A 'Second Front' in the Philippines
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.