US digs in deeper in the Philippines
By Noel Tarrazona
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines - As the Armed Forces of the Philippines expand the scope of their offensive against Muslim insurgent groups on Mindanao, some are wondering if the escalating conflict could lead or already has led to the establishment of a permanent US military presence in the restive region.
Since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and near Washington, the United States has, as part of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the Philippines, poured hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of military aid and technical assistance toward the army's counterinsurgency campaign against Abu Sayyaf, a radical separatist group that Washington contends has links to regional and global terror groups, including Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiya and al-Qaeda.
More recently, the Philippine Army has resumed low-intensity hostilities with two Muslim ceasefire groups, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Manila has accused the MNLF of harboring members of the 300-member Abu Sayyaf. With US military assistance, though not full-fledged fighting forces, the Philippine Army is believed to have largely hobbled the dwindling Abu Sayyaf by decapitating its top leadership.
With the spiraling fiasco in Iraq and the re-emergence of the Taliban as a fighting force in Afghanistan, the US has no clear-cut victories to show after President George W Bush launched his "war on terrorism" in 2001. Southeast Asia, including combating Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines, was identified by Washington as an important theater in the global campaign and by certain measures now represents the only front were the US could conceivably declare any sort of a military victory.
The irony, of course, is that US soldiers have reputedly not done any of the fighting in Mindanao and that the Philippine Army is now threatening to widen the conflict seemingly beyond the United States' original strategic objectives. Some political analysts believe that the recent army operations against the MILF and MNLF have been driven by military leaders keen to keep the United States' financial assistance flowing - despite the new offensive's only tenuous link to Washington's stated counter-terrorism goals. The US has so far remained mum on the Philippine Army's recent allegations that the MNLF, and to a lesser degree the MILF, are in league with Abu Sayyaf.
But a widened conflict and longer stay in the Philippines could serve Washington's broader strategic goals beyond the "war on terror" in the region - counterbalancing China. Since 2002, the US has invested millions of dollars toward the construction not only of military facilities, but also of development and humanitarian projects in and around Zamboanga City, where the US and the Philippine Army have staged a series of ever larger "shoulder to shoulder" joint military exercises, including June's joint Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) naval exercises. More than 600 US troops took part in the original six-month exercises here in 2002, and the US has established a counter-terrorism training camp in the area.
Those joint exercises have now extended into the Muslim-dominated neighboring provinces of Sulu and Basilan, conflict-ridden areas where the fighting between rebel and government forces has been most intense. In Sulu alone, the US has allocated more than US$100 million for infrastructure and social services, an attempt to address the abject poverty that Manila contends has driven the region's unemployed youth into insurgent camps, but also possibly to pave the way for future resource extraction.
Ever since the Philippines' former colonial overlord was ousted in 1991 from its long-held military bases at Subic Bay and Clark, local law has strictly prohibited the re-establishment of foreign military bases in the country. The legislation was put in place specifically to guard against a repeat of the country's experience under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who for years was financially propped up by Washington and symbolically fortified by the United States' military presence in the country.
Yankee come home
Now some in President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's camp are believed quietly to favor maintaining some sort of US military presence in the country - both to consolidate recent US-supported battlefield gains against Muslim separatist groups and more broadly to counterbalance China's growing military might in the region.
Outwardly Manila's bilateral relations with Beijing are cordial, but the two sides have in recent years skirmished over their competing claims to the reputedly oil-rich Spratly Islands. The recent joint CARAT exercises with the US notably coincided with a Foreign Ministry announcement of a new joint seismic marine undertaking with Beijing to settle their disputed claims in the South China Sea.
For their part, US officials deny harboring any ambitions to establish a permanent military base in Mindanao, or for that matter anywhere else in the Philippines. Joint Special Operation Task Force commander Colonel David Maxwell, who leads the joint exercise with the Philippine Army, says the US presence is strictly consistent with the provisions of the VFA.
Left-leaning groups, such as Focus on the Global South (FGS), a research institute based in Thailand that has closely monitored the US military's presence in the Philippines, contend that the US has, in apparent violation of Philippine laws, already established de facto bases in Mindanao. According to VFA commissioner Edilberto Adan, the technical definition of a US base entails US troops and supplies being located inside a host nation's facilities - as is now the case in the southern Philippines.
FGS noted in a recent statement that the US Overseas Basing Commission (OBC), an official US government body, has recently listed the Philippines as developing "cooperative security locations" - a category of military bases in official US parlance - and that US troops in Mindanao refer to their locations there as "Advanced Operating Base 920".
The research outfit also said that the OBC currently describes the Philippines as a supply base for military operations throughout the region and asked why the US base-construction unit, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, recently allocated a P650 million ($14 million) six-month contract to US firms offering "base operations" services in the Philippines.
It also asked why the US has launched a series of new military-related projects across the region - estimated to be worth at least $14.4 million - at a time the campaign against the emasculated Abu Sayyaf should in theory be winding down.
FGS argues that, consistent with US practice and that of governments in other countries that host US bases where they face domestic opposition, in an attempt to obscure the precise definition of what constitutes a base, Washington and Manila are deliberately keeping the exact nature of the US military presence in Mindanao under wraps.
Although the so-called "Cooperative Security Locations" are technically run and maintained by Manila or private contractors, the Pentagon considers them US military facilities that may be activated for pre-positioning logistics support and as venues for joint operations with host militaries during actual combat operations.
VFA commissioner Adan has reacted to the allegations by saying that the said facilities only serve to provide living quarters for the small number of US troops who are providing technical and logistical assistance to the Philippine Army in its operations against Abu Sayyaf.
He said the facilities are "not bases inside our camps; these are lodgings that are under Philippine control", and emphasized that US troops are not engaging in actual combat but rather are sharing intelligence with the Philippine Army and providing humanitarian, engineering, medical, veterinarian and explosive and disposal services.
Other Philippine officials contend that the US-financed construction of the contested facilities will benefit the impoverished region by creating hundreds if not thousands of new jobs. Several local leaders and residents have been openly supportive of the United States' presence in the historically restive region, noting that the Philippine Army failed to come to grips with Abu Sayyaf until US soldiers arrived on the scene. Whether those same local groups would be willing to accept a more outwardly permanent US military presence is altogether unclear.
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