Many people argue against taking a constitutional and principled approach to the problem of the Abu Sayyaf because we need to be practical and realistic. They justify accepting American military assistance to crush this terrorist group on this basis. Is this a practical and realistic option? I submit that it is not.
After nine months of trying to rescue the hostages, the military has only shown that their approach does not work. If the objective is simply to free the remaining three hostages (two Americans and one Filipino) unharmed, then the most practical solution might be to pay the ransom being demanded by the Abu Sayyaf and to go after them once they release their hostages.
Paying ransom of course may save the hostages but it does not end the problem. In the case of the Sipadan hostages, the ransom money only allowed the Abu Sayyaf to buy more weapons and equipment and recruit more members. Why the military could not capture the key leaders of the Abu Sayyaf after the hostages were freed remains a mystery to this day. But here, precisely, we need to examine the motivational factors that compromise the integrity of military operations, and to review the efficacy of the military approach itself in trying to solve a problem with a long history and a complex socio-political component.
Is the military approach not working because some military officials are in cahoots with the kidnappers, or is it because our soldiers are under-equipped and under-trained? It may be both, but it may also be because of the inherent limits of a military solution when applied to what is basically a social problem. Yet even before we have figured out what the problem is, we have brought in US troops to participate in the hunt on the premise that the Abu Sayyaf is part of al-Qaeda. The costs of this joint military effort will far outweigh the ransom that is being demanded and we are not even sure that the hostages will come out of this alive.
Armed individuals and “lost commands”, fragments of revolutionary and vigilante formations, are common in the contested areas of Mindanao. Kinship, ethno-linguistic, and religious ties bind their members to the local communities, thus rendering them invisible. It is extremely difficult to differentiate bandits from ordinary residents, and even more from cadres of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front with whom the government is talking peace.
There is no clean, surgical, overnight approach to such a situation. A military approach will draw the government into a prolonged lowintensity and dirty war that will only destroy communities and drive people into an even more wretched existence as refugees. Bringing US troops into this situation raises the conflict to a higher level and provides reasons for other foreign nations and groups that do not like America to come to the aid of bandits styling themselves as rebels.
If it is training we want from the US, the recently concluded joint exercises in a camp in Central Luzon show that this can be done without involving US troops in a local war. If it is equipment we desire, we do not need an actual combat situation to demonstrate the use of such equipment. If the problem is the virus of corruption within our military, no foreign forces will be able to get rid of this for us.
So why are the US Special Forces here? No one has told the Filipino nation the full story. On her visit to the US last year, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo politely declined President Bush’s offer of US troops to deal with the Abu Sayyaf. Then after a team of US military advisers visited Mindanao, she suddenly announced that the next round of Balikatan exercises would be held in Basilan. The decision was so abrupt that our officials could not decide which document to invoke as legal cover for this unusual visit of US troops to Mindanao — the Visiting Forces Agreement or the Mutual Defense Treaty. They could not say if this was a joint training or a joint war.
The message was less hazy abroad: Basilan was the next theater of the global war against terrorism. Media networks quickly redeployed their war correspondents from Afghanistan to Basilan. They came for the war they were instructed to cover and could not find it. One American correspondent dryly concluded that the US had been “conned” into fighting a group of local bandits.
Even the US forces themselves seem to be operating with an exaggerated view of the situation they are in. When they showed up with high-powered weapons and stood guard in front of a small bank in Zamboanga City while one of them was converting foreign currency inside, we knew at once they had been fed a portrait of Mindanao as another Afghanistan.
It is not difficult to tell who is doing the conning and who is being conned here. The American people may have been conned into believing that the evil al-Qaeda is operating from Basilan. But it is doubtful that Bush and the Pentagon do not know what the real score is. If the Abu Sayyaf did not exist, they would probably invent it just to validate their vision of the world after Sept. 11. The Filipino public may have been conned into accepting the offer of American help in Mindanao as a quick solution to the Abu Sayyaf, but it is hard to believe that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is entirely clueless about larger US intentions.
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