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A 'Second Front' in the Philippines

1 March 2002

The Bush Administration's opening of a so-called second front against terrorism in the Philippines has stunned people here with its swiftness. Less than three weeks after the decision was jointly announced by Washington and Manila in early January, the first wave of US troops landed in Zamboanga City, about 460 nautical miles south of the Philippine capital. The reality of this new front in another distant land was brought home to many Americans by the crash of a US helicopter in treacherous waters on February 22. Officially tagged an accident, the tragedy took the lives of ten US soldiers, eight of whom belonged to an elite Special Forces unit.

Not surprisingly, the national debate in the Philippines, which a decade ago closed down two massive US bases it had hosted, has turned ugly very quickly. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has taken to calling opponents of the deployment "anti-Filipino" and "Abu Sayyaf lovers," referring to the terrorist group that is ostensibly the target of the mission, while critics have warned that the decision will precipitate the downfall of her administration. In one of those quicksilver transformations for which Philippine politics is famous, ex-senator Juan Ponce Enrile, widely regarded as the man who torpedoed the impeachment proceedings against former President Joseph Estrada a year ago, is now feted in some quarters as a nationalist for his public stand that the deployment violates the Philippine Constitution.

The US plan calls for the immediate deployment of 660 troops in western Mindanao. Some 160 of these are members of the Special Forces, who are to be assigned to the war-torn island of Basilan, about seventeen miles southwest of Zamboanga, in what is being labeled a "training exercise" with 3,800 Filipino troops. Two advisers will be assigned to each company of 100 soldiers engaged in a search-and-destroy mission against the Abu Sayyaf. These advisers are not supposed to engage in combat, though the terms of engagement allow them to fire in self-defense.

Even before the operations are under way, however, controversy already attaches to the issue of who will command these advisers. The Philippine government said Philippine Army officers would exercise authority over the US troops, while the Pentagon insisted that its soldiers would not function under foreign command. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon won, with the final terms of reference, released on February 12, setting forth a potentially messy dual command structure in actual field operations.

But that is a minor tempest compared with the larger issue of whether the US advisers should be in the Philippines at all. The deployment clearly violates the Philippines' 1987 Constitution, which says that no foreign troops are to be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty. The one full-fledged treaty the Philippines has with the United States, the cold war-era US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, commits the two governments to jointly repelling external aggression aimed at each other, while the Visiting Forces Agreement, signed in 1998, legalizes and regulates US participation in military exercises designed to counter external attack. Neither allows the use of foreign troops in quelling local insurgencies or criminal activities like the Abu Sayyaf's kidnapping spree.

The Abu Sayyaf was created in the early 1990s by young Islamists alienated from the two big rebel groups fighting for independence for the Muslim people of the Philippines, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MNLF was regarded as too secular and the MILF as not fundamentalist enough by the Abu Sayyaf founders, who wanted to bring all Muslims in Mindanao--the country's second-biggest island--under an Islamic state where Muslims would be able to practice Islam in its "purest and strictest form," as its key intellectual, the now-deceased Aburajak Janjalani, put it. Many people in Mindanao, however, are skeptical about the ideological protestations of the Abu Sayyaf. Some regard it as just another of western Mindanao's numerous bandit groups, whose invocation of Islam is designed to confer respectability on its criminal activities. Others see it as a creation of the Philippine military originally designed to weaken the MNLF and MILF but that, like Frankenstein's monster, evolved beyond the control of its minders.

The kidnappings for ransom that the Abu Sayyaf engages in are not what makes it unique--such kidnappings are a dime a dozen throughout western Mindanao--but rather their spectacular character. It made millions of dollars in ransom money after it hit the resort island of Sipadan two years ago and made off with a multinational set of victims it kept as hostages for months. Hardly had that shock worn off than it snatched more than a dozen guests and workers from the Dos Palmas resort on the island of Palawan last May and ferried them in high-speed boats to Basilan, more than 300 miles away. This time, there were three American captives, missionary couple Gracia and Martin Burnham of Kansas and Guillermo Sobero of California. Sobero was beheaded early on, while the Burnhams are still in the Abu Sayyaf's hands, along with Filipina nurse Deborah Yap.

Philippine security officials claim that links were forged in the early 1990s between representatives of Osama bin Laden and the Abu Sayyaf. However, not even President Arroyo claims there is evidence that ties continued after 1995. Some Southeast Asian police investigators have, in fact, suggested that people suspected of being agents of bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization, such as Farathur Raman Al Ghozi, a recently arrested Indonesian accused of a number of bombings, have ties to the insurgent MILF rather than to the Abu Sayyaf.

Why the Philippines?

So why rush to the Abu Sayyaf stronghold of Basilan? Undoubtedly, a key incentive for President Arroyo is the aid that Washington has promised her administration in return for her declaration of fealty to President George W. Bush. About $100 million in military aid has been committed to the badly underfunded Armed Forces of the Philippines. Even more critical are the billions in economic aid and foreign investment promised by Washington and Wall Street during Arroyo's visit to the United States last November. The centerpiece of her program to jump-start the Philippine economy during this period of global recession is massive economic support from Washington. For her, the global antiterrorist campaign is first and foremost a business proposition, and she made this very clear when she emerged from her meeting with President Bush in Washington in November and boasted to Filipino reporters that "it's $4.6 billion, and counting."

Beyond the promise of massive aid, President Arroyo perceives a positive political fallout from the coming of the Americans. She is banking on the popularity of a hard line against the Abu Sayyaf among Mindanao's Christian majority. This group enthusiastically supported the aggressive military campaign against the MILF launched by Arroyo's predecessor, Joseph Estrada. Although Estrada was ousted by a middle-class-based popular uprising in January 2001, the Christian majority still voted overwhelmingly for his allies during the congressional elections last May. Arroyo figures that bringing in US troops to stiffen a badly performing Philippine Army will bring a significant bloc of votes over to her side in time for the 2004 presidential elections. "I wish the administration would just say that it is basing its decisions on what it thinks is the popular mood rather than attempting the impossible--trying to prove that the American troop deployment is constitutional and legal," says Wigberto Tanada, a former senator who is the main convener of an anti-interventionist alliance called Gathering for Peace.

When it comes to Washington's motives, many here see the Bush Administration's choice of the Philippines as a second front in its global antiterror campaign as having been made in haste and as the result of a process of elimination. Somalia evokes memories of the disastrous 1993 Ranger raid that led to the withdrawal of US troops; Yemen and Sudan are unknown, forbidding territory; and action against Iraq is--at least for now--precluded by the absence of consensus among the key policy-makers. In these circumstances, the Philippines--with a fiercely supportive head of state, being a former colony and possessing a familiar culture--stood out.

Representative Etta Rosales of Akbayan (Citizens Action Party), one of the country's most respected legislators, feels there is an even deeper reason: In her view, the United States has been pushing hard to reintroduce a US military presence in the Philippines ever since it lost its bases in 1991. An effort to push through an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement similar to that negotiated with Japan met strong opposition both in and out of government in the mid-1990s. Strong lobbying by the Pentagon, however, produced the Visiting Forces Agreement in 1998, which reopened the gates through which US troops poured in under the guise of conducting military exercises with their Filipino counterparts. Exercises normally have had a duration of a few weeks. But the 2002 "Balikatan" (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) Exercise in Basilan is projected to last six months, and its aim, suspects Rosales, is to lay the ground for a longer-term and more intensive military presence. "They were simply waiting for the perfect moment, and the Abu Sayyaf's alleged links to Al Qaeda provided the perfect excuse," she contends. The Caldron of Basilan

The US Special Forces will find their Filipino allies demoralized by antiquated and inadequate equipment and very low pay. Probably the only reliable fighting unit in the armed forces is the Marines. The army's reputation is so bad that many residents of Basilan swear that a few months ago, the Abu Sayyaf were able to break out of encirclement in the town of Lamitan by paying off the Scout Ranger units that had the bandits and their hostages in their grip. The biggest problem that the Special Forces will face, however, is Basilan itself; as journalists Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria put it in their Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao, Basilan, an island of some 1,370 square kilometers, is a "war laboratory," where "battalions of young soldiers are trained to become tough and where senior military officers are stationed before they are promoted." Its literacy rate is the lowest in western Mindanao, and half the population lives in poverty.

Basilan's social history is a microcosm of forces that have transformed the region of Mindanao and made it a land of permanent war. Muslims belonging to the Yakan ethnolinguistic group form the majority, but large numbers of them have been dispossessed by a migrant Christian population that streamed into the island with the logging concessions, agribusiness firms and multinational corporations, some of which arrived as early as eighty years ago. José Torres Jr., a specialist in Basilan society, estimates that today Muslims constitute 71 percent of the population but Christians own 75 percent of the land, with ethnic Chinese controlling 75 percent of local trade. The result is a combustible mixture that has produced unending streams of resentful recruits first for the MNLF, then for the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf.

Until now, the Abu Sayyaf, which is estimated to number from a few hundred to a thousand in western Mindanao, never had a significant mass base in Basilan. But recent military actions, like the arrest of scores of Muslims on such flimsy grounds as being related to suspected members of the terrorist group, is creating precisely that base. While Christians favor the Americans' coming, Angelina Ludovice, a respected community organizer in Isabela, the provincial capital, warns that "Muslims now see the whole thing as directed at them."

Unlike Afghanistan, Basilan is a typical setting for an insurgency: Forests and communities overlap, creating both physical and popular cover for combatants. The hunt for combatants easily leads to abuses against civilians, turning many into insurgents. Yet while the insurgency has a mass base, so does the counterinsurgency, for the place is riven by a deep ethnic and religious divide that continually threatens to produce communal bloodshed. Now with the threat it poses of tilting the balance of forces sharply in favor of the central government, the military and the Christian community, US intervention may yet accomplish what has so far eluded the Muslims: an operational unity among the rival organizations of the Abu Sayyaf, the MILF and the MNLF.

There is, however, one thing that Christians and Muslims share, and that is the fear of bombing. Both communities, says Ludovice, know about the intense bombing that accompanied the Afghanistan campaign, and they worry that the same thing can happen in Basilan. So far, news about what the Americans will bring to the training refers to infantry tactics, lessons in night-flying, skills in night-fighting with night-vision goggles and sophisticated surveillance work. What made the difference in Afghanistan, however, was precision bombing, and it is hard for many Filipinos to believe that massive air power will not be employed against suspected Abu Sayyaf strongholds. With Basilan's ecology of overlapping forests and communities, the results of such a campaign could be devastating in human terms.

In short, the slightest acquaintance with Basilan's tortured history reveals the folly of the US deployment. For even if the Special Forces and their protégés do decimate the Abu Sayyaf, the unchanged conditions of ethnoreligious discrimination, inequality and poverty will continue to breed extremist responses. Only an aggressive program of social and economic reform will break the cycle of injustice and terrorism. The Americans may leave after six months, but it will be the locals who will be left with managing a situation that is worse than before. The Manila Scene

As in Basilan, things are coming to a head in Manila. Seemingly confident just a few weeks ago, President Arroyo is now prone to utter sharp words about her critics in public. There are now daily demonstrations at the US Embassy, and on February 11, Gathering for Peace, perhaps the most powerful coalition of opponents of the US troop deployment, was born. Scores of people at the event sang "Bayan Ko" (My Country), the melancholic theme song of the struggle to oust the US military bases in the late 1980s and early '90s. One of the leaders of that campaign, Professor Roland Simbulan of the University of the Philippines, told the crowd, "We're in the minority now. So what's new? We were also in the minority at the beginning of the anti-bases campaign, but in the end we built up a solid patriotic majority."

While Gathering for Peace was being launched, the film Black Hawk Down was playing to large audiences in Manila theaters. A friend who has seen it says, "I thought this was a pro-war film. It actually makes a powerful case against intervention." True--underneath the patriotic gore, the film about the disastrous 1993 Delta Force and Ranger raid in Mogadishu actually gives off two powerful lessons, perhaps inadvertently. One is that US units like Delta Force, the Rangers and Special Forces are veritable killing machines. The second is that even when you kill large numbers of people--and in less than twenty-four hours, the Americans killed more than a thousand Somalis--you can't prevail against an enraged population that does not want you around. A few weeks after the raid, the United States withdrew from Somalia.

As US troops prepare to plunge into Basilan's witches' brew of insurgents, terrorists, bandits, warring communities and inhospitable jungle, one has a feeling that history, cunning and inscrutable, might this time deal the Americans a hand that is less like Afghanistan and more like Mogadishu. Indeed, to have an operation begin with a helicopter crash does not augur well for its outcome. "Abu Sayyaf 10, US Zero" is the comment making the rounds in Manila.

Walden Bello, Manila
Published in The Nation (18 March 2002 issue) © 2002 The Nation Company, LP

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