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Elephants at war

First Posted 01:27:00 10/19/2007

Filed Under: Defense, Air Transport, Diplomacy

MANILA, Philippines -- The international airport in General Santos City, completed in 1998, was built with US aid -- altogether, about $50 million worth of official, forward-looking charity. The airport is designed to accommodate the world?s biggest and heaviest airplanes, and much more traffic than it actually bears. In the decade since it opened for business, the massive but underused facility has prompted many to ask: Is the airport, in fact, a white elephant?

Wrong image. As a recent report by Focus on the Global South serialized in the Inquirer reminds us, the question all this time should have been: Is the airport a sign that the elephant is back in the room?

Often, the uses and advantages of the General Santos airport are discussed through the prism of business, such as the prospects of tourism or the requirements of domestic travel. The report, however, details the new US policy on maintaining a global military presence -- thus restoring the proper context for discussing the airport?s true uses and advantages: American military presence in the Philippines.

The facility has the look and heft of a military base because, in a crisis, the US military can turn it into one. (The airport is connected to a deep-water port by a robust road system, both built, like the airport itself, through official development assistance.)

By redefining the meaning of a military base, and by rethinking its requirements for maintaining a global military posture, the United States has employed a new strategy that is not only cost-effective but also host-friendly. In countries like the Philippines, where resistance to foreign military presence or new military bases begins with provisions in the fundamental law, the new US strategy allows the Pentagon, in cooperation with a willing host government, to avoid constitutional stumbling blocks.

The report quotes a US Navy admiral as saying: ?We don?t want to be stepping all over our host nations. We want to exist in a very non-intrusive way.?

The report details how the US military inserts itself into a host nation in a very non-intrusive way. ?First, the United States has stepped up deploying troops, ships, and equipment to the country ostensibly for training exercises, humanitarian and engineering projects, and other missions.?

In 2006, under the aegis of the Visiting Forces Agreement, some 37 exercises were scheduled. This is up at least threefold from the average of 10 to 12 that the Department of Foreign Affairs reported on its website.

The ?repeated and regular? schedule of exercises allows the United States to gain what the chief of the US Pacific Command described as the prize as far back as 2003: ?Access over time can develop into habitual use of certain facilities by deployed US forces with the eventual goal of being guaranteed use in a crisis, or permission to pre-position logistics stocks and other critical material in strategic forward locations.?

To be sure, no one in the US military would identify the Philippines as a strategic forward location, at least not officially and not to Philippine media. But as another report by Focus on the Global South reveals, internal documents or studies and journals circulated within the US military candidly and explicitly characterize the mission of US forces visiting the Philippines as ?conducting unconventional warfare.?

The second mode of non-intrusive insertion is obliging the host nation ?to provide it with a broad range of services that would enable it to launch and sustain operations from the Philippines when necessary.?

The third way is establishing a new kind of facility called Cooperative Security Locations (CSLs). ?In August 2005 the official commission tasked with reviewing US basing, categorically identified the Philippines as one of the countries where CSLs were being developed by the United States in the region,? the report said.

Lastly: stationing a US military unit in the country indefinitely -- exactly like the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, based these last six years in Zamboanga City.

These four modes may be non-intrusive, but together they undermine the Constitution itself. Constitutional resistance to foreign military presence, however, is not an outright ban; allowing foreign troops into the country is politically difficult, but not impossible. If the Arroyo administration believes a semi-permanent presence of US forces is in the nation?s best interests, why not bring everything out into the open?

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