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.