As the U.S. military mission in the southern Philippines is drawing to a close, American troops are expected soon to join Philippine soldiers in the hunt for Islamic terrorists. If approved by the Manila government, it will be a new step in the U.S. military involvement in the Philippines, which the U.S. Defense Department says will end on schedule, July 31.
Under the plan, U.S. military personnel will push through the thick rainforests of Basilan and other southern Philippine islands as they train Philippine soldiers who are trying to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf rebel group.
The militant group has been responsible for kidnapping dozens of people in recent years. U.S. defense officials say the number of Abu Sayyaf members has been dramatically reduced since the arrival of American troops in February. Estimates of the group's size range from 50 to 150.
So far, U.S. trainers have been restricted to activities at Philippine military bases. And some Philippine lawmakers are concerned that sending them on combat patrol would violate the country's constitution.
Amina Rasul-Bernardo dismisses that concern. She is a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington and served in the cabinet of former Philippine President Fidel Ramos.
"The courts of the Philippines have stated there should be no contradiction to Philippine law, as long as the U.S. troops would fire if fired upon," she said. "In other words, if it is in self-defense, then they can."
According to Ms. Rasul-Bernardo, joint patrols would give Philippine soldiers hands-on training from U.S. troops experienced in warfare with modern technology.
The director of Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation, Larry Wortzel, agrees the Philippine army will benefit. "I think it will increase the effectiveness in the near term," she said. "I think it will show a demonstration of professionalism in the near term. And it will also probably improve command and control and the coordination of intelligence assets."
For Mr. Wortzel, a possible downside of the plan is that it raises the specter of a larger American involvement, reminiscent of the long U.S. military history in the Philippines. But he said that is not the U.S. intent nor the desire of the Philippine people. Ms. Rasul-Bernardo says another possible negative outcome is that American soldiers on patrol could mistakenly become engaged in combat with the MILF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a large insurgency with as many as 50,000 fighters.
"Why is this a problem?" she asks. "The Abu Sayyaf did not have the support of the Muslim community. But the MILF, which is presenting demands representative of the desires of the Muslim community does have some support from the communities themselves. Second, the MILF right now is negotiating with the Philippine government, so actual situations of armed conflict which would involve the American troops, if they now engage the MILF, as sometimes happens by mistake, is going to complicate the situation a lot."
Larry Wortzel says if American troops get shot at, they will shoot back, adding that is the nature of combat patrols. "The value of having American troops out there, the high threat to Americans and others posed by the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, makes it important and valuable that the Americans do that. If a soldier was injured, if a soldier was killed, I don't think it's a waste of a life."
The U.S. training on patrol would only occur for the next month, because the Pentagon has decided not to extend the U.S. training mission beyond its original end-date of July 31.
Some local officials in Basilan had expressed hope the mission would be extended, because they said the American presence has helped make people feel more secure against the threat by the Abu Sayyaf.
Ms. Rasul-Bernardo says the U.S. withdrawal has likely been ordered because the main priorities have been achieved. She notes that Abu Sayyaf no longer holds the two American missionaries who had been kept hostage for the last year. A rescue attempt by Philippine soldiers freed Gracia Burnham but left her husband and a Philippine nurse dead.
The other priority, Ms. Rasul-Bernardo notes, is to weaken the links between Abu Sayyaf and the international al-Qaida terror network. She thinks that can continue without a large U.S. presence.
"We do not know the terms of the withdrawal," she said. "If it means withdrawal from Basilian and just having a smaller group interacting with the Philippine military and the Philippine government, I would suspect that that would be sufficient in order to be able to continue the gathering and the sharing of intelligence reports."
Mr. Wortzel agrees. He says the United States has now had an opportunity to assess the command and control and intelligence capabilities of the Philippine military and has apparently decided the Philippines can get the mission done without further U.S. assistance on the ground.