by Rene Ciria-Cruz
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo recently ruled out the use
of U.S. combat troops against the Abu Sayyaf terror gang, quieting
speculations that the deadly March 3 bombing in the Davao City airport in
the island of Mindanao could be used as a pretext for pushing through
with the planned deployment.
However, the plan could spring to life again. With pre-emption driving the foreign policy of President George W. Bush, there is one reason Washington is eager to fight the ragtag band of kidnappers: location.
Increased U.S. military presence in the Philippines is just the first step in a wider campaign envisioned against Islamic insurgencies in Southeast Asia. The United States, however, may be misjudging the risks of a bolder military profile that could include engaging in combat in the region for the first time since the Vietnam War.
The Pentagon's leak of a "private agreement" with Filipino officials for a U.S. combat role backfired when it triggered a political crisis in the Philippines, because the country's constitution forbids foreign troops from fighting on its soil.
Critics accuse Arroyo of Americanizing the fight against domestic unrest, specifically against the more formidable rebel force, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has 20,000 fighters and controls "liberated territories" in Mindanao. Military officials are trying to pin the bombing -- which killed 20 people, including an American, and injured 170 others -- on the MILF, despite the latter's vehement denial of responsibility.
On the largely Muslim island of Jolo, where the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf have dug in, local officials and inhabitants are in an uproar. News of the possible arrival of U.S. troops has ignited fears of bloodshed and revived bitter memories of the 1906 massacre of nearly a thousand Muslims by American forces.
Evidently, the initial success of joint efforts against the Abu Sayyaf emboldened U.S. and Filipino officials to approve a direct U.S. military role. Advising Filipino troops and using high-tech intelligence methods, U.S. special forces helped to rout the band, driving its remnants to Jolo and making an easy victory against it seem possible. Abu Sayyaf now has fewer than 200 lightly armed fighters, and its early-1990s links to al Qaeda may no longer exist.
More important than delivering a coup de grace to the rebels, successful U.S. operations in the southern Philippines could give the United States a forward presence in the Southeast Asian sea lanes. These waters are critical to the movement of U.S. forces from the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The United States lost a strategic position when Filipino opposition and the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo volcano forced the closure of American military bases in 1992.
More immediately, the United States could stake out a staging area for future strikes against Islamic extremists in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, and possibly in Malaysia -- each just hours away by smuggler speedboat. Widespread anti-U.S. sentiment makes stationing American troops unlikely in either country.
In Indonesia, the Jemaah Islamiyah, which carried out the deadly bombings in Bali last year, belongs to the al Qaeda network. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, an architect of current U.S. foreign policy and former ambassador to Indonesia, told the New York Times that there is a potential for extremists to link up with violent Muslim groups in Indonesia's Sulawesi and Malukus "and find a little corner for themselves."
He says Jakarta should deal with its own terrorists, but "if Indonesia became an al Qaeda base the way Afghanistan was, then we might have to think of it differently."
Malaysia is another potential hot spot. The government has arrested some 70 suspected terrorists linked to Jemaah Islamiyah. Recently, it deported 30,000 illegal immigrants -- mostly Indonesian and Filipino Muslims -- from East Borneo to rid extremists of potential bases among poor migrant workers.
An anti-terrorist pact between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) provides a thin diplomatic cover for projecting U.S. forces into the region. Still, hinting that American presence is urgent, Secretary of State Colin Powell last year proposed a regional anti-terrorism center in Malaysia to be jointly run with the United States, according to Malaysian foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar.
Going after the Abu Sayyaf, may prove riskier than expected. Jolo is home to renegade fighters of another, now demobilized rebel army that might join forces with Abu Sayyaf. At the peak of their rebellion in the early '70s, these Muslim guerrillas tied down 40 percent of the Philippine armed forces for years, inflicting thousands of casualties.
More ominously, critics of President Arroyo believe she is trying to draw the United States into the bloodier counter-insurgency campaign against the MILF on Mindanao island. Her intelligence officials have been trying, unsuccessfully, to link the group to al Qaeda.
Manila recently renewed hostilities with the group. In response, MILF guerrillas on Feb. 27 bombed an electrical tower, blacking out 90 percent of Mindanao, which is home to 18 million people. In two military camps where some U.S. advisers are billeted, alarms sent troops scrambling for defensive positions. It could be a taste of things to come.
March 7, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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