Defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has given the United States tremendous political momentum, which bodes well for upcoming military and diplomatic operations in the War on Terror.
However, an American public now familiar with “the Afghan example” of warfare should not expect that model to apply too rigorously in the Philippines.
As U.S. advisers deploy to the Philippines, American strategists face significantly different geographic, political, historical and cultural challenges, which will translate into a revised military approach, offering another example of why this “Millennial War” is a nuanced conflict that must adapt operations, tactics and equipment to unique local circumstances.
There are, of course, noticeable similarities. The United States is again operating with a local ally, in this case the Philippine government. U.S. Green Berets are on the ground advising Philippine forces. Intelligence systems from satellites to unmanned aircraft will probe the battle zone. Despite political protests from anti-American populists in Manila, the potent tool of U.S. airpower may well be applied. AC-130 gunships can chew up jungle hideouts as readily as Himalayan trenches.
However, the dramatic change in terrain matters. Anyone holding a bachelor’s degree in common sense can contrast tropical vegetation and hundreds of Pacific Ocean islands with bare-naked Afghan crags in the middle of Asia.
Jungle cloaks guerrillas far better than exposed mountains, even if hi-tech sensors are employed. That guerrilla advantage, however, is offset by near-complete U.S. and Philippine control of the sea (though some rebels are smugglers skilled in using small speedboats).
Unlike Afghanistan (at the far end of a fragile air supply line), the Philippines are not a logistician’s nightmare, at least if the U.S. Navy is on your side. If needed, troops and supplies can be deployed quickly and in quantity. Philippine forces, U.S. special operations troops and perhaps U.S. infantry, supported by aircraft operating from Philippine bases or on ships in nearby waters, can strike suspected terrorist targets with relative ease. The island region is, in fact, a “theme park” for amphibious warriors, like U.S. Marines.
Though the Philippines went through a “sick man” phase in the 1980s as the Marcos regime collapsed, “unstable” in Manila would be considered rock-solid in Kabul. The Philippine Army is no ragtag melange like the anti-Taliban groups. Manila’s military is very familiar with U.S. military operations, tactics and equipment.
Perhaps too familiar. Complex historical connections and frictions between the United States and the Philippines will both aid and hinder U.S. military flexibility.
While Ferdinand Marcos ran Manila, anti-Americanism increased, with the U.S. military facilities at Subic Bay and Clark Field particular burrs. When the United States withdrew in 1991, many in the Philippines wanted to make the withdrawal permanent. So the Philippine constitution says no “foreign military bases, troops or facilities” will be allowed in the country unless the government holds a national referendum. The current U.S. combat deployment is being described as “combined training,” a fiction convenient to Washington and Manila, but one that may leave President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s government politically vulnerable.
Then there’s the question of “the enemy.”
U.S. troops intend to destroy the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which is loosely allied with al Qaeda. Though Abu Sayyaf translates as “Bearer of the Sword,” just how “Islamist” ASG truly is remains up for debate. ASG is no Taliban. It controls, at most, a slice of one southern island, and behaves like a band of pirates with a knack for kidnapping and looting.
The Philippine Army, however, has other, more embedded challengers. Philippine Muslims Moros have been fighting for four centuries what they call the “Spanish Catholics.” In a struggle that has left a string of failed peace accords, The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other factions have sought 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 global terrorists.
Thus the Moro conflict, though exacerbated by Osama bin Laden-type radicals, is old and complex, and will not resolved by American firepower.
Still, taking the war to Abu Sayyaf does send an important message to Islamist radicals who threaten Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. After September 11, threatening U.S. lives exacts a stiff penalty. No matter the local difficulties and historical tangles, U.S. military, security and intelligence forces will find a way to work through those thickets. If you’re a terrorist, a Southeast Asian jungle is no safer than a Himalayan cave.
Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.