- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

In peace, an ally's value is usually in its words and its diplomatic support of our goals. In wartime, words are still important, but an ally's value is measured more by deeds than by words. When we honor those who help us in this war, we should first remember the contributions of allies whose efforts have been more than simply wishing us well.

Some of our NATO allies are whining about the "unilateralist" way we are pursuing the war against terror. But he who doesn't pull a laboring oar can't demand to be consulted. The depleted state of most NATO forces results in their inability to take on major war-fighting tasks which is the real reason for their exclusion. By contrast, the Philippines is contributing significantly and isn't complaining about not being involved in President Bush's decisions or how little publicity it is getting for its efforts.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is not well known in America. She should be. Mrs. Arroyo was the first Asian leader to declare full support to the coalition we now lead, and she did this at no small risk to herself. Relations between America and the Philippines turned chilly in the early 1990s, decaying to the point that they refused to renew our leases on two strategically important bases there, the naval base at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force base. For several years, the Philippine government has been threatened by several terrorist groups, including the Abu Sayyef which, though small, is directly linked to al Qaeda. Its deceased founder had fought with the Afghan mujahideen during the Russian invasion of the 1980s.

Right after September 11, Mrs. Arroyo reopened both Clark and Subic Bay to American forces, who used them as staging areas and for trans-shipment of supplies and ordnance to Afghanistan. Now, a Philippine initiative is about to result in a multinational agreement to share intelligence information. This agreement has already benefited us, and in fact may have saved American lives. The Philippines is about to sign it, along with Indonesia and Malaysia. Thailand and Singapore will sign it soon after the original three do. It appears to be a powerful tool against terrorism.

Under the mundane title of the "Agreement on Information Exchange and Establishment of Communication Procedures," the treaty pledges its members to coordinate and collaborate in preventing and dealing with terrorism, border security incidents and transnational crimes. The signers agree to both share and protect each others' intelligence information. It lists 20 projects the nations will use to build cooperation, including establishing "hot lines," joint diplomacy to counter terrorist propaganda and joint military training to combat terrorism. It also envisions commonality of laws against these crimes.

According to Philippine Ambassador Albert del Rosario, this agreement, though not yet signed, is already being implemented. In Manila, Philippine police recently arrested a suspected Indonesian terrorist named Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi. During questioning, he revealed information about other terrorists operating in the Philippines, gathering weapons and explosives to be used to attack American naval forces using the former British base in Singapore. The others were arrested as well, and the weapons cache seized. It's a good thing they were. Mr. del Rosario also told me that the operation planned against the Singapore naval base was confirmed in al Qaeda tapes seized in Afghanistan. The Philippine arrests may well have prevented another disaster like the attack on the USS Cole.

Mrs. Arroyo is not stopping there. At the recent World Economic Conference in New York, she conferred with Jordan's King Abdullah and agreed with him that their two countries would also share anti-terrorist intelligence information. America's stock in most predominantly Islamic nations is not as high as it should be. As a third party, the Philippines can get agreements with those nations that we cannot. We should do whatever we can to encourage other nations to sign the Philippine intelligence-sharing agreement. And we must help the Philippines in other ways.

The Philippine army and air force are in combat right now against the terrorists threatening their government. The Abu Sayyef may have only about 100 fighters left, but they have made two of the Philippines' islands Jolo and Basilan into a lawless front in the anti-terror war. We now have about 160 special-forces troops there, conducting regular exercises with Philippine troops, while training them in specific anti-terror tactics and operations. Other groups, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), had been observing cease-fire terms with the government. Now, the MILF and MNLF may be breaking the cease-fire in protest against the American presence. Together, they can field more than 5,000 troops. That puts them at only about 2,500 troops less than Philippine army forces in the area.

The Philippine leader has not retreated. Monday's Manila Times reported a political storm raised by Mrs. Arroyo's remark that certain critics of the American exercises were "terrorist lovers." Backed by 80 percent support in recent polls, she sent her spokesman out to confirm what she said. "That's the bottom line, that's what the president is actually saying," the report quoted spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao. For that kind of straight talk, it's hard to believe Mrs. Arroyo was once Bill Clinton's classmate at Georgetown University. We, and the Philippines, can be grateful she learned different lessons than he did.

To the Philippines, we have been a conqueror, colonizer, liberator and many other things. Building our future with it will have to be done with great care and respect. The Philippine people should realize that we want to see them remain free and succeed economically. Their fight against the Abu Sayyef, MILF and MNLF is our fight as well. We need to help the Philippines fight this fight, and to do so in a way that their dissidents don't have reason to raise the specter of American colonialism. We must be there when they need us, just like they now are for us.

Jed Babbin is a former undersecretary of defense in the prior Bush administration.

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