U.S. Takes Antiterrorism War to the Philippines

The Bush administration will send more than 100 additional troops to the Philippines in its latest escalation of involvement in the Philippine military's battle with the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the southern Philippines. American troops have already started to trickle in. Twenty-five U.S. Special Forces troops arrived earlier this month, and the one hundred will arrive in February to train Philippine troops in antiterrorist operations. The U.S. troops will be based in Zamboanga City, in southwestern Mindanao. Current talks between the Philippines and the U.S. are considering deployment of a full battalion of U.S. soldiers.

The ASG is reportedly demanding 40 million to 50 million pesos ($800,000-1 million) for the release of three hostages -- an American missionary couple and a Filipina nurse -- who have been held by the ASG since the middle of 2001. More than 7,000 Filipino soldiers have been pursuing the ASG for months, narrowing the search to a small, densely forested area on Basilan island. The military has repeatedly announced and then failed to meet several deadlines for the rescue of these hostages. Military operations against the ASG in and around Basilan have resulted in at least 55,000 people displaced from their communities and have posed major challenges to the newly elected leaders of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which is composed of Basilan, four other provinces, and one city with a combined population of over 2.5 million people.

Despite several offers by President Bush and other U.S. officials, the Arroyo government has ruled out any possibility of U.S. troop involvement in the rescue of the Abu Sayyaf hostages. However, U.S. soldiers will be allowed to go to the battlefront to "assess" the military operations against the Abu Sayyaf. The U.S. will maintain an extended presence in the region, as the annual joint U.S.-Philippine "Balikatan" military exercises scheduled for the first quarter of this year will be centered in the southern Philippines. In addition to the political significance of the exercises, they are important because participating U.S. troops routinely leave behind equipment and materiel that can then be used by the Philippine military.

Since Sept. 11 the U.S. military has supplied cargo planes, helicopters and trucks for the operations against the Abu Sayyaf. In a November trip to Washington, President Arroyo was able to translate her strong support for the Bush administration's "war on terrorism" into millions of dollars in economic and military aid and $1 billion in trade benefits.

Before and After Sept. 11

Prior to Sept. 11, the Bush administration had been monitoring the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, but had not been actively supporting the Philippine government's military efforts. Bilateral military cooperation had been at a low level since the Philippine Senate refused to renew a lease for U.S. military bases in the early 1990s. After Sept. 11, the Bush administration boosted ties with the Philippine military, expanding military assistance and training. The Bush administration has chosen to emphasize military involvement in this conflict and framed it as part of the broader war against Al Qaeda and the "war against terrorism."

Although there is some evidence that the ASG had had connections to the Al Qaeda in its earlier years, there is no evidence that the ASG has had regular contacts with Al Qaeda since the mid-1990s. The ASG is really a 21st century version of the criminal gangs that have long resisted colonial and Philippine government rule in this region. Most of its victims have been Filipinos, not foreigners. The ASG earns resources primarily from kidnapping and other criminal enterprises. Its success is in part due to the fact that it has used its income from ransom and robberies to buy high-powered weapons and that it provides at least some (albeit paltry) economic benefits to a desperately poor part of the Philippines, where the state is effectively absent.

The danger of growing U.S. involvement in the military campaign against the Abu Sayyaf is that it displaces attention from the much broader struggles for effective development and political self-determination on the part of other Moro (Muslim Filipino) political groups, the vast majority of which denounce the Abu Sayyaf as brutal criminals. However, these groups also identify the Philippine military and national Philippine political leaders -- the Bush administration's main allies in the "war on terrorism" -- as major obstacles to achieving genuine autonomy for Moros in the Philippines. They cite the history of unfulfilled promises of public funds to finance basic infrastructure and social services in the country's poorest region. And they note the ongoing problem of human rights abuses by Philippine military and paramilitary groups against Moros throughout Mindanao. They fear that U.S. support for the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf will strengthen the political forces that have historically been unwilling to countenance a workable autonomy arrangement for Moros. Moreover, there is rising concern that other Moro political groups will be targeted as the newest terrorist threats once the Abu Sayyaf campaign dies down.

Autonomy and Poverty in Muslim Mindanao

The Abu Sayyaf has garnered more international headlines than other Moro political groups in recent years, largely because of ASG's high-profile kidnappings and previous links to Al Qaeda. In addition to the Abu Sayyaf group, there are two larger political movements -- the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) -- that aim to represent the roughly 4-5 million Moro community, most of whom live on the island of Mindanao and some nearby smaller islands.

The MNLF signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996 that contributed to the establishment of the ARMM. Nur Misuari, chairman of the MNLF at the time, became governor of the autonomous region.

The MILF refused to sign the peace agreement in 1996, in part because it failed to address land issues and the implementation of shariah, or religious law. In March 2000, then-President Joseph Estrada ordered an all-out war against the MILF, which took the lives of thousands of people, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and destroyed vital private and public installations in Mindanao. The MILF negotiated a ceasefire with the Arroyo administration in August, 2001and negotiations are ongoing, despite repeated violations of the ceasefire by the Philippine military.

While the MNLF and MILF do not differ significantly in terms of their stated political goals, the MILF puts greater emphasis on the Islamic aspect of Moro identity and has more clerics in leadership positions than the MNLF does.

The establishment of the ARMM and other regional development institutions was supposed to address the grinding poverty that had contributed to more than two decades of war. But a combination of the national government's failure to provide sufficient resources and corruption and incompetence on the part of the Misuari administration led to dashed expectations and mounting frustration. Growing opposition to Misuari from within the MNLF led to his replacement as chairman of the organization -- a post he had held for 33 years -- in April, 2001.

Misuari's political career then took a turn for the worse. The Malaysian authorities arrested Misuari in November last year for entering the country illegally after he fled the Philippines in the wake of a failed uprising on the southern island of Jolo. More than one hundred people died in the fighting, which came one week before Misuari was replaced as governor in elections in the ARMM. After the election, Misuari supporters were also involved in a stand-off with the military in Zamboanga city, in which more than 100 hostages were held at gun point until negotiators brokered a deal allowing the gunmen to go free. The revolts are widely believed to have been efforts to postpone the elections and disrupt the transition to the new governor's administration. Misuari was returned to the Philippines earlier this week and has been charged with rebellion. He and seven aides who fled with him are currently in prison awaiting trial. It is estimated that roughly one thousand MNLF troops are still loyal to him.

Parouk Hussin, Misuari's successor as head of the MNLF, won the election. The Arroyo administration, which backed Hussin for the post, announced that it will make at least $100 million available for the region's development and infrastructure projects over the next two years. Just over half of that ($55 million) will come from the economic package that the Bush administration promised to the president for supporting the U.S.-led war on terrorism, with an additional $35 million scheduled to be provided by the World Bank. President Bush has announced that he is working with the U.S. Congress to boost assistance to Mindanao next year to over $38 million.

Promises and Fears

At this point, the promises of funds remain just that. The developmental challenge facing the new ARMM administration is massive. The ARMM, with nearly three-quarters of its citizens living under the poverty line, has the greatest proportion of poor people of any region in the Philippines. Maternal and infant health and basic education indicators are the worst in the country. The recurring conflicts, including the war against the Abu Sayyaf, have resulted in large numbers of internally displaced people, which totaled over 150,000 across Mindanao as of late November, 2001, according to Philippine government and NGO sources.

Repeating the pattern of U.S. aid packages to the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship, U.S. military assistance continues to outpace support for anti-poverty programs. The Bush administration has earmarked $70.2 million in military aid to the Philippines this year, a more than three-fold increase over the $22.1 million in 2001. This mushrooming support for a military that has a pattern of human rights violations that covers more than three decades is a serious problem. The conditions that have enabled both broad-based insurgencies and criminal gangs like the Abu Sayyaf in and around Mindanao must be addressed through the construction of accountable and effective governmental institutions together with more effective and equitable patterns of economic development -- not through military campaigns.

John Gershman is a senior analyst at the Interhemispheric Resource Center and Asia/Pacific editor for Foreign Policy in Focus, where this article originally was published.

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