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US offers Philippine president help with war on drugs, if he changes tactics

Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images(MANILA) -- During their Monday meeting, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered President Rodrigo Duterte U.S. assistance in his controversial war on drugs -- if he would change tactics.

According to senior aide R.C. Hammond, Tillerson made a general offer of help, not specific resources. The goal was to offer solutions to Duterte, not just criticism.

The two leaders met for more than an hour Monday at the presidential palace in Manila and covered a wide variety of topics, including recapping the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, policing the South China Sea and threats from North Korea and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Duterte came into power on a brash promise to violently crack down on drug use. Since then, he has been widely criticized by human rights groups for what they said have been thousands of extrajudicial killings. Tillerson has been criticized for a perceived lack of focus on Duterte's human rights record in their meetings -- a topic aides said was raised during their discussion.

"Mr. President, we are all aware of the American people’s criticism of you and your handling of drug cartels," Tillerson told Duterte, in what critics described as a soft, indirect condemnation of the drug policy.

A majority of the time was spent talking about ISIS, according to Hammond. Tillerson gave an update on the coalition's fight in Syria and Iraq, and the fighters leaving and traveling to the Philippines. Duterte gave his assessment of how he thought his military is doing in the fight against ISIS, and together they reviewed the role the U.S. is playing in the fight in the Philippines.

The Philippines has long battled Muslim separatists in its southern region, but most recently they've had to bear back a self-declared ISIS affiliate that seized the city Marawi.

The U.S. has provided two Cessna planes and a couple of drones to aid Filipino surveillance and reconnaissance against the terror group, along with some training and guidance for Filipino forces. Hammond deferred reporters' questions about any changes in the American role to the Pentagon.

Hammond said the conversation then "naturally" turned to drugs and the drug war -- although Duterte has blamed drugs for the presence of ISIS in his country, without any evidence.

Tillerson spoke about the U.S.-Mexican partnership on transnational crime, pointing out that 60 million people had drug addictions in the U.S. to show that he understood the problem the Philippines is facing. He described how then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly had set up a task force to help find a way to counter drug trafficking. It was then that he offered assistance to help obtain better tactics.

The response was cordial but noncommittal, according to U.S. officials, who said it is now up to Duterte to accept or decline.

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