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World: U.S. Opens New Phase In War On Terror

  • Alexandra Poolos

U.S. Special Forces and weaponry have been sent to the Philippines in a second major U.S. deployment in the war on terror. The troops are to act as advisers to Philippine forces battling the small Abu Sayyaf terrorist group. The deployment also delivers a larger message: that the U.S. military campaign against terror will not end with Afghanistan, but is likely to continue expanding -- possibly to countries like Yemen and Somalia, among others. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks at the U.S. mission in the Philippines and examines the complexities of future deployments.

Prague, 23 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The deployment of some 650 U.S. troops, including special operations forces, to the Philippines marks the largest single U.S. military deployment outside of Afghanistan to fight terrorism since 11 September.

Advance troops and military equipment have already arrived near the southern Basilan Island, where the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group is based. Abu Sayyaf is holding three hostages, including an American missionary couple.

Initially, the troops are to advise and train Philippine troops. But U.S. forces will also go on patrols in rebel areas, and will be authorized to open fire on the terrorists in self-defense.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the military exercises would officially begin in February. He said the deployment shows that the U.S. is "leaning forward" in the fight against terrorism.

"I think the important thing about what's taking place in the Philippines is that this is a global problem, that we are addressing it globally -- not just in Afghanistan," he said.

The U.S. involvement, however, has raised concerns over legal restrictions on foreign troops in the Philippines and the long-term White House policy on U.S. troop deployments.

Protests in Manila have been staged since the U.S. troops began arriving in the country last week. Anger over U.S. involvement has spread to the highest levels of government, with some senators calling for the impeachment of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who invited the troops and is only a year into her term. Even Arroyo's vice president, Teofisto Guingona, has voiced concern over the operation, saying it may violate a constitutional ban on foreign soldiers entering into combat in the Philippines.

The U.S. and Philippine governments have repeatedly insisted that U.S. troops will act only as advisers. Filipinos voted to end nearly a century of constant American military presence just 11 years ago, and many now worry that the deployment is part of a larger plan for a return to a permanent U.S. military presence in the Philippines.

Amado Mendoza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, says officials are not being fully transparent about the future of U.S.-Philippine cooperation in the country.

"The participation of the United States military forces today has been labeled as a military exercise. This creates problems because first, it is an open-ended exercise in terms of duration. And then second, the said exercise has been given definite combat-related activities, most particularly the defeat or the elimination of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the southern Philippines. And for this reason, a number of observers believe this is no longer just a military exercise. It's an active military operation, participated in by American troops. And this activity supposedly violates our constitution."

Mendoza says cooperation with the U.S. in its war on terror benefits President Arroyo, who initially refused U.S. President George W. Bush's offer of troops to battle Abu Sayyaf in November. Mendoza says Arroyo will now receive substantial military hardware and training for her dilapidated forces, and is also likely to be favored in future economic agreements.

Mendoza says the current domestic opposition to the deployment stems from the behavior of U.S. troops in the past: "Because it's not an untroubled history, and one of the sore points here was the behavior of U.S. servicemen while being stationed here, especially when they commit crimes and other offenses. In the past, [U.S. servicemen who committed crimes here have not] been subjected to the jurisdiction of Philippine courts. And that is a major source of resentment and criticism from certain sectors of Philippine society."

Jim Walsh, an expert in international relations and terrorism at Harvard University, says the U.S. deployment to the Philippines is notable not for its impact on Abu Sayyaf, but for the precedent it sets in the larger U.S. campaign on terrorism.

"We're talking about an extraordinarily small group. [Abu Sayyaf is] a splinter group of a larger group. It's a group that many analysts believe is actually more of a criminal group than a terrorist group. In other words, they're more interested in the economic revenues from kidnapping than they are in promoting Islamist principles or creating a separate state in the Philippines. So it's a small group and its ties to Al-Qaeda are probably not very strong. There may be some marginal advantage in that if they are removed from the scene or they are no longer operating, then that's one less refuge Al-Qaeda members would have to go to. The biggest impact here is not actually what will happen to Abu Sayyaf or Abu Sayyaf's impact on worldwide terrorism. The biggest impact is setting a precedent to give U.S. forces to other countries so they can help them conduct their own battles against terrorism."

Walsh calls the deployment "signaling," and says the move is meant to show the world that the U.S. isn't "going to go back home and shut off the lights" once the campaign in Afghanistan is concluded.

Walsh says the Philippines is the natural next step in the war on terror because it poses the "least challenges and difficulties," especially in comparison to other countries with terrorist links -- like Somalia, Yemen, or Iraq -- where there is no desire to forge cooperative ties with the U.S.

Walsh cautions that the U.S. is still readying itself for future campaigns in these three countries, but he says things are likely to stay quiet in the short term as U.S. resources are already concentrated in Afghanistan and now in the Philippines.

"My guess is that one thing the United States is not going to do is it's not going to load up its plate with a lot of different interventions in a lot of different places all at once. We're [past] the mid-point in the conflict with Afghanistan, but it's not over yet by any stretch of the imagination. And now we're starting something new in the Philippines. It would seem unlikely that we're going to continue to add things to our plate until some of these other things are resolved first. But I think there may be other sorts of operations, smaller intelligence gathering, police operations, coordinated operations with local officials and others that may be going on. But I would not expect that we're going to start bombing or put large deployments in each of these additional counties at the same time that we're fighting in Afghanistan and simultaneously in the Philippines."

Ultimately, Walsh says, the long-term target in the U.S. war on terrorism is Iraq. He says new U.S. Army headquarters in Kuwait and the redeployment of intelligence assets to the region signal a "decent" chance of a future attack. But he says the diplomatic and military difficulties of ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will postpone a political decision to attack the country for the time being.