philippines, Task Force 511.1, one of  Task Force 511’s subunits, collaborated daily with other elements within the embassy, including the State Department’s political section, the defense attaché office and many others. These complementary relationships—whether at SOCPAC, in the embassy or elsewhere—proved critical to gaining buy-in for initiatives, facilitating information-sharing, establishing trust and, most importantly, creating a collaborative environment instead of a competitive one.

Finally, bilaterally, SOTF 511 maintained close working relationships with critical host-nation counterparts. Within the northern and central Philippines, dedicated liaison elements within 511.1 maintained relationships with specified strategic and operational partners, including Philippines land-based and maritime special operations forces, Philippine Air Force elements engaged in the counterterrorism fight and Philippines civil-military operations partners.

In the south—where the Battle of Marawi took place—Task Force 511.2 partnered with the Western Mindanao Command and with teams embedded directly with Philippines conventional forces throughout the command to provide lethal advice and assistance. These relationships would prove vital when Filipino conventional forces moved to Marawi during the siege. Task Force 511.2 also partnered with tactical host-nation civil-military operations components deployed in the southern Philippines, and both sub-task forces included intelligence elements that regularly met with Filipino intelligence counterparts.

Without each one of those relationships—internal, external and bilateral—SOTF 511’s ability to influence its partners and execute its initiatives, even as the fighting in Marawi grew more intense, would have been severely degraded. In effect, these relationships enabled it to conduct Mission Command, and the lesson is clear: Mission Command, whether working with partners or subordinates within a single unit, depends on strong relationships based on trust and effective communication.

Transparency Maximized

With these relationships established, SOTF 511 sought to maximize transparency, going so far as to deliberately over-report information. The task force produced weekly operations and intelligence situation reports, daily Marawi situation reports, and operations and intelligence briefings for SOCPAC, while taking active part in embassy synchronization meetings, targeting working groups, nonlethal effects working groups, intelligence working groups and other forums. The SOTF stressed the importance of flattened communication and aggressive dissemination of information. Every outgoing email had to pass the “who else needs to know this” test before being sent. This robust communication would prove critical: During the siege of Marawi, SOTF 511 was one of the only reporting mechanisms giving the U.S. government a sense of what was going on.

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Philippine officials inspect weapons taken from insurgents in Marawi.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Early on, the SOTF’s intelligence sections identified that the key to success against the Islamic State group in the Philippines would be maximum intelligence-sharing with other services and agencies, allies and Filipino intelligence partners. This required them to consistently “write for release” to non-U.S. partners and allies and merge knowledge management and dissemination processes across the globe. When this overwhelmed SOTF 511’s in-country resources, the task force outsourced intelligence processing, exploitation and dissemination to external agencies and organizations, leveraging these external resources as they rapidly established sharing coalitions. The SOTF even leveraged relationships with units far outside the region, like the U.S. Central Command, which collaborated on efforts to stem the flow of transnational foreign fighters. This collaborative approach and transparency allowed outside organizations to triage, exploit, analyze and disseminate finished intelligence products on behalf of SOTF 511, dramatically expanding on their organic capabilities.

The counterterrorism fight in the region—and the Battle of Marawi that was quickly becoming its most dramatic manifestation—demanded an enhanced intelligence for release to the host nation to take action. SOTF 511 assertively sought out approval for more robust foreign disclosure authorities to enable U.S. special operations forces on the ground to more effectively support their counterparts with actionable intelligence.

Important Lessons

In the Army, we often think of Mission Command as something leaders conduct with subordinates in their own formations. But there are important lessons to be learned by expanding our viewpoint. In the Philippines, by using liaisons, emphasizing interagency collaboration, streamlining capabilities-based organizational design, enhancing conventional and special operations integration, and adopting unconventional procedural changes, SOTF 511 proved its version of Mission Command tremendously effective. Just seven months after the Battle of Marawi and 16 months after the establishment of SOTF 511, the Islamic State group in the Philippines (and its precursor, the Abu Sayyaf group) lay decimated, with many of its top 30 leaders captured or killed and around 1,000 of its fighters dead. Today, the group struggles to find refuge in Southeast Asia. The cost of this effort to the U.S. government: $15 million, 100 additional personnel deployed and zero U.S. forces killed.

Of course, the bulk of the credit for this success belongs primarily to the heroic and dedicated efforts of the professional men and women of the Philippines security forces who risk their lives daily. But credit also goes to SOTF 511—and its higher headquarters and many partners inside and outside the U.S. government.

As I sat across from that Filipino general in May 2017, neither of us knew—indeed, nobody could have known—how the Battle of Marawi would play out. But it unfolded and ended successfully at least in small part because of the actions of SOTF 511. In the current strategic environment, marked by competing resource demands and diverse threats to U.S. interests, the SOTF 511 model provides a range of exportable lessons—not least of which relate to Mission Command—for Army units engaged in other theaters and against other threats.

Capt. Adam Jannetti contributed to this article.