A 'Second Front' in the Philippines
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.