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Terror renews old bond

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Manila has become a key ally in the U.S. war on terrorism, and the military relationship has blossomed once again, after a long, cool stretch. By Kari Huus.
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In mid-October, while the war raged in Afghanistan, about 200 U.S. Army and Air Force special operations forces quietly landed in the Philippines for training. Not long after, a group of U.S. military advisors visited the southern Philippines to assess insurgencies there with connections to the al-Qaida network of Osama bin Laden. The U.S.-Philippine friendship, which went through a long, chilly stretch during the 1990s, is now very much on the mend.

For decades, American military bases in the Philippines — Clark Air Force Base and a navy base at Subic Bay — anchored U.S. power in the Asia Pacific region. But after the return of democracy in the country in the mid-1980s, popular anger against the long-time colonizer gained momentum. By 1992, the United States was on notice that its troops were no longer welcomed, and the Americans who once ruled the islands unceremoniously withdrew.

Though the Philippines remained a political ally of the United States, the military relationship was put on the back burner, at a simmer. A dispute in 1997 between China and the Philippines over ownership of a small reef caused Philippine military men to rethink the cold shoulder they had given the U.S. since the withdrawal. But it wasn’t until the advent of the war on terrorism that the relationship really grew warm again.

Gleaning information
From Washington’s point of view, the priority in the Philippines is a group known as Abu Sayyaf, one of several Islamic guerrilla movements still fighting Manila’s control in some of the country’s southern islands. Both Manila and Washington view Abu Sayyaf, which means “bearer of the sword,” as a way station for al-Qaida members. The group was founded by Jamal Khalifa, allegedly a former lieutenant of bin Laden. It is now run by Abdurajak Janjalani, a Filipino who reportedly fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Abu Sayyaf is famous for repeated kidnappings, including a dramatic round-up of 23 tourists from a nearby Malaysian diving resort last year. Among those now being held are two American missionaries. The group has plowed earnings from previous kidnappings - at least $20 million last year - into new weaponry and vehicles. Grisly tales emerge as hostages have been taken - some of them beheaded.

With each kidnapping, the group’s ransom demands include creation of an autonomous Islamic state in the south of the Philippines, and the release of various al-Qaida members, including Ramzi Yousef, who orchestrated the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Generally, however, the group usually settles for money. Ramzi Yousef, perhaps the most important bin Laden associate now in U.S. custody, was arrested after Philippine police found evidence of a plot to kill Pope John Paul II during a visit to the country in 1995. Their 1995 interrogation of suspected assassin, a militant named Abdul Hakim Murad, also revealed a much larger plot code-named “Bojinka” — a plot involving the bombings of 11 American jumbo jets above the Pacific that was foiled by Yousef’s arrest and subsequent agreement to cooperate with the FBI.

New level of cooperation
Freshly-minted anti-terrorism and anti-money laundering legislation has only increased the flow of information between the U.S. and the Philippines since Sept. 11.

“The new laws that have been passed have greatly improved our ability to fight terrorism,” says Dan Dzwilewski, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Honolulu Field office, which covers the region. The FBI is actively investigating “several” cases in the Philippines, he says, but declined to give details.

In addition to its investigations, the FBI is planning to establish an “immigration academy” at the former Clark Air Force Base — now a special economic zone — to train immigration and intelligence personnel, offering special courses to travel agencies on screening “undesirable aliens.”

A close relationship with the Philippines could also help close off opportunities for terrorists around the region, as Manila is leading an effort to join forces with neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia. “We can use cooperation of Philippine military to watch what is going on in the region,” said Dillon of Heritage Foundation. Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population is trying to grapple with an array of separatist and militant Islamic groups. The Philippines is about 85 percent Christian and 15 percent Muslim.

As for the forces that arrived in the Philippines in mid-October, the United States Defense Dept. confirmed their arrival, but said they were part of a long-planned training mission, unrelated to the groups holding hostages in the south.

Manila steps up
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wasted no time after Sept. 11 rebuilding bridges to America, and she was among the first foreign leaders to pledge virtually unqualified support for an American military campaign in Afghanistan.

With the wave of a hand, she gave the United States military authorization to use its former bases for refueling aircraft and ships on the way to Central Asia, and for staging troop movements to the region.

In mid-November, Arroyo traveled to Washington and returned to Manila with a ten-fold increase in U.S. military assistance. This year and next, the country will receive $100 million in equipment and training — as well as several billion dollars worth of trade, debt relief and other economic aid.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations says a new anti-terror law in the Philippines allows it to more easily track suspects from its office in Manila. American military advisors have been to the south of the country to help Philippine military units deal with insurgencies.

“If we had tried to do these things before Sept. 11, they never would have happened,” says Dana Dillon, senior policy advisor at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, referring to the sweeping cooperation. The change is dramatic, and he believes it could be long-lasting. “We’ll be like allies in the NATO sense of the word instead of like colonial master and colonial subject.”

Of course, the military relationship never had disappeared entirely. Allies in the Asian Pacific region see the U.S. as a counterbalance to China as it gains strength, but political sensitivities kept it in check.

Several years after the base removal, Manila and Washington began negotiating a deal to accommodate joint military exercises. Those talks, resulting in the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), took more than a year and carefully circumscribed the leeway of American military on Philippines soil.

The last two months represent a sea change. “Sept. 11 was really an opportunity for warmer Philippines-U.S. relations after the removal of the bases in 1992,” says columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer Amando Doranilo. He says that “it altered the perspective entirely,” on the treaties that have defined the relationship — not just the VFA, but also the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951.

“I think the way in which (the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty) is being implemented will change dramatically because of this new source of threat,” said Adm. Dennis Blair in early November, after meetings with the Philippine military.

Shopping for weapons
The cooperation serves both governments’ short-term interests. The Philippines needs help controlling mainly Muslim insurgent groups in the south of the country, including Abu Sayyaf. The war on terrorism was an opportunity to ask for some help. In meetings that preceded Arroyo’s trip to Nov. 20 meeting with Bush in Washington, Philippine Defense Minister Angelo Reyes visited the United States with a shopping list to enhance the effort, requesting including C-130 transport planes, artillery, large trucks, night vision equipment, helicopters, rigid-body inflatable motorboats, thermal imagers, ground surveillance radar and amphibious vehicles.

The U.S.-Philippine joint declaration issued by Arroyo and Bush stipulated ample military financing and aid to cover much of the request, but did not detail how it would be spent.

Suspicions linger
Despite the sympathy for the American cause in the Philippines and the new energy it has brought to the U.S.-Philippine relationship, Arroyo’s decisions carry the risk of backlash.

In the Philippines press, reports on the U.S. troops speculate about the secrecy of the mission. And more skeptical voices openly questioned whether the military assistance would be confined to containing Abu Sayyaf, or serve to put down other more mainstream Muslim groups.

Next, Washington and Manila will unveil a new “Mutual Logistics Support Agreement” detailing changes in how a 50-year old mutual defense pact will be implemented.

Though the details are still unknown, nationalists are crying foul. The nationalist writes that Arroyo has made a “secret basing deal with Bush,” that would basically restore the extraterritorial rights that American forces enjoyed before the bases were closed.

The publication also alleges that U.S. military advisers sent to assess the situation in the south were CIA agents who had “received blanket authority from Bush to assassinate ‘suspected terrorist leaders.’”

Some argued that if the Americans were allowed to construct facilities, even temporary ones, on the former bases they would be violating the constitution.

That may not be the view of most Filipinos, but it is a reminder of the sensitivities that lurk beneath the surface in ties with Manila.

“So long as the issue sticks on terrorism, the relationship will hold,” says Doranila. “But if it is another form of security problem, the Filipinos would react to that.”

Until the details come out it will be impossible to assess the trade-off. For now, he says, “it is important to consider that in geopolitics, there’s no such thing as a free meal.” That lesson will hold true for the United States as well.