Long-term US strategy emerges out of Philippines

As US intervention against rebel group ends, the military calls for more missions.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Just weeks before its scheduled conclusion, the US mission in the Southern Philippines – the Bush administration's largest military deployment outside Afghanistan – has accomplished almost all of its objectives.

The Abu Sayyaf group, which was holding two Americans hostage at the start of the mission, has been driven from a posture of open defiance to scattered remnants strung across a few small southern islands.

US forces on the island of Basilan yesterday received permission to assist local troops on the frontlines. On Monday and over the weekend, US spy planes guided Philippine troops to Abu Sayyaf hideouts in the Sulu Archipelago, which were pounded by mortars and rocket fire. And also on Monday, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo told reporters that the kidnap-for-ransom gang appeared on the verge of being wiped out.

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The US military sees the operation as such a success, it's asking Congress to approve new missions to the Philippines, which is home to a number of other kidnap-for-ransom outfits.

The Abu Sayyaf has been the focus of the US presence since the mission began in January. In many ways, they were the ideal target for the war on terror's second front: a small organization with minimal support from the local population and historical links to Al Qaeda. Though it occasionally claims a militant Islamic ideology, its activities have been confined to kidnapping and extortion.

But continued US interest in working with the Philippines illustrates that the intervention has been about far more than the Abu Sayyaf, analysts say. It's also been a proving ground for an emerging facet of the Bush administration's antiterror strategy: supplying military hardware and training to other countries that are trying to bring domestic insurgencies to heel.

"Basically, we want to add military heft through training and cooperation to friendly governments who have Muslim insurgencies that might or might not be fertile ground for Al Qaeda,'' says Robert Rotberg, director of the Harvard Kennedy School's Program on Intrastate Conflict. "The idea is a kind of cordon sanitaire – an expression of US muscle by proxy."

It is the same logic behind expanding US military ties with Pakistan and the reason the US is providing antiterrorism training to the Republic of Georgia. It's why the administration requested emergency military financing for countries like Yemen and Kazakhstan, and why it's pushing to resume working with the Indonesian military, which still has one of the worst human rights records in Asia.

Most of the US proposals are awaiting congressional approval. But analysts say the success of the Philippines mission increases chances it will be given.

Expanded military ties with other governments was a goal of the administration even before Sept. 11. For instance, the government wants a $20 million equipment and training package to help Nepal fight Maoist guerrillas, and also wants congressional approval for antinarcotics money in Colombia to be used for counterinsurgency.

But such controversial measures have become more acceptable in Washington circles. "Sept. 11 altered the limits of the possible,'' says John Gershman, an analyst at the Interhemispheric Resource Center in Silver City, N.M.

To be sure, analysts like Mr. Gershman worry about the long-term costs. Gerhman argues that increased military cooperation sends the wrong message to countries that have fragile or developing democracies because it could bolster domestic military interests over civilian political control.

Skeptics also point to the legacy of US interventions in Latin America and Asia in the 1970s and 80s, when the US worked with regimes that abused human rights, creating hostility toward the US that persists in some corners to this day. Others worry that as the US expands its military ties, it could be drawn into far more complicated entanglements than efforts to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf.

Still, the current situation in the Philippines amply demonstrates the short-term gains, diplomats and analysts say. The military relationship between the two countries has been boosted to its highest point since the Philippines closed US bases there almost a decade ago.

During that time, the Philippines received almost no US military hardware. That changed this year, when the Bush administration promised the Philippines $40 million in military financing, equipment, and services. Sniper rifles, transport planes, mortars, and sophisticated communications equipment have all been provided through the current package.

The US has also been able to prepare the ground for future deployments in a region that US policy makers have worried about since the war on terror began. The Philippines has embraced the US presence, and the response from the rest of Southeast Asia, which policymakers were worried about, has been largely indifference.

US troops have improved roads and airstrips on Basilan and Zamboanga islands, and some analysts say that's not just to make it easier to go after the Abu Sayyaf.

"There's an argument in the administration that we should keep improving facilities down there that we can go in and use if we have to,'' says Roger Baker, a military analyst at Stratfor, a Texas-based private intelligence company. "What the Philippines does really offer is a nice location for other operations in Southeast Asia.''

Such as in Indonesia, Mr. Baker continues. The US believes the world's largest Muslim country harbors terrorists with Al Qaeda sympathies. While direct US military intervention there is unlikely, it makes the US feel more secure to have a presence nearby, he says.

So far, the Philippine mission has involved little danger for US troops. Roughly 160 US Special Forces officers and 850 supporting troops have been training Philippine commando units from the relative safety of battalion headquarters.

In June, those units, working with the US, freed Gracia Burnham, one of three American hostages the Abu Sayyaf snatched from the Dos Palmas resort last year. Her husband, Martin, was killed in the rescue attempt as was Deborah Yap, a Filipina nurse who was also taken hostage.

The third American, Guillermo Sobero, was murdered by Abu Sabaya, the commander of the Abu Sayyaf unit that led the kidnapping.

Last month, Philippine authorities say the swaggering and flamboyant Mr. Sabaya was killed in a military ambush that was supported by US intelligence and communications equipment. Though Sabaya was not at the top of the group's loose organizational structure, his frequent threats against US targets and boasts of ties to Osama bin Laden made him a particular American target. The US government had a $5 million price on his head.

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