U.S. Troops in the Philippines

War on Terrorism or Retaking a Choice Outpost?

Such payoffs, if true, would not be surprising. Basilan, an island with postcard-pretty beaches that is more than twice the size of Singapore, is one of the poorest provinces in the country. It has long had a reputation as being a wooly place, where warlord politicians, missionaries, Muslim insurgents, military detachments, rubber plantation workers, illegal loggers, and civilians form a Darwinian world of sometimes interlocking, sometimes competing interests. The MNLF and MILF have camps here, which, because of the peace settlements, Philippine troops are forbidden to enter, but where the Abu Sayyaf, rather like a mischievous band of naughty boys, takes refuge whenever convenient.

The MNLF and MILF have disavowed connections with the ASG, describing it as a "lost command" group. But such a sobriquet has in the past served as camouflage for informal links between a larger, more established group with a political agenda, and a small breakaway faction not bound by any treaty. The "lost command" outfit is then free to engage in dirty tricks, acting as proxy for the larger group or groups.

While a prickly thorn in the side of the government, the Abu Sayyaf is clearly a domestic problem. However, the group serves as a Trojan horse, allowing both governments to pursue their own agendas. For the United States, helping to eliminate the ASG bolsters its claim of winning the war against terrorism. More importantly, it gives the U.S. once again a military presence, not only in its former colony but also in Southeast Asia—a regional presence that was crucial in, for instance, the Vietnam and Gulf wars. For President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, it means increased military and economic aid, to the tune of $100 million, that all but dried up once the Philippine Senate in 1991 voted against the renewal of the bases treaty, shutting down two of the largest and oldest U.S. bases outside North America: Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base. The bases represent most visibly the neocolonial status of the Philippines, and are relics of its occupation by the U.S., from 1898 to 1946.

U.S. troops arrived in the archipelago during the Spanish-American War of 1898, ostensibly to help the Philippine revolutionary government win in its struggle against Spain, but in reality to take over as the new colonial masters. Not without a fierce war, however: The 1899 Philippine-American War, a conveniently forgotten guerrilla conflict that anticipated the Vietnam War by more than half a century, lasted for a decade, and cost more lives (at least 250,000 mostly civilian dead) and more money than the three-month-long Spanish-American War. In the early years of the colonial era, the U.S. administered Mindanao as a military province. There, U.S. troops first encountered the ferocity of Muslim fighters, who would run amok through towns, attempting to slay as many Christians as possible. Legend has it that General "Blackjack" Pershing had the .45 caliber pistol devised so these fighters could be stopped in their tracks.

Complicating matters, the current U.S. presence may be a violation of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which prohibits foreign troops from fighting on Philippine soil. But the Philippine government says joint military exercises are covered by pacts between the two governments: the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty. However, Wigberto Tañada, a former senator who voted against the renewal of the bases treaty in 1991, believes the current deployment of U.S. forces goes beyond the parameters of the two agreements. Speaking on behalf of a group called Gathering for Peace, Tañada declared, "We question the necessity and wisdom of inviting foreign troops on Philippine soil to address a domestic problem. . . . We believe the failure of the government to address the problems has to do more with political will than a lack of capacity."

While Mindanao may not be the Mekong Delta or Kandahar, bringing in more men and guns in an area teeming with them is the last thing it needs. There have been reports of rising human rights violations in Mindanao— most disturbingly, on the part of the Philippine military, which has had, since the U.S.-supported dictatorship of the Marcoses, a long history of extrajudicial killings. Every time the U.S. offers to help the Philippines, it seems, something terrible happens. Echoing the question many have, Manila journalist and writer José Lacaba asks in an interview, "How many Filipino civilians are going to get killed to free two American hostages?"

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