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A failed state

/ 08:45 PM October 23, 2011

When Vice President George H.W. Bush was running for the US presidency in 1988, one question being asked about him was whether he was tough enough for the job. Perhaps this doubt partially stemmed from the fact that in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was looking around for a running mate, he was reported to have expressed the view that Bush lacked “spunk.” During the election campaign, Newsweek magazine had Bush in a cover story and much of it dwelt on the “wimp” issue.

In December 1989, President Bush ordered the invasion of Panama. Operation “Just Cause” would last for only a few days and in less than two weeks, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, head of the Panama Defense Forces (PDF) and the real ruler of the country, would be persuaded by the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Sebastian Laboa to surrender. Incidentally, Noriega had been on the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency payrolls for almost 25 years, and was said to be a conduit for the transfer of arms to the Nicaraguan Contras during the Reagan years. (Powell, Colin, “My American Journey”)

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As we all know, in the real world, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. And as far as the United States was concerned, it was time to change horses.  Let us not get into the reasons for “Just Cause,” but it did help to burnish Bush’s image as a strong leader.

Two years later, in January 1991, the first Gulf War started under the code name “Desert Storm.”  The main objective was to liberate Kuwait from the occupying Iraqi forces of President Saddam Hussein. In less than two months, coalition forces drove Iraqi units from Kuwait but stopped short of moving on to Baghdad and deposing the Hussein regime. This was no Panama exercise, and it showed that Bush was not a wimp.

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But the pain of being labeled a wimp was still there. According to an article written by Norman Solomon, Bush commented in June 1991, several months after Desert Storm ended, “you’re talking to the wimp . . . the guy that had a cover of a national magazine,  that I’ll never forgive, put that label on me.”

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In condoling with the families and relatives of the soldiers who were killed by MILF rebels in Basilan last week, President Aquino vowed to “hunt down those responsible and give justice to the victims.”

But before we can start hunting them down, we must first do a few things:

We must ask permission from the MILF to pass through MILF-controlled territories.

If permission is granted, we must coordinate properly with their units to prevent mistaken encounters with so-called rogue elements of the MILF.

If permission is denied, we then complain to the International Monitoring Team (IMT) that will refer matters to various ceasefire committees established by an on-going “peace process.” Among these groups are the (1) Joint Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (JCCCH) to ensure successful implementation of ceasefire agreements; and the (2) Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) which serves to coordinate interdiction and isolation of lawless elements in MILF communities.

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These bodies will look into the incident and pending results of their investigation, we must exercise restraint and not do anything that might disturb the “peace process.”

In neighboring countries, if anything like the Basilan incident took place, the armed forces would immediately be called into action and a bloody affair would ensue. No one would accuse their leaders of inaction.

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Speaking of so-called MILF-controlled territories, I am reminded of some notes from Wikipedia on the term “failed state.” A state remains strong if it maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders. When this is broken by the presence of militias or terrorists, the existence of the state becomes dubious and is in danger of becoming a failed state. One definition of a failed state is a weakened position in which the central government has little practical control over portions of its territory. That is the situation that still exists in several places in Mindanao.

The issue of MILF-controlled areas within Philippine territory must once and for all be settled. Why should the Philippine government recognize MILF control and jurisdiction over certain portions of the national territory? One reason being given for the MILF attack on the Scout Rangers is that our troops entered “MILF territory” without proper coordination. Since when did the AFP have to coordinate with an illegal group in order to operate in the country?

We should remember the lesson of Camp Abubakar located in Maguindanao. For years, because of the desire to keep the MILF rebels at the peace table, the national leadership allowed them to maintain Camp Abubakar as an exclusive enclave for their forces. The camp was virtually untouchable, with heavily-armed checkpoints controlling entry to and exit from Abubakar. It was off-limits to Philippine officialdom, both military and civilian.

When we allowed the MILF to run Abubakar, it was taken as a sign of weakness, as an indication that we were soft and would accept any arrangement for the sake of peace. In response the MILF moved to strengthen its position while making a mockery of the peace process.

One of the sensible developments during Joseph Estrada’s presidency was his order to re-occupy and dismantle Camp Abubakar, and restore government control over the area.

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Just a brief reminder.  In July 2007, in the same area where the recent massacre took place, 12 marines were killed in an ambush, and some of them were tortured and beheaded. Several ultimatums were issued calling for the surrender of the perpetrators. This was accompanied by highly publicized movements of troops, including elements of the Presidential Security Group. The deadlines passed and we were treated to the site of PNP officers trying to serve arrest warrants in a ghost village that obviously had been vacated earlier by the inhabitants. Nothing happened.

Perhaps one of the first objectives of the Armed Forces is to establish firm control over the Al-Barka area in Basilan. If this is not possible, then we are on our way to becoming a failed state.

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