About 5,500 US soldiers are coming to the Philippines this month, the
latest and reportedly the largest batch in the continuing and uninterrupted
deployment of US troops to the country since the "global war on terror"
was launched after September 11, 2001.
About 250 of them will join an undetermined number of US troops already in
Sulu, an island in the southern Philippines where the
Abu Sayyaf group supposedly fled after being driven out of neighboring Basilan
island, where US troops were also previously deployed. If official pronouncements
are to be believed, US troops are coming only to train Filipino soldiers, give
away medicine, build schools and even give veterinary services.
According to people who claim to have actually seen them in action, however,
US troops who have been coming to the country are doing more than that. The
target: not a terrorist group but legitimate liberation movements in the country.
The never-ending games
In 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to close down what were once the largest
US military installations in Asia, signaling an end to permanent US military
presence in the country. While there were regular US deployments to the country
even after the closure of the bases, these were limited to small, short, and
close-ended training exercises with Filipino soldiers as part of the Philippines'
military alliance with the United States. From 1991 to 2000, not one US aircraft
or warship came.
Since September 11, however, the United States has maintained what former US
ambassador to Manila Francis Ricciardone has described as a "semi-continuous"
presence in the country. The prefix "semi" may be unnecessary, since
not a day has passed when not one US soldier is in the country; on any given
day, between one and more than 5,000 US troops are deployed somewhere in the
archipelago. Not only has the duration of the "war games" been extended
to as long as nine months, for the first time, they began being held in actual
conflict areas with live enemies whom US troops are allowed to shoot in case
they get fired at.
For the past four years, there have been about 17-24 training exercises annually;
this year, that number jumps to 37. Apart from the exercises, US troops are
also engaged in different and overlapping humanitarian and civil- works programs
under different names scattered all over the country. Aside from stationing
troops, the US also began enjoying access to various ports, airports, depots
and other military infrastructure throughout the territory, under the Mutual
Logistics and Servicing Agreement signed in November 2001.
At one level, US and Philippine officials justified the deployments as part
of the "global war on terror". With the presence of the Abu Sayyaf
in the Philippines and its alleged links with terrorist groups Jemaah Islamiah
and al-Qaeda, various US officials have repeatedly branded the Philippines as
"the next Afghanistan" or a "doormat for terrorism in the region"
- a charge Philippine officials both echo and deny, depending on the circumstances.
At the local level, however, officials have tended to play down the counter-terrorist
aims of the deployments and instead emphasize their accompanying civil or humanitarian
The Philippine constitution prohibits the presence of foreign military troops
in the country without a treaty. While the Supreme Court has qualified this
and allowed the entry of foreign troops for military exercises, it bans their
involvement in actual combat. The Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces
Agreement, which are often invoked to justify the US military presence, also
do not allow participation in actual fighting. So legally to justify and counter
formidable domestic opposition to the US deployments, Philippine officials have
consistently maintained that the troops keep coming for a variety of reasons
- but never to engage in war.
The unconquered colony
Involving about 1,300 US troops, including 160 special-operations forces, the
first and most controversial of the new type of post-September 11 "exercises"
was held in Basilan, an island in the southern Philippines, where the Abu Sayyaf
was holding foreign, including American, hostages. It was the largest US deployment
to Mindanao since the US war of pacification against the Moros (predominantly
Muslim Malay tribespeople of the southern Philippines) from 1901-13.
Tagged a "terrorist" group by the United States, dismissed as a bandit
group by some and suspected by others to be a creation of the military, the
Abu Sayyaf could not be understood accurately if not in the context of the long-running
struggle by the Bangsamoro against the central Philippine government. The Bangsamoro,
who are mostly Muslim people from the southernmost parts of what is now considered
the Philippine nation-state, claim a national and historical identity distinct
from that of the mostly Christian northern and central areas. Once ruled under
independent sultanates prior to the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 16th
century, the Bangsamoro were never fully ruled over by the Spanish throughout
their three centuries of colonization. It is often said that the Spanish sold
what they never really possessed to the Americans at the end of the 19th century.
What followed was a long - and still ongoing - attempt to subordinate the area
and its people under the Philippine nation-state. Perhaps the most decisive
of these efforts was a massive resettlement policy in which mostly Christian
and mostly landless people from the north were encouraged to migrate to the
south. Filipino landlords and elites, multinational corporations and settlers
claimed ownership of the lands that historically belonged to the Moros or the
non-Muslim and non-Christian indigenous groups in the area.
In 1913, Muslims constituted 98% of the region's population and "owned"
all the lands prior to colonization. But so successful was the long-running
resettlement program that by the time war broke out during the Moro uprising
in the 1970s, Muslims accounted for a minority of the population but a majority
of the landless. They accounted for only 40% of the population and owned less
than 17% of the land, with more than 80% of them landless. Today, the Muslim-majority
areas are the poorest provinces in the country.
In the late 1960s, the Philippine military - widely believed to be supported
by loggers and politicians - organized and financed paramilitary groups that
massacred entire Muslim communities to drive them from their lands. This finally
sparked massive, organized resistance on the part of the Bangsamoros (Bangsamoro
is the name of the area claimed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF).
In 1972, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF, from which the MILF split
in 1978) formally emerged, with widespread legitimacy and popularity among Muslims.
War followed, but even after more than 100,000 were dead, neither the government
nor the MNLF had won decisively.
A protracted period of negotiations ensued. The MNLF eventually gave up its
goal of establishing an independent state by accepting a degree of autonomy
under the Philippine government. Hawks in the military and other forces that
had an interest in keeping control of the Bangsamoro consistently attempted
to deprive the Moros of what they had settled for. The peace talks dragged,
and faltered. But in 1996, the MNLF and the government forged what they called
- or hoped would be - a final peace agreement in which the MNLF would once and
for all lay down its arms and the government would give real power to the Bangsamoro
under Philippine sovereignty.
The invincible enemy
It is in this context that what later came to be known as the Abu Sayyaf first
emerged. It started out in the early 1990s as a loose grouping of mostly former
MNLF leaders and their followers who split from the MNLF after it negotiated
for autonomy with the central government. Disenchanted with the MNLF leadership
under Nur Misuari, the group attracted mostly young recruits. With the MNLF
lying low, with Misuari abroad, but with certain interests continuing to sabotage
the negotiations and the military continuing to commit human-rights violations
against Moros, the group filled the vacuum vacated by the MNLF and was seen
by many as taking over the struggle on behalf of the Moros at the period when
Initially, the group launched operations to push for political demands, including
the banning in the Sulu seas of large fishing trawlers from the north that were
displacing Moro fishermen in the south. While the group eventually decided to
conduct kidnap operations, it was supposedly divided on whether only to make
political demands or also to ask for ransom in exchange for releasing hostages.
After its founder and ideologue's death in 1998 and after reportedly being infiltrated
by agents planted by the military and by politicians, what was once a highly
political group became increasingly known for its high-profile kidnapping and
bombing operations. After abducting mostly foreign Catholic priests, tourists,
journalists and local residents, the group raided a diving resort in neighboring
Malaysia in 2000, taking hostage mostly European tourists and local workers.
In May 2001, the group kidnapped another batch of hostages, including three
US Special Forces then joined the hunt for the Abu Sayyaf in February 2002.
Prior to the US entry, Philippine officials discounted, if not altogether ruling
them out, the reported links between the group and the so-called al-Qaeda network
of Osama bin Laden. As late as November 2001, presidential spokesman Rigoberto
Tiglao said of alleged links between the Abu Sayyaf and al-Qaeda, "Of course
there are historical ties, but our investigations have yielded no signs that
these international terrorists are at work here." The national security
adviser then confirmed that there was no proof al-Qaeda was financing the Abu
Sayyaf. Since then, however, the group's alleged association has simply been
assumed as a given; almost all media reports now prefix the Abu Sayyaf as "al-Qaeda-linked"
or mention its alleged association with the regional grouping Jemaah Islamiah.
While such connections to external groups could not be altogether ruled out,
the ideological affinity of the Abu Sayyaf with them and the extent of their
operational cooperation are widely disputed and meet with great skepticism in
the country. By 2003, even officials from different countries interviewed by
the New York Times admitted that their information on al-Qaeda presence in the
Philippines was "sketchy". The Washington Post also reported that
Abu Sayyaf's alleged ties to al-Qaeda "appeared dated and tenuous".
While US officials continued to trumpet Jemaah Islamiah's growing links to Philippine-based
groups, a White House assessment concluded that the Philippines had "more
or less contained the terror group in Mindanao".
With numerous and credible accusations that the Philippine military has been
conniving with the Abu Sayyaf, the group's supposed lines to the generals resonate
more than its alleged links with bin Laden. For many, the Abu Sayyaf is understood
less as a branch of a global "Islamic terrorist network" and more
as the fringe of a local secessionist movement - its survival more dependent
on the solution of the Bangsamoro issue and less on the intensification of military
'By far the most dangerous group in the country today'
The Abu Sayyaf hostage-taking ended in June 2002 and since then, there have
been contradictory assessments by US and Philippine officials as to the threat
posed by the group. At times, the Philippine government has tended to portray
it as a spent force even as other officials and analysts talk of the group as
if it were stronger than ever.
The supposed number of Abu Sayyaf members, and the accompanying pronouncements,
tell the tale: in December 2001, the chief military commander in the south said
there were only 80 members. A Department of Defense report in late 2002, after
the deployment of Americans, put the number at 250, down from 800 in 2001. A
few months after, just as the government had announced the deployment of US
troops to Sulu, the military chief of staff said a review of military documents
showed that the membership is actually bigger, closer to 500.
Near the end of the US deployment to Basilan, US Army Brigadier-General Donald
Wurster remarked that the Abu Sayyaf "are non-functional as an organization".
And Philippine presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said, "It is widely
acknowledged that the training, advice and assistance we received in Basilan
[from the US] were critical factors that led to the defeat of the Abu Sayyaf
there." A senior US diplomat was quoted by the New York Times as saying
that the Abu Sayyaf is "practically null and void".
In May 2004, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo triumphantly said the Abu Sayyaf
"can no longer resuscitate itself under other guises or names". As
of June 2004, a government report states that the group counts only 508 members,
down from 1,300 in 2001. Last August, just as some military officials were blaming
Abu Sayyaf members for a spate of bombings in the south, newly installed army
chief Major-General Hermogenes Esperon said, "We are on full offensive
and the Abu Sayyaf are not likely to be able to launch any offensive that could
inflict harm to our people."
Almost all the Abu Sayyaf leaders have now been killed. Those who remain are
those leaders and factions that are more political than criminal and which reportedly
objected to the kidnapping operations. According to people in Sulu, the primary
reason the Abu Sayyaf is still able to draw people to its fold is that the military
continues to commit atrocities against Moros and victims feel the only way to
get justice is by joining armed groups. Stop the military atrocities, they say,
and the group will fade away. Despite the limited popular support, the Abu Sayyaf's
ranks are depleted; it is isolated, with few sources of funds, and has very
little capacity to inflict damage.
And yet, if one listens to the government and the media, the Abu Sayyaf is
still everywhere and nowhere; everyone and no one. Everywhere because almost
all "terrorist" incidents are still routinely blamed on the group.
And yet nowhere because - despite more than 50,000 troops based in the south
running after them for more than 10 years and despite the US military's help
- the Abu Sayyaf continues to elude pursuit and to be cited as the justification
for military offensives in the region, for efforts to institute more repressive
laws throughout the country and, bizarrely, even for justifying a raid on a
house where evidence of alleged electoral fraud against Arroyo and Vice President
Noli de Castro was stored. Everyone because almost all of those killed or arrested
by the military as part of the anti-terror campaign are labeled Abu Sayyaf members.
And yet seemingly no one, because - for all those arrested or killed - the Abu
Sayyaf lives on and continues to be projected as, in the words of National Security
Adviser Norberto Gonzales, "by far the most dangerous group in the country
The right to name thine enemy
Last February, the Abu Sayyaf, according to the military, struck again. Four
people were killed in Maimbung town in Sulu, including a pregnant woman and
a child, in what the military called an encounter with the group. People who
know the casualties and other people in the province maintained otherwise. Frustrated
by government's failure or refusal to look into the incident and other previous
human-rights violations allegedly committed by the military, the MNLF attacked
military camps, sparking clashes that lasted for a week and that killed more
than 70 people. As early as then, a US military official confirmed the presence
of US troops on the island during the fighting but denied that they were involved
In April, more groups of US soldiers started arriving in some of the very towns
in Sulu that the Philippine military claims to be the base of the Abu Sayyaf
and that would later be the site of military offensives. The Americans were
supposedly on a mission to conduct an "assessment" of Sulu's infrastructure
ostensibly for the civil projects they were going to implement. Among the things
they checked out was whether US military ships and planes could use the island's
infrastructure. US officials declined to specify exactly how many US soldiers
were involved. By November, six months after they arrived, the Americans were
still conducting their "assessment".
On November 11, Philippine marines attacked what they initially again claimed
were members of the Abu Sayyaf in Indanan town in Sulu. Almost all media reports
of the fighting followed the military's story line. Those who were being attacked
- and who were fighting back - claim they are not members of the Abu Sayyaf
but of the MNLF. The Philippine military then revised its story by reporting
that it was also clashing with members of the so-called "Misuari Renegade
Group" (MRG) or "Misuari Breakaway Group" (MBG) because this
group was allegedly coddling members of the Abu Sayyaf. The MNLF, however, flatly
rejects these labels imposed on it by the military. It questions why the military
should reserve for itself the right to rename it and why the media should unquestioningly
follow the military's labels.
Various accounts of what transpired in that offensive challenge the military's
version of events. According to Brigadier-General Alexander Aleo, chief of the
military's Sulu-based task force assigned to root out remaining Abu Sayyaf members,
fighting erupted when patrolling soldiers were attacked by Abu Sayyaf members.
Witnesses and residents in the area, however, claim the fighting was initiated
by the military when it forcibly entered a known MNLF camp, despite warnings
from the area's village official that it was indeed an MNLF camp and that the
MNLF was not just going to sit back and watch them.
Supposing the military was really chasing Abu Sayyaf members, there are questions
as to why the armed forces insisted on passing through the MNLF camp even if
there was a shorter and more direct route to the area where the military claims
the Abu Sayyaf members were located. Even Esperon was quoted in newspapers,
four days after the fighting, openly contradicting his subordinates in the field
by saying there was no confirmation that the MNLF were protecting the Abu Sayyaf.
Invoking the 1996 peace agreement, which they claim allows them to maintain
their camps, the MNLF leadership said they were forced to defend themselves
when the marines intruded into their territory. The MNLF's military chief of
staff, Jul Amri Misuari, believes the attack was a deliberate attempt by hawks
in the military to sabotage back-channel talks between them and the government.
General Nehemias Pajarito, the commander who supervised the offensives in November,
disputes this, maintaining that the MNLF is not allowed to run camps and that
the marines were not crossing any bounds when they decided to enter their area.
He also said that while his forces were aware that they were entering what he
calls the "MRG/MBG" camps, they went ahead anyway despite the risk
of provoking the "MRG/MBG" if only to seek the Abu Sayyaf.
'Dirty tricks' department
Certain sections in the Philippine military have long held that the Abu Sayyaf
is the "dirty tricks department" of the MNLF, a charge that the MNLF
has consistently denied. What the MNLF stands to gain from joining ranks with
the Abu Sayyaf is not clear. Associating with the Abu Sayyaf would only have
given the MNLF's opponents in the government - those factions who continue to
insist on wiping the MNLF out once and for all - justification to undermine
the 1996 peace agreement and continue military offensives against the organization,
something the MNLF presumably doesn't want, as shown by its insistence that
the peace agreement be respected.
Moreover, the MNLF could presumably have calculated that in this "global
war on terror", associating with the Abu Sayyaf would only train the guns
of the world's only superpowers at them - a prospect the MNLF might not necessarily
relish, especially in its current condition.
The Philippine military, on the other hand, seems to have much to gain from
blurring the lines. Given the prevailing opinion against the Abu Sayyaf, to
claim that one is running after that group - or those who are coddling it -
is a sure way to garner public support, elude scrutiny and label those who question
the military's actions as, in the words of Arroyo, "Abu Sayyaf-lovers".
Under the "war on terror", to claim to fight against the Abu Sayyaf,
even as one is really targeting other groups, is a way to argue for a bigger
budget from the national government and more military largesse from the United
In fact, a group of Filipino soldiers who staged a mutiny in July 2003 had
accused the military top brass of setting off bombs in Mindanao to pin the blame
on "terrorists" and thereby demand more military aid from the United
States. Among all other countries in the region, the Philippine armed forces
has received the most dramatic increase in foreign military funding from the
US since 2001.
In January 2003, the military launched an offensive in Pikit, Cotabato, initially
claiming it was chasing the Pentagon gang, a kidnap-for-ransom group, only to
admit later that it was really going after the MILF. After the fighting, military
officials couldn't identify the alleged Pentagon gang members from among the
casualties. An intelligence officer was quoted as saying the threat posed by
the Pentagon gang was exaggerated and that the military's oft-repeated allegations
of supposed links between the gang and the MILF were inconclusive.
Training in action
In pursuing the so-called Abu Sayyaf members, the military assembled about 1,500
soldiers. Military planes dropped 500-to-1,000-pound (227-454-kilogram) bombs.
Troops bombarded the area with howitzers and mortars for three days. In the
end, Pajarito admitted that of the 200 Abu Sayyaf members the military claimed
to be pursuing, his forces were not able to retrieve any of the bodies of those
they had killed in their offensives.
Through all that, various civilian witnesses claim US forces were in the middle
of the action. They say they spotted US soldiers in full battle gear together
with their Filipino counterparts aboard trucks and Humvees at the battlefield.
One witness reported seeing at least four US soldiers aboard a military truck
proceed to the combat zone. Another report states that US troops were seen aboard
rubber boats along the shores very close to the scene of the fighting. Others
claim to have sighted US soldiers helping their Filipino counterparts mount
heavy artillery, operate military equipment and remove land mines. Throughout
the fighting, a US military spy plane was seen constantly hovering above the
area where fighting raged. One spy plane crashed and was later recovered by
farmers in the area.
There were even reports that at least four US soldiers were killed in the operations,
including one identified as "Sergeant Grant". Witnesses allegedly
saw their remains in body bags being transported by helicopter back to the military
bases. This cannot be verified independently, however, unless the US military
releases the complete and uncensored list of its casualties in its operations.
In October 2002, one US Special Forces soldier was actually killed in a bombing
in Zamboanga city, supposedly by the Abu Sayyaf, but this incident only made
it to the foreign news - and only as an aside - a few months later.
Witnesses who attest to seeing US forces during the operations have executed
sworn affidavits and have testified at a closed session of a Philippine congressional
committee that went to Sulu to hear the allegations. But their allegations seem
not to have caught the national attention. Other witnesses decline to speak
on record because, on an island where massacres and killings almost always end
up unresolved, they are afraid the military would seek revenge if they refute
Is the US engaged in 'actual combat' in Mindanao?
US officials dismissed the allegations as "absolutely not true". While
they admit US soldiers were indeed on the island during the fighting, US Army
Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Zimmer, public affairs officer of the Joint Special
Operation Task Force Philippines, said, "We are not in any way involved
in military operations conducted by the Philippine armed forces." According
to Zimmer, the Americans' mission has not changed: "We are there to advise,
assist and to train the armed forces" and "also share information
Philippine military officials, however, corroborated some of the witnesses'
claims. One colonel who refused to be identified was quoted by Reuters as saying
US troops have been asked to clear land mines. Pajarito confirmed witness reports
the soldiers were where they were seen. According to him, at the time of the
fighting, he was asked by the mayor of the municipality of Indanan to fix minor
damage to a water pipe but, since his troops didn't have the resources nor the
expertise to do so, he asked the US soldiers for help instead. The US troops
hitched with them on the way to the battlefield, he said, so that Filipino troops
would not have to provide a separate security convoy for them.
Such an explanation has only served to raise more questions regarding the US
troops' actual role in the November clashes, in particular, and their mission
to Sulu in general. Why do fully armed US soldiers - and not civilians - have
to conduct "humanitarian" missions? Why was the minor water-pipe damage
such a pressing concern in a time of war and why was no less than the top general
leading the war worrying about it? Why did US soldiers - and not Filipino soldiers
or civilians - have to fix the water pipes? Weren't the US troops aware that
fighting was going on? Did they know the Filipino soldiers they tagged along
with were attacking fighters of a national-liberation movement, or were they
led to believe they were running after a "terrorist" group? Or were
they aware that the fighting was against the MNLF but they went along anyway?
And what interest, if any, does the United States have in joining the fight
against the MNLF?
Humanitarian spy planes, medical assault ships
This is not the first time reports of involvement by US forces in fighting surfaced.
In a little-known incident, the Los Angeles Times reported that US troops fired
back and killed guerrillas when they were in Basilan in June 2002. In June 2005,
US forces also allegedly joined the Philippine military in operations against
Abu Sayyaf members in Maguindanao province in mainland Mindanao - even when
no training exercises or civil projects were announced.
A Bantay Ceasefire mission, a coalition of groups monitoring the Philippines
armed forces and the MILF, reported recovering empty MRE (meals ready to eat)
packages that were issued to US soldiers in the area. As in Sulu, a P-3 Orion
surveillance aircraft for pinpointing enemy positions was sighted and was even
caught on video. An Associated Press report suggested the operations were "backed
at times by US surveillance aircraft". A Philippine military official denied
this, saying the US is not permitted to conduct reconnaissance flights in the
country, but claimed the surveillance aircraft may have been used for a "humanitarian"
mission, not for spying. Another spy plane that had crashed and gone missing
would also be recovered a few months later in Central Luzon.
At times last year, unannounced appearances of US military ships and planes
appeared to have caught Philippine government and military officials by surprise,
giving rise to questions as to the extent by which the US military informs Manila
of its actions within the country's territory. In October, for example, an 11,000-ton
US military ship was spotted off Basilan near Zamboanga city. Foreign Ministry
and military officials gave the ship different names and conflicting explanations
as to its mission. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson initially claimed the US
didn't inform the government of the presence of the ship, only to retract that
later. US officials eventually stated the vessels had come for medical, dental
and civil-works projects.
The foreign media have a description for all these mysterious sightings of
soldiers, spy planes and ships. According to the Associated Press, the Philippines
is fighting the "war on terror" with "covert US non-combat assistance"
in Sulu. Another key US ally in the region, Australia, is also helping out by
sending personnel who are involved in what Australian media refer to as a "covert
operation" in the country.
'Emerging targets for preemptive war'
The possibility US troops are not just playing games, building schools or handing
out pills in Mindanao is not such a wild allegation. In an editorial questioning
the vagueness of the stated objectives of US troop deployments abroad, the New
York Times had earlier warned, "The Pentagon has a long and ignoble history
of announcing that it is dispatching American forces abroad as 'advisers' when
they are really meant to be combatants."
That these "advisers" are doing more than looking after pets is not
a conspiracy theory: certain factions in Washington are known to have been agitating
for more action since 2002. Some of the highest-ranking US military officers,
such as former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Richard Myers and Pacific
Command commander Admiral Thomas Fargo, were reported to have been advocating
a "longer and more intense mission" in the country after the initial
deployment to Basilan.
Outside the US military, there have been calls for US forces to assume a more
direct role in the fighting. In an opinion column for the International Herald
Tribune, Brett M Drecker wrote: "If Washington and Manila are serious about
eliminating Abu Sayyaf, the US Special Forces should be given the assignment.
The terrorist group consists of about 100 poorly trained amateurs. They would
be no match for American soldiers already in the Philippines, but they are still
eluding Filipino troops."
In an editorial published after the July 2003 mutiny by Filipino soldiers,
the influential conservative Wall Street Journal echoed the suggestion, saying,
"If the US wants to defeat terrorists in places like Mindanao and Basilan,
it should insist on a more hands-on role in the partnership with the Philippine
The Philippines has since been included on the list of "emerging targets
for preemptive war" of a new US military unit authorized to conduct clandestine
operations abroad, according to a memorandum prepared by the same Myers who
had been pushing for deeper involvement in the country. Seymour Hersh, a prominent
investigative journalist, has written about a US presidential order that allow
the Pentagon "to operate unilaterally in a number of countries where there
is a perception of a clear and evident terrorist threat". Though the list
of countries was not revealed, the description fits that of the Philippines:
"A number of the countries are friendly to the US and are major trading
partners. Most have been cooperating in the war on terrorism."
'We can always cover it up'
When US troops were first supposed to come to Sulu in February 2003, they had
already announced that they were going to fight. A US defense official said
then, "This is not an exercise, this will be a no-holds-barred effort."
Reportedly worried about the possibility of suffering casualties and not being
able to explain them to the public if they presented the operations as mere
games, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld decided to call a spade a spade.
He said: "Whatever it is we do, we describe in language that is consistent
with how we do things. And we do not tend to train people in combat."
That triggered a public outcry in Manila, prompting denials from Philippine
officials. This was despite the fact that a Justice Department undersecretary
had already previously declared that the government would allow Americans to
participate in combat. After Pentagon pronouncements, then Philippine defense
secretary Angelo Reyes stuck to the official justification, saying, "It's
a question of definitions and semantics," implying Manila and Washington
were both referring to the same thing but just had different names for it.
But however the operations are labeled, the fact is that US forces in the Philippines
are sent to actual conflict areas with the right to shoot back at real enemies.
Whether merely providing military aid to the Philippine military to fight enemies,
giving them training and advice, sharing information or actually joining them
in the battlefield constitutes "participation in combat" is, as Reyes
put it, a question of semantics.
Though it was eventually called off, the US government never took back its
characterization of the planned deployment as an actual combat operation. According
to a report by the Los Angeles Times, US officials maintained their Filipino
counterparts asked them to lie to the public in case Americans were killed or
wounded in action. "We could always cover it up," one Filipino official
was quoted as telling them.
'Like rats in a trap'
With the recent military offensives and with successive unexplained and unresolved
killings gripping the island in the past few weeks, Sulu is again teetering
on the precipice of full-scale war. With spy planes and helicopters hovering
above and naval ships berthing and dislodging military equipment, residents
of Sulu say it feels like the 1970s all over again - but this time, with American
GIs around. One thing is for sure: if true, the involvement of US troops in
attacks against the MNLF will not push the island away from the edge.
Even before the November offensives, the 1996 peace agreement between the government
and the MNLF already was in tatters. It began disintegrating even before 2001
when open clashes resumed between the MNLF and the government and Misuari was
subsequently arrested by the government.
According to the government, only factions loyal to Misuari - the so-called
MRG/MBG - attacked the military after the administration refused to support
Misuari's candidacy for governorship of the Muslim-majority autonomous region.
According to MNLF fighters, however, they were finally provoked into taking
action then by successive military attacks on MNLF forces despite the ceasefire,
continuing military atrocities against Moro and continuing government and military
attempts to render meaningless the concept of autonomy.
While Misuari, who remains in prison, has ordered the MNLF to maintain "peace
and order" for the duration of the US troops' indefinite stay, MNLF commanders
said they will remain on the defensive and will not just sit back when they
are again attacked. Further military offensives in the name of fighting "terrorism"
will only escalate the fighting and, as has been the case for the past 30 years,
they will likely result in more human-rights violations and killing of innocent
civilians. It will do nothing to address the roots of the conflict.
According to one official, the MNLF is not only reconsolidating but also, because
of the failure of the 30 years of peace talks, becoming more radicalized. Having
learned its lessons from the past and having cast off its dependence on outside
support, the MNLF, the official says, is now even stronger and more determined
to carry on with what the Bangsamoro have been doing for the past 500 years:
resisting and fighting. Even the military concedes that the movement continues
to enjoy wide popular support.
And as American GIs roam Sulu, many residents can't help but remember what
they did the last time American soldiers were around. In March 1906, about 500
US troops supported by Filipino members of the constabulary climbed up Bud Dahu,
an extinct volcanic mountain in Sulu, and surrounded at least 900 Moros who
had fled to the bowl of its crater to escape from and resist the rule of the
US colonizers in the towns below.
From the rim of the crater, US troops bombarded the Moros below for four days
- "like rats in a trap", wrote American novelist Mark Twain. Following
their commander Gen Leonard Wood's order to "kill or capture those savages",
US troops spared no one, not even women and children - "not even a baby
alive to cry for its dead mother".
A hundred years ago, the Americans also said they had only come to
Herbert Docena is with Focus on the Global South, a research
and advocacy organization.