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U.S. military aid found effective in separatist clash

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

U.S. military assistance to the Philippines has been effective in building counterinsurgency capacity, according to a U.S. military study, but critics say it has come at the price of a U.S. blind eye to extrajudicial killings there.

The government of the far-flung archipelago nation has been locked for decades in a conflict with separatist groups in the southern region of Mindanao, home to the Philippines" Muslim minority.

Peace deals and cease-fires were negotiated with the mainstream rebel groups in the 1990s, and Mindanao was granted autonomy in 1996, but more radical elements, some linked to al Qaeda and other Islamic terror groups, have since emerged.

The most important of these is the Abu Sayyaf Group, or ASG, the primary target of U.S. and Filipino counterterrorism operations in the area.

"The thrust of [U.S.] military security assistance to Manila has been directed toward vitiating the operational tempo of the ASG — an effort that, at this point, has met with some relatively significant results," reads the study, to be released tomorrow by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

"One of the key factors" in the success of the U.S. assistance program "was the attitude of the Philippines government," its author, Peter Chalk, said in an interview.

Mr. Chalk, an analyst at Rand Corp., a think tank with historic links to the U.S. military, said Filipino officials had "recognized they need help, taken ownership of the problem and come to the table" to get the assistance they need. "If you don't have that buy-in, you can't succeed," Mr. Chalk said.

"The strategy they were employing — hit 'em as hard as you can — wasn't working," Mr. Chalk said. The new strategy, implemented with U.S. assistance, was oriented to winning hearts and minds.

"The key drivers of militancy in the south are seen as poverty and underdevelopment," he said, adding that the Armed Forces of the Philippines, or AFP, were now concentrating on so-called civil-military operations using troops to do development work like building roads, sewer systems and clinics.

He cited the forthcoming U.S.-Filipino joint training exercise called Balikatan 2008, scheduled to start later this month, which he said would not involve any war games or conventional military exercises. "That will be exclusively civil-military operations," he said.

Human rights advocates were not impressed by the study, citing reports that the Filipino military was involved in widespread extrajudicial killings of government opponents.

"What is needed to build [the population's] confidence in the military is for people all the way up the chain of command to be prosecuted for their involvement in these killings," said Sophie Richardson, Asia program deputy director for Human Rights Watch.

She accused U.S. officials of soft-pedaling the issue of accountability for the killings and other human rights abuses.

"The United States disgracefully backed one murderous dictator" in the Philippines, she said, referring to U.S. support for anti-communist strongman Ferdinand Marcos.

"The tragedy of U.S. policy is that they cannot see that it is not inimical to their counterterrorism agenda to push for ... accountability."