An exercise in intervention

Print edition : February 16, 2002

The joint "exercise" by the U.S. and Philippine troops on the Basilan island in the Philippines raises a wave of criticism against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

PHILIPPINE President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has taken a wild gamble by inviting the troops of the United States into her country. Arroyo, the darling of the U.S. in South-East Asia, faces domestic criticism and political uncertainty as the U.S. troops undertake a joint "exercise" with the Philippine military in the battle against the Abu Sayyaf group.

U.S. troops at the start of the joint military exercises, at the Southern Command military headquarters in Zamboanga city, the Philippines, on January 31.-ROMEO RANOCO/REUTERS

The terms of the U.S. presence in the country still remain unclear. While the official line in Manila is that the U.S. troops are on an "exercise", the decision to hold it on the Basilan island, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold, came as a surprise. If the intention was only to train Philippine military personnel, the Arroyo government could have selected a safer environment. And, within days of the troops' arrival, a U.S. helicopter was fired at, causing the U.S. troops to return to base.

Throughout last year Arroyo had promised to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf, a bandit gang that specialises in kidnapping. But nothing of the sort happened. Instead there were at least two instances in which the military allegedly let Abu Sayyaf men escape.

The U.S. maintains that two of its nationals have been held by the guerillas since the middle of 2001. At a time when the U.S. wants to assert itself against terrorists and terrorism everywhere, the Abu Sayyaf is an obvious target.

In a recent speech, U.S. Ambassador to Singapore Franklin L. Lavin said: "Terrorist activity in the Philippines is a matter of concern. The United States has already stepped up its support for counter-terrorist training there. The Philippine military is being reinvigorated, and from now on the Abu Sayyaf group will need to spend more time worrying about survival and desertions and less time planning kidnapping and assaults."

Putting the issue in the overall U.S. perspective, Lavin pointed out that since September 2001 Washington had scored some significant successes in the battle against terrorism. Outlining the U.S. priorities, he said: "The first goal is to keep on the job. The war is not over, not even in Afghanistan. The war will never be over until the menace of global terrorism is thoroughly smashed. Full stop. That may take a long time. We must remain on the offensive - including, sometimes, by using military force." Lavin added: "We need to continue to enhance our ability to monitor terrorist movements and flow of funds. We need to beef up our police and homeland defence - in short we have to stay the course. Every country has different capabilities and each can play a role."

OUTSIDE Afghanistan, it is the Philippines that serves as a laboratory for U.S. anti-terrorist policy. The U.S. has committed contingent of 660 soldiers to the South-East Asian nation for its largest operation since getting started in Afghanistan. It signals the U.S. intention to take on terrorists who harm its interests or act against its nationals. For such an action to become possible, a cooperative national regime is needed. The Arroyo government fits the bill.

President Arroyo has gone out of her way to support Washington in the battle against terrorism. The current exercise is expected to last six months. However, if the U.S. continues to remain focussed on the battle against the Abu Sayyaf, the presence of its troops could be extended. Since the closure of the Subic Bay naval base in September 1992, the U.S. had little access to Philippine facilities.

The framework for the current "exercise" was prepared during a meeting between Arroyo and President George W. Bush in November 2001. A joint statement issued after the meeting said: "The two leaders affirmed that they would continue to work on a vigorous, integrated plan to strengthen the Philippine security forces' capacity to combat terror and protect Philippine sovereignty. Such an integrated plan would include a robust training package, equipment needed for increased mobility, a maintenance programme to enhance overall capabilities, specific targeted law enforcement and counter-terrorism cooperation, and a new bilateral defence consultative mechanism."

It continued: "As a preliminary step to enhance Philippine military modernisation, President Bush pledged to work with Congress for at least a tenfold increase in Foreign Military Financing (FMF), from $1.9 million, to $19 million for fiscal 2002 and to sustain heightened assistance levels in fiscal year 2003... In total, security assistance from the Bush administration to the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, offered and/or delivered, is expected to be worth nearly $100 million for fiscal years 2001-2002."

The statement added: "The meeting between President Bush and President Macapagal-Arroyo was characterised by unusual warmth and candour and heralded a new era of comprehensive cooperation between the United States and the Philippines."

THERE is little doubt that the "new era" of comprehensive cooperation in the military field has already begun. But there are problems that pose a significant challenge to Arroyo domestically. If no early "successes" are scored against the Abu Sayyaf, then opposition to the U.S. troops' deployment will begin to mount. The rescue of the American missionary couple, of course, is an immediate goal.

While there has been criticism from left-wing groups, which have held several demonstrations, the presence of the U.S. troops has created problems with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the forces of which also have a presence on the Basilan island.

And there is a source of embarrassment close at hand for Arroyo. Vice-President and Foreign Secretary Teofisto Guingona has spoken out against the deployment of the U.S. troops. Guingona has raised precisely the question many other Filipinos are asking: Why should the U.S. troops go to the "combat zone" of the Basilan island when training can be done elsewhere?

"I will not be silent. I'll still (look out) for the interest of the nation. I did not sacrifice and I will not compromise my principles," Guingona said. "I am for resolving the Abu Sayyaf problem... I have full faith in the military. I raised significant alternative rules of reference, and I have suggested ways to ensure the safety of civilians," he said.

In response, President Arroyo said: "I don't want Guingona to air his reservations publicly. We already know he has reservations. It's not good to stress that because we belong to one team. It's all right for us to disagree as long as we disagree among ourselves and not in public."

Defending her position, Arroyo stated that she was aware of the "political risk" that she was taking. "Before making the decision to uphold the Balikatan (the joint U.S.-Philippine exercise), I was very much aware that it will be an issue that will be used against me, and that it entails some political risk... I decided, however, to take the risk for the good of the country so the scourge of the Abu Sayyaf and other terrorists will be ended."

The "American plan" has also led to problems with the MILF, the largest of the separatist Moro groups that operate in the southern Philippines. "You do not hold war games in strife-torn areas and the U.S. forces are there to rescue the hostages, but we are warning them not to encroach into our territories because we will surely respond drastically," Shariff Julabbi, a top MILF leader, was quoted as saying. "We will respond to any threats. We will shoot them if they encroach into our territories," Julabbi said.

Given the fact that the Philippine government is holding peace talks with the MILF, the presence of the U.S. troops in the "exercise" could complicate matters. In what appeared to be a response to the MILF statement, a Philippine military spokesman said: "I hope the MILF will not get involved in this exercise but if this were to happen, the MILF will be dealt with accordingly."

The MILF was the chosen partner of the Arroyo government as far as peace talks were concerned. A ceasefire has been agreed to and preliminary talks have been held in Malaysia. There were reports that linked other regional militant groups with the MILF a factor that can, along with the presence of the U.S. troops, have a decisive bearing on the course of the talks. From within the region, there have been murmurs that problems such as the one in the southern Philippines should be tackled regionally.

The Philippine-U.S. military collaboration has just begun, but the fact is that the modern gadgetry of the world's most technologically advanced military will now be available to deal with the Abu Sayyaf. If the Arroyo government succeeds in tackling the terrorist problem in Mindanao, then the protests may well die down. But if the current partnership flounders it may well call into question the U.S.' interventionist role - not only in the Philippines but in other parts of the world.

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