The use of “smart bombs” against the bandit group Abu Sayyaf, as claimed by four unnamed senior Philippine security officials in a report last week by The Associated Press, indicates that the United States has maintained its forward presence in the South 21 years after the Senate effectively threw out the mighty US bases in Subic (Zambales) and Clark (Pampanga). The high-precision operation on an Abu Sayyaf camp in Parang, Sulu, on Feb. 2, and which purportedly killed bandit leader Gumbahali Jumdail and a number of his fellows, was said to have employed satellite-guided bombs received from the United States under a confidential military assistance project. (Think Leonardo DiCaprio, playing CIA operative Roger Ferris in “Body of Lies,” picking out splinters of his guide’s bones from his arm weeks after the latter took the brunt of a bomb and was reduced to smithereens.) And there’s more where the sophisticated munitions came from, per a Philippine military document acquired by the AP. The additional firepower to be supplied by a US defense contractor will come with crew training, equipment upgrades to allow the Philippine military’s aging OV-10 turboprops to deploy the bombs, and two test runs, the AP report said.
Despite the four officials’ statements, albeit issued under cover of anonymity, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin skirted the AP’s questions on the bombs and only said that the technology provided by US forces had allowed the Philippine military to learn lifesaving skills and to avoid casualties usually incurred in ground assaults. Complementing his boss’ tone, Maj. Gen. Jose Villarete, commander of the 3rd Air Division based in Zamboanga City, told the Inquirer on March 22 that only “four smart pilots using old aircraft,” and not smart bombs, were used in the attack on the bandit redoubt. His denial was accompanied by a request to “please credit our Air Force.” The spokesperson of the Armed Forces, Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr., told the AP that the Philippine military “neither confirms nor denies the existence of such munitions,” as though taking a leaf from the US government’s official neither-confirm-nor-deny stance when questioned whether nuclear weapons were present in its bases, ships and planes.
What Gazmin called a “carefully planned precision attack” appears to be part of the joint training activities by which US forces are able to constantly come and go (although not, as the poet says, “talking of Michelangelo”). The annual training exercises are in themselves one of what Herbert Docena, a former researcher with Focus on the Global South, has listed as the five “components” of the new and different “base” that the United States has supposedly been building in the Philippines. The other four, according to Docena, are the establishment of the “Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines” with headquarters in Zamboanga but purportedly operating all over Mindanao; the establishment of “cooperative security locations,” which are either privately or technically owned by the host government but are made available to the US military when the need arises; the regular arrival of US military warships and their temporary but regular stationing in various ports nationwide; and the US military’s full access to Philippine airspace, airfields and ports, as well as sea lanes.
As Docena has noted, the large-scale deployment of US troops in the Philippines commenced in February 2002, the purported aim being to help search for members of the Abu Sayyaf which the US government pronounces as linked to the terrorist al-Qaida. (Indeed, some Abu Sayyaf leaders, since neutralized, carried dollar-denominated bounties on their heads, as did the two foreigners supposedly killed along with Jumdail in the Feb. 2 assault—the Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir alias Marwan and the Singaporean Muhamda Ali alias Mauwiya Anjala, both purported members of the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah.) The Americans’ continuing presence is now a foregone conclusion, President Aquino having expressed in an interview with Agence France Presse an enthusiastic although somewhat tempered welcome: “We will have more of the same… Their ships can come and … be replenished, but our Constitution will not allow any permanent berthing here in any form. There might be increases in terms of personnel, but it will have to be very clear on when they come in and go out. They cannot be here permanently.”
But no, it doesn’t look like the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement would be renegotiated soon.
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