KONGIt may make good domestic politics, but Washington's announcement
that it is sending troops to Sulu Province in the Philippines to fight the
Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf looks like another self-inflicted wound for
Unlike last year's dispatch of forces to
neighboring Basilan Island, there is little pretense this time that the 1,300
troops will be training the Philippines armed forces. This will be a U.S.
mission to "disrupt and destroy" the group, whose number is put at around 250.
The U.S. desire for a "second front" in
the war on terror has taken precedence over the national interests of the
The news from Washington appeared to take
Manila unaware, with the presidential spokesman saying the U.S. forces would not
engage in offensive actions but would only fire in self-defense.
Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes described
the news as "leaks" on which he declined to comment other than to pledge that
U.S. actions would not contravene the Philippine constitution.
The issue of constitutionality is both a
legal one, in a nation which learned its laws from the United States, and an
emotional one, given past history of U.S. occupation and military bases.
There is skepticism in Manila that U.S.
troops would actually be under Philippine command. So it is no surprise that
much of the media has erupted with indignation.
The Philippine Inquirer was typical: "The
Pentagon disclosure is only the latest confirmation that, indeed, the Ugly
American is back: loud, self-absorbed, a gratuitous bully. It is not only the
image of the Ugly American which has come back to haunt us. There is also the
image of the Filipino as Little Brown Brother."
A politically and financially feeble
government in Manila is hardly in a position to stand in the way of the
Pentagon, however much it would like to avoid the Little Brown Brother
There is scant evidence that Abu Sayyaf
has the ability, or even desire, to conduct operations outside the Philippines,
where it is largely confined to the Sulu Archipelago, which includes Basilan
Island, where U.S. forces were sent last year to "train" their Philippine
By the standards of insurgency in the
Philippines, Abu Sayyaf is a minor problem, dwarfed by the Moro Islamic
Liberation Front, or MILF, which controls a large chunk of Mindanao, and also by
the New People's Army, a Communist guerrilla group that has stepped up
activities in several parts of the country.
Hardly a day goes by without bloody
clashes between MILF and government, and inter-communal killings at the
interface of Muslim and Christian areas of Mindanao.
The use of U.S. troops in Sulu is likely,
Muslims say, to set back peace talks between the government and the MILF, which
have been going on sporadically. It has also been criticized by Christian
politicians from Mindanao who say it will exacerbate current problems.
The U.S. presence may weaken the position
of pro-government Muslims in Mindanao and even cause the insurgents in Sulu to
patch up relations with their brothers in Mindanao, with whom they share a faith
but from whom they are divided by tribal loyalties.
At the best of times, Sulu is a chaotic
place with a long tradition of piracy, smuggling and gun-running. Its Tausug
people are known for their warrior credentials, and for resisting U.S.
occupation longer than any other part of the Philippines. There is an abiding
folk memory of massacres by U.S. troops in 1906 and again in 1913.
Sulu's proximity to Malaysia and
Indonesia also makes this an inappropriate place for the United States to be
sending troops at a time when it needs the diplomatic support of these two
moderate and passably democratic Muslim nations. The Washington move also
further undermines the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, established by
previous pacts between Manila and Muslim separatists, in which Muslim Mindanao
and Sulu are supposed to enjoy separate status.
In short, there seems no upside to this
operation other than to score domestic political points for the Bush
administration, and multiple downsides.