Let go, America
The United States’ dragging counterterrorism operations are turning southern Philippines into another Afghanistan. With US federal agents reportedly on top of the Jan. 25 operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, the bloodbath will worsen armed feuds involving rebel groups, extremists and government forces. The backlash spawned by the killing of 44 Special Action Force commandos has stalled the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, as some legislators threatened to put the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law through the wringer.
In the south, US special operations forces and federal agents remain dug in 13 years after it was declared by George Bush as America’s second front in the global war on terror. While worldwide the war has further inflamed “transnational terrorism”—with regime instabilities in Iraq and raging insurgencies in Afghanistan and elsewhere—in Mindanao terrorist groups have not been crippled, and new Isis-inspired bands are fast emerging. Because the aim of US counterterrorism has nothing to do with conflict resolution or peace efforts in the south, its operations continue to exacerbate an already fragile situation.
US operations in the south date back to 2002 when US troops began hunting down “international terrorists” linked to al-Qaida, particularly the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. With the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement in place, “international terrorism” justified America’s borderless and preemptive war, bringing in thousands of soldiers for military exercises and special operations. US security aid welded a high-level partnership between the Philippines’ Anti-Terrorism Council, police and military, and defense, foreign affairs and justice departments on one hand, and America’s Pentagon, State Department, Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Pacific Command, USAID, and arms and construction companies on the other.
The second front thus served to protect US global military power from various extremist forces worldwide, as well as emerging powers in Asia.
As US boots on the ground engaged suspected terrorists, their operations blending intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance with psywar and combat, an opportunity opened that would support US geopolitical objectives in the region. Badly hurt by the government’s “total war” offensives, the MILF in 2007 dropped separatism for a negotiated political settlement leading to an autonomous state. America, which had backed the discredited Arroyo regime, dangled development aid to the MILF and proposed an autonomous substate. The MILF was then removed from the US State Department’s list of terrorist groups.
After talks with US officials, MILF leaders agreed to demilitarize into a political party and to later strike a deal on a future US military base in Sulu to enhance power projection in the Moro-populated Sulu/Sulawesi Seas Littoral of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The anticipation was that once peace settled in the conflict-ridden region, “terrorist groups” would lose a sanctuary in Moro communities, leading to their demise.
America’s strategy on “terrorists” and its counterinsurgency track with the MILF through aid projects under an exit deal forged with the Philippine government shows its deep role in the south. None is more incontrovertible than in the US operatives’ hand in targeting “international terrorists” Manwar and Usman. Both the US operatives and Malacañang feared that informing the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group, which coordinates anticrime actions, would compromise Oplan Exodus. They bungled it just the same by executing the high-risk mission in extremely hostile territory—the turf of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and MILF rebels.
Pinning the blame on President Aquino for command responsibility of Mamasapano is not enough. Reports show that he gave it up in allowing foreign agents to turn the operation into an entrapment. The operation not only evaded ceasefire mechanisms but also undermined a delicate peace process. The single incident opened a wound between the police and military, affirmed public perceptions of executive incompetence, and derailed the peace process. And it is now being used for a power grab by forces linked to past regimes.
Hard and soft powers may have given the United States the upper hand in the “counterterrorism” campaign and in encouraging the MILF to negotiate in exchange for US geopolitical and military objectives. Mindanao remains a vital cog in the superpower’s global security strategy, as a lab for testing counterinsurgency models and arms technology (such as the spy drones for use in Iraq, Afghanistan and other warfronts). The price of this intervention and a century of US military presence, however, is a local armed force forever tied to foreign aid, training and technology, with a capability so primitive that it would take a VFA and, now, an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, to deter external threats.
Of course, despite the overarching implications, the US role in counterterrorism cum counterinsurgency must be defended by Philippine authorities. Subservience makes one blind and deaf to the fact that a defense partnership cannot be a response to a region boiling in the cauldron of weak governance, feudal dynasties and endemic poverty that fuel armed conflicts and harbor anti-US extremism. Without massive social change, any final peace agreement forged with the MILF will not prevent new rebel groups from emerging, as proven in the long Moro struggle for self-determination.
Bobby M. Tuazon ([email protected]) is policy director of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance and a former head of the University of the Philippines Manila’s political science program.
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