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Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2002 / 13 Adar, 5762

Thomas H. Lipscomb

Thomas H. Lipscomb
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Who commands American troops in the Philippines? -- CHANGES late in the negotiations of the Terms of Reference agreement between the Republic of the Philippines and United States military forces highlight the tension brewing between them.

While the Terms of Reference, or TOR, is supposedly merely an agreement between local commanders in the field that clarifies areas of mutual support and authority, in this case the changes were announced by Philippine head of state President Gloria Arroyo's Malacanang Palace.

This month''s TOR draft stated: "Nothing shall infringe on the AFP unit commander's authority." This clearly indicated that U.S. forces in the Philippines were subordinate to the Philippine Army command structure.

Objections by U.S. forces led to a revised statement by the Malacanang Palace on Thursday. That statement said the authority would be exercised jointly by training co-directors Brig. Gen. Emmanuel Teodosio, Philippine Army deputy chief of staff for education, and U.S. Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, commander of the Special Operations Command of the Pacific Area Command "under the authority of the Chief of Staff, AFP." Is this a distinction without a difference?

Although the latest TOR refers only to the current field exercise between U.S. and Philippine troops, given the recent record of exercises "under the authority of" the current Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Gen. Diomedio Villaneuva, this is an important issue. An investigation of Villaneuva's conduct by the Philippine Army's Inspector Gen. Rinaldo Rivera last fall raised some serious questions.

A Catholic priest on Abu Sayaaf stronghold Basilan Island, the Rev. Cirilo Nacorda, claimed that last June the Philippine Army had surrounded the top leadership of Abu Sayaaf, including the hostages they had kidnapped, in a Catholic church and hospital compound in Lamitan on Basilan.

Although heavily outnumbered, the Abu Sayaaf were allowed to escape through the lines of the Philippine Army after they paid bribes believed to be close to $1 million to local officials and officers under Villaneuva's command. They were allowed to take with them two American missionaries, Martin and Grace Burnham, and a Philippine nurse they had kidnapped a month earlier.

Villaneuva admitted that the trapped Abu Sayaaf were given their freedom under his direct orders. Gen. Rivera recommended that Gen. Villaneuva resign and Villaneuva offered to do so. President Arroyo's response? To remove Rivera and praise Villaneuva, who was kept in his position.

Another incident Thursday underlined the extraordinary sensitivity of the arrangement. Appearing on a top local evening television news program, Arroyo laughed derisively as she claimed, "The Americans had to apologize for carrying their firearms out of their compound in Zamboanga City."

The incident in this case involved American troops in civilian clothes who carried weapons into town to pick up payroll funds at a local bank. Philippine vice president and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teofisto Guingona claims the only reason there was no written apology required from the United States was because "that was the first offense," while the chairman of the Philippine House Foreign Relations Committee has demanded the arrest of the American troops involved. The Philippine Star is reporting that "the U.S. Embassy has verbally apologized to the Philippine government for a gun-toting" incident."

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, denied knowledge of any "apology" by American forces, and stated that "our forces have full authority to defend themselves in the Philippines under our agreement with the Philippine government." He also stated that whatever the latest TOR may appear to say, U.S. troops in the Philippines are under the ultimate command of U.S. authorities.

The State Department would neither confirm nor deny an apology had been delivered by the Embassy in Manila to the Philippine government. It stated the Philippine government was assured that the United States would "take steps to ensure that our forces would act in line with the TOR."

Military alliances, even between friendly governments, are no easy matter. Spiteful power games by an ally with an eye to local political consumption are par for the course. But soft-pedaling the important issues involved in clear command authority can lead to serious mistakes.

One veteran of Moro disputes with the Philippine government took his hard-earned lessons to a world war where he fought to maintain the command authority of U.S. forces against heavy pressure from his allies that ultimately turned the tide of battle. His name? Gen. John J. Pershing.

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.

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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