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Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2002 / 25 Shevat, 5762

Thomas H. Lipscomb

Thomas H. Lipscomb
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A Philippine "quagmire"? -- AS 650 American troops begin their first week as advisers to the Philippine Army, there have been several disturbing developments in this new combat zone An American and a German hiker in the Philippines were ambushed and killed late last week The American, 33 year old Brian Thomas Smith, was trekking in the Mount Pintaubo area near the former American base at Subic Bay. And over the weekend an American C-130 special operations plane, flying on a training exercise a few miles away at Kalingo-Apayo, was stitched with .30 caliber fire that barely missed a crew member.

Both incidents happened on the north island of Luzon, barely a hundred miles from the capitol at Manila, and not in the south island of Mindanao where the world's attention has been focused on the al Quaeda-related Abu Sayaaf activities. This area of Luzon is a stronghold of the far larger New Peoples'Army, the military arm of the Philippine Communist Party, which denied any involvement in either incident.

Over the weekend the Philippine Army claims to have killed 16 Abu Sayaaf casualties on a 3 day attack on the island of Jolo south of Mindanao. But before celebrating this rare and as yet unconfirmed victory, it is worth reviewing the games the Philippine Army appears to have been playing with the Abu Sayaaf over the past several years.

The point man for America's effort to derail al Quaeda efforts in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Phillipines at this point is CINCPAC commander Admiral Dennis C. Blair. He is a Rhodes Scholar and former White House Fellow who served tours with the National Security Council and as Associate Director of Central Intelligence for Military Support. Admiral Blair is responsible for the Pacific Area Command (PACOM), the largest unified command in the United States military including all Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force troops over 100 million square miles. And it is Blair's PACOM, not the familiar CENTCOM based at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida which ran the Gulf War and has been running the Afghan operation, that is responsible for American activities in this area.

Admiral Blair has been exposed to the highest national command and intelligence experience and should be better equipped for understanding the sophisticated problems that might be encountered in an operation in the Philippines than a senior officer with experience in troop command alone.

In a Dec 19th interview on the PBS Newshour Admiral Blair noted that "international groups are willing to help local groups, they're trying to overthrow, and cause damage in their own governments in return for help with the international group's goal. You've got to go after all of them."

But asked last week if Washington was prepared to broaden its support to operations against other organizations like the NPA or MILF, the February 2nd Philippine Star quoted Admiral Blair as stating that "our advisers are against the Abu Sayaaf and not the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front]." The statement seems incredibly naïve. Terrorist groups in the Philippines are as interwoven as similar groups in the Middle East where even the Israeli Mossad has trouble telling them apart. Alliances and rivalries rapidly coalesce and evolve. Once Admiral Blair gets his own intelligence people in the field in the Philippines, rather than having to rely on the lackluster chair-bound FBI center in Manila, he may get a more sophisticated perspective.

The unfortunate facts are that the Manila Government itself is a fragile enterprise at best. It has had to contend with a strong separatist force made up of many warring factions that wants an independent state on the island of Mindanao 500 miles away. And it is beset by the strong military presence of the Communist NPA only a few miles from Manila. Even its own central authority is divided between strongly nationalist and actively anti-American officials and legislators and those who seek American assistance in unifying their country.

Currently the United States identifies only Abu Sayaaf and the "Pentagon," with their ties to al Quaeda, as Philippine terrorist groups to be destroyed. The larger Communist NPA operation whose detachment in Luzon fired on the American C-130 is not included even though it had specifically stated that it would kidnap and kill Americans in the Philippines and has just done so. This also ignores the long-standing reality that the relatively small number of Abu Sayaaf and Pentagon members in the field in Mindanao are cycled in and out from the MNLF [Moro National Liberation Front] and the smaller more radical MILF that split off from the MNLF in 1977. Many members of the MNLF are prominent in Mindanao, including two current generals in the Philippine Army, and some of them have had active duty experience with the Abu Sayaaf in the bush. Funded by millions of dollars from Quadaffi over the past decade, one of the MILF's most prominent members was Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, who disappeared with bin Laden's Philippina wife and son just after September 11th.

Not the least of the problems facing American military advisers is countering the corrupt bunko game that has been going on for years between the Philippine Army and the Mindanao Abu Sayaaf. While the Philippine Army has complained they are unable to track down the Abu Sayaaf because of poor intelligence, the evidence suggests quite the opposite-- that both the Abu Sayyaf and the Philippine Army may have known exactly where the other has been, just so they could avoid direct contact for their mutual benefit. An excellent Sunday Boston Globe carried part of the story.

One indication is the extraordinary investigation last year into the activities of the current Philippine Army Chief of Staff General Diomedio Villaneuva conducted by the Philippine Army's Inspector General Rinaldo Rivera. Alerted by a Catholic priest on Basilan Island, Father Cirilo Nacorda, who claimed the Philippine Army had cornered the top leadership of Abu Sayaaf and the hostages they had kidnapped on Palawan the previous month in a Catholic church and hospital compound in Lamitan on Basilan last June. But the Abu Sayaaf were allowed to escape after they paid bribes believed to be over a million dollars to local officials and officers under Villaneuva's command, keeping the two kidnapped American missionaries Martin and Grace Burnham and a Philippine nurse and releasing three hostages who had already paid their ransom.. General Rivera recommended that General Villaneuva resign and Villaneuva offered to do so. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo's response? To remove General Rivera and praise General Villaneuva who was kept in his position.

To make matters worse, there are continuing violent disagreements between the relatively "clean" Philippine military units like the Marines and the Scouts and the more corrupt Army and local police authorities. Barely a month ago Philippine Marines were publicly beheaded in Mindanao's Zamboanga City by local police.

In this atmosphere questions abound. How is it possible for 5,000 Philippine Army troops to constantly miss the 80 or so Abu Sayaaf terrorists who are still holding three hostages? For almost a year, as far as anyone knows, they have all been playing hide and seek on a tiny island barely 30 square miles in area, roughly 7 miles long and 9 miles wide. Are arguments on the size and split of the Burnham ransom negotiations between the Philippine Army and the Abu Sayaaf on Basilan delaying their "rescue?" And somehow the serial numbers on the US military equipment that seems to turn up in the hands of Abu Sayaaf terrorists almost always appears on the manifests of equipment delivered to the Philippine Army under US military aid agreements.

The effectiveness of the American-led anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan was aided considerably by the high mountain and basin Utah-like terrain that allowed forward air controllers in the Special Forces to take full advantage of the pinpoint "smart bomb" technologies that have evolved since the Gulf War. American fire control teams could direct accurate fire on targets miles away. With that demonstrably winning advantage, the campaign was able to proceed in spite of the double and triple dealing going on between the tribal and warlord-led factions assisting the American effort. These leaders found any number of reasons to release or warn Taliban and Al Quaeda leaders they were supposedly attempting to "capture." And American forces weren't above flying captured Pakistani Army troops advising the Taliban out of Kunduz that might embarrass the valuable US alliance with Pakistani President Musharaff.

But the Philippines operations will be conducted under triple canopy jungle, densely- wooded mountainous terrain with few roads, and the difficulties of tropical rains and fogs thinly settled by peasants sharply divided in their loyalties and ethnic and religious affiliations. Even a "smart bomb" has to be guided by observers with a clear view of potential targets and those opportunities will be rare in the Philippines. The addition of the treacherous games of bribery and deceit between district and local Army and police officials and terrorist operatives, as well as national officials, who American troops will be trying to "advise," begins make this sound a lot like a place Americans would much rather forget than remember. Frances Ford Coppola spent some time scouting locations for his epic attempt to recreate the "quagmire" America made for itself in Viet Nam. As America begins its Philippine "military assistance program" as well as sending $100 million dollars in military aid to the Arroyo Government, it becomes easier every day to see why Coppola chose The Philippines as his location for Apocalypse Now.

Yet circumstances alone do not create quagmires. They are created by constantly shifting objectives and irresolute policies. The performance of the Bush team in Afghanistan so far has been remarkable. Just the prospect of attacking the land-locked terrorist nation state of Taliban Afghanistan with no American access to local bases had many pundits predicting "quagmire" before the operation had even begun. But a limited use of American forces and leveraging of local assets added to the creation of alliances where none had existed before opened bases and options for their support. And the Taliban were rapidly islolated and removed from power.

At least in the Philippines, US forces are proceeding at the invitation of a host government and have access to local bases. And with their peso and stock markets in shambles, public opinion polls indicate that the majority of Philippinos appear to be supporting US efforts to turn around the miserable performance of the Philippine Army. Even with all the attendant difficulties, the balance of political and military factors that govern the likely outcome of the campaign appears to favor the United States.

Thomas H. Lipscomb is the director of the Center for the Digital Future in New York. An an editor and publisher for many years, most recently as head of Times Books, he is also the founder of two public companies in digital technology. To comment, click here.

11/26/01: Dead men walking…
10/23/01: BLOWBACK!
06/14/01: Abandoning Miss Liberty for Ms. Reno
05/07/01: Saving Lt. Kerrey
02/28/01: Marc Rich and the Clintons' Court Jews
02/08/01: From 'civil rights' to 'snivel rights' --- 1968-2001
11/03/00: Clinton’s gotterdammerung
10/20/00: Gore wins the debate --- Bush wins the electorate
06/20/00: Fire Richardson now
05/01/00: Congressional hearings on Reno’s raid are not the way to go

© 2000, Thomas H. Lipscomb