The end of the US hostage crisis in the Philippines earlier this month may mark a turning point for the Philippine military's efforts to rid itself of the Islamic militant group, Abu Sayyaf. It also is sparking fresh debate about the US military role here.
Frustrated by the Philippine government's failure to rescue the Abu Sayyaf hostages including two American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham last February, the US promised $100 million in military assistance, and sent 100 US Special Forces personnel to the island of Basilan for joint training exercises. Another 900 US soldiers are scattered elsewhere in the Philippines. This is the largest US counterterrorist military campaign outside Afghanistan.
The hostage crisis ended in tragedy on June 7, when Mr. Burnham and Filipina nurse Ediborah Yap were killed during a rescue mission staged by US-trained Philippine troops. Mrs. Burnham was wounded, but freed.
After the rescue mission, President Gloria Arroyo declared her resolve to finish off Abu Sayyaf, which reportedly had ties to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network in the early 1990s. But most experts say it is now little more than a group of bandits.
The Filipino military is now engaged in a full-court press to eliminate remnants of the group. "The rules of the game have changed drastically," says Roilo Golez, the national security adviser. "We can now have an all-out offensive. Before, there were restrictions [on military operations] as innocent lives may be endangered. But now [the kidnappers] have no more ace, no more protection."
By the time Mrs. Burnham was flown home last week to Wichita, Kan., the Philippine Army had poured 1,800 more soldiers into the Southern Philippines.
In her debriefing to Philippine and US officials, Burnham said the number of the Abu Sayyaf bandits guarding the three hostages had dwindled over their one-year captivity from 100 men to just 14 when the rescue took place.
The Philippine Army commander in the south, Maj. Gen. Ernesto Carolina, says that the Abu Sayyaf, whose strength reached 1,200 armed men a year ago, is now splintered into three groups and on the run in the islands of Jolo and Basilan, and the Zamboanga Peninsula. The remnants number no more than 200, he says. "They are now running, they're splintered, demoralized."
Philippine government soldiers captured one guerrilla last week and killed two in two separate clashes Sunday. One soldier was killed in Sunday's clashes, and four others were wounded. US troops are due to pull out of the Philippines at the end of July. But President Arroyo and her military leaders have publicly endorsed the idea of continued US military support.
US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who visited here earlier this month before the rescue operation, lobbied for the signing of a mutual logistics supply arrangement (MLSA) with the Philippines. The MLSA calls for storage facilities for US fuel and equipment in Manila in exchange for continued military assistance and equipment for the Philippine military. Mr. Wolfowitz said the MLSA would allow the two countries to start new cooperation measures in the campaign against terror in the country and in Southeast Asia after the current exercises end.
Philippines security analyst Rex Rob- les says he would welcome the extended stay of the US "so long as we [the Philippine leadership] know how to control it."
Mr. Robles, a retired navy captain who served as deputy commander in the Muslim-populated southern Philippines, is an avowed critic of the Philippine armed forces leadership, describing it as "weak, flabby, and dishonest." "The American presence is sort of a catalyst for the Philippine armed forces to be better, to be professional in all aspects," adds Robles.
Wilfrido Villacorta, a professor of international relations at De La Salle University in Manila, says that the terrorism threat has forced him to reverse his opposition to a US military presence in the Philippines. "The Abu Sayyaf and terrorism have caused damage to the economy and the well-being of the people in Mindanao and all over the Philippines," he says.
"There are terrorist cells in Singapore and Malaysia," Mr. Villacorta notes. "There is a real threat that cannot be underestimated." Villacorta was among the framers of the 1987 constitution that explicitly bans foreign military bases in the Philippines.
But some Filipinos who supported the 1991 closure of US bases here are suspicious of US motives.
Wigberto Tañada, a former senator, demands that the MLSA be scrutinized by the Senate.
"I hope the Philippines is not being planned again as a springboard for US power projection [in the region]. That's going to put us in very grave danger," he says, citing possible sensitivities among the Philippines' mostly Muslim neighbors.