Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is considering recommendations to expand and extend the U.S. anti-terrorism military operation in the southern Philippines. Policy analysts say that could put U.S. troops into combat situations and also might not significantly advance U.S. interests.
Currently, 160 U.S. military advisors are in the southern Philippines training Philippine army units assigned to track down the militant Muslim group Abu Sayyaf. Several American military commanders have recommended to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that the U.S. advisors expand their role beyond training sessions at Philippine army headquarters on Basilan Island and accompany Philippine soldiers on patrol.
Roger Cliff, a specialist on Asian defense issues at the Rand research organization, says the plan may have some benefits.
"The reason why they want to do that is so they can see how they actually operate in real life, as opposed to how they tell us they operate or claim in their own internal intelligence reporting, to be operating," he said.
Mr. Cliff points out that there is a risk that U.S. military trainers could come under fire while accompanying Philippine army patrols. But he says a bigger concern is whether the operation is worth the resources and personnel that the United States is putting into it.
The training mission in the southern Philippines is part of Washington's global anti-terrorism campaign. Some members of Abu Sayyaf are believed to have had past links with the al Qaida terrorist network, and the group has engaged in kidnappings and murders in several Muslim areas of the southern Philippines.
Roger Cliff says there is no credible evidence that Abu Sayyaf members are still connected to al Qaida. He questions how important the group is in the global war on terrorism. "They are a serious threat, but they are a very localized threat and they are not much of a threat to the United States, except to American citizens who are in the Philippines," he said.
The other issue of concern, according to Mr. Cliff, is how effective the U.S. military training is going to be in the long run.
"Because it is not clear that the training we are providing is necessarily valued by the Philippine military," he said. "They are much more interested in the equipment we can provide them than the training. And even if we spent several years beating the bushes with them, training them and so on, once we left, I am not sure how long the principles and techniques that we had imparted to them would actually be retained."
The director of national security studies at the Hudson Institute, retired General William Odom, says Secretary Rumsfeld has to make a judgement call. General Odom says it will depend on how serious he thinks the Philippines is in battling the terrorists and changing the environment that allows the terrorists to operate.
"If they want to really be successful and if they have a political program to consolidate the gains they would make by an effective operational attack on these terrorists, then I think it could be prudent for the U.S. to support it," he said. "The question has always been whether the Philippine government itself and its officials really had a program that could change the political and economic realities in various insurgent-infested parts of the Philippines, to bring law and order and proper rule to those areas."
You can go out and kill a lot of terrorists, General Odom says, but if the Philippine government does not have a long-range plan, it is like rolling a big rock up a hill and having it roll right back down. "And I do not see much advantage to the U.S. to become involved in that kind of exercise," he said.
Some analysts have noted that the Philippine military does not seem particularly vigorous in pursuing the Abu Sayyaf.
The analysts wonder whether the Philippine army may see more advantage in not being completely successful. They say once the terrorists are defeated, the United States may lose interest,and the Philippine military would lose the American training and equipment.