On Point: The Philippines Is No Afghanistan

by Austin Bay

Defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has given theUnited States tremendous political momentum, which bodes well for upcomingmilitary and diplomatic operations in The War on Terror.

However, an American public now familiar with "the Afghanexample" of warfare should not expect that model to apply too rigorously inthe Philippines.

As U.S. advisers deploy to the Philippines, American strategistsface significantly different geographic, political, historical and culturalchallenges, which will translate into a revised military approach, offeringanother example of why this "Millennial War" is a nuanced conflict that mustadapt operations, tactics and equipment to unique local circumstances.

There are, of course, noticeable similarities. The United Statesis again operating with a local ally, in this case the Filipino government.U.S. Green Berets are on the ground advising Filipino forces. Intelligencesystems from satellites to unmanned aircraft will probe the battle zone.Despite political protests from anti-American populists in Manila, thepotent tool of U.S. airpower may well be applied. AC-130 gunships can chewup jungle hideouts as readily as Himalayan trenches.

However, the dramatic change in terrain matters. Anyone holdinga bachelors degree in common sense can contrast tropical vegetation andhundreds of Pacific Ocean islands with bare-naked Afghan crags in the middleof Asia.

Jungle cloaks guerrillas far better than exposed mountains, evenif hi-tech sensors are employed. That guerrilla advantage, however, isoffset by near-complete U.S. and Filipino control of the sea (though somerebels are smugglers skilled in using small speedboats).

Unlike Afghanistan (at the far end of a fragile air supplyline), the Philippines are not a logistician's nightmare, at least if theU.S. Navy is on your side. If needed, troops and supplies can be deployedquickly and in quantity. Filipino forces, U.S. special operations troops andperhaps U.S. infantry, supported by aircraft operating from Filipino basesor on ships in nearby waters, can strike suspected terrorist targets withrelative ease. The island region is, in fact, a "theme park" for amphibiouswarriors, like U.S. Marines.

Though the Philippines went through a "sick man" phase in the1980s as the Marcos regime collapsed, "unstable" in Manila would beconsidered rock-solid in Kabul. The Filipino Army is no ragtag melange likethe anti-Taliban groups. Manila's military is very familiar with U.S.military operations, tactics and equipment.

Perhaps too familiar. Complex historical connections andfrictions between the United States and the Philippines will both aid andhinder U.S. military flexibility.

While Marcos ran Manila, anti-Americanism increased, with theU.S. military facilities at Subic Bay and Clark Field particular burrs. Whenthe United States withdrew in 1991, many Filipinos wanted to make thewithdrawal permanent. So the Filipino constitution says no "foreign militarybases, troops or facilities" will be allowed in the country unless thegovernment holds a national referendum. The current U.S. combat deploymentis being described as "combined training," a fiction convenient toWashington and Manila, but one that may leave President GloriaMacapagal-Arroyo's government politically vulnerable.

Then there's the question of "the enemy."

U.S. troops intend to destroy the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), whichis loosely allied with Al Qaeda. Though Abu Sayyaf translates as "Bearer ofthe Sword," just how "Islamist" ASG truly is remains up for debate. ASG isno Taliban. It controls, at most, a slice of one southern island, andbehaves like a band of pirates with a knack for kidnapping and looting.

The Filipino Army, however, has other, more embeddedchallengers. Filipino Muslims -- Moros -- have been fighting for fourcenturies what they call the "Spanish Catholics." In a struggle that hasleft a string of failed peace accords, The Moro National Liberation Front(MNLF), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other factions havesought either secession from or political autonomy within the Philippines.Despite the religious veneer, the struggle has ethnic and economic roots.Most Moros aren't political Islamists, and they certainly aren't globalterrorists.

Thus the Moro conflict, though exacerbated by Osama binLaden-type radicals, is old and complex, and will not resolved by Americanfirepower.

Still, taking the war to Abu Sayyaf does send an importantmessage to Islamist radicals who threaten Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.After Sept. 11, threatening U.S. lives exacts a stiff penalty. No matter thelocal difficulties and historical tangles, U.S. military, security andintelligence forces will find a way to work through those thickets. Ifyou're a terrorist, a Southeast Asian jungle's no safer than a Himalayancave.

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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