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Analysts Debate Impact of Iraq War on SE Asia - 2003-07-17


More than three months after the end of major combat in Iraq, U.S. scholars and military experts are analyzing what impact that war had on Southeast Asia. One result is likely to be an increase in U.S. military presence in the region.

National War College Professor Marvin Ott says U.S. interest in Southeast Asia is once again on the rise, after decades of what he describes as post-Vietnam War neglect.

"In 1975, we decided that Southeast Asia had no strategic significance whatsoever, and treated it as such for most of the next 25 years," he said. "One of the interesting consequences of 9-11, from the point of view of someone who follows this part of the world, is the sort of rediscovery of Southeast Asia as a strategic environment of consequence, and this time, in the context of the global war on terror."

The region has a large Muslim population. Lyall Breckon, at the U.S.-funded Center for Naval Analysis, says the majority of Southeast Asian Muslims are moderate and have accepted the authority of a secular state. But he adds that the seeds of extremism came in recent decades from the Middle East.

"The ground on which these seeds fell in Southeast Asia varied substantially, from the world's largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, to smaller Muslim outposts in several nations, with histories of perceived injustice at the hands of non-Muslim majorities," he said.

Mr. Breckon adds that along with extremism, Southeast Asia proved to be a fertile recruiting ground for the al-Qaida terrorist network.

"Al-Qaida agents had some success in the 1980s and 1990s, in exploiting this environment," he said. "Apart from top leaders of al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiya organizations, the latter being al-Qaida's franchise, so to speak, in Southeast Asia, the terrorist agents or operatives who has been arrested or surfaced in the past two-and-a-half few years appear to be motivated less by idealogy than by passionate resentment and anger."

Mr. Breckon says the quick and decisive Iraq war demonstrated U.S. determination to go after regimes Washington believes support terrorism. But he adds that a long, drawn-out aftermath could increase resentment in Southeast Asia, especially among Muslim extremists.

"Radical media will continue to display this as a U.S. attack on Islam generally," he said. "It will continue to portray this as evidence of a conspiracy among Washington, Israel and the West to keep Indonesia down, to keep Southeast Asian Muslims down, to seek unilateral advantage, to control Iraqi oil, etc. If the occupation of Iraq helps propagate these arguments, I would argue it would make it harder for moderate, secular-minded Muslims to prevail over the extreme fringe."

Meanwhile, according to Angel Rabasa, a senior policy analyst at RAND Corporation, the U.S.-led war on Iraq provided some Southeast Asian governments with a military example of how to deal with their own conflicts at home.

"The experience of Iraq probably factored into the decisions of the governments of the Philippines and Indonesia to pursue more aggressive military campaigns against secessionists in Mindanao and Aceh," he said.

Admiral Dennis Blair is a senior fellow at the U.S. government-funded Institute for Defense Analysis. From 1999 to 2002, he served as Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command. Admiral Blair says plans are now being drawn up for new patterns of U.S. force deployment around the world, including in Asia. "When the dust settles, there will be more U.S. air and naval power in eastern Asia than there has been in recent years," he said. "Therefore, more U.S. and naval forces will be familiar with the contingency plans, the geography, potential adversaries, partners in the region, and that's very important in terms of actual combat effectiveness. And I believe that this increased level of ready U.S. combat power will enhance already strong deterrents in the region against aggression."

Admiral Blair predicts that future U.S. military operations in Southeast Asia will not follow the previous model which had called for more permanent bases in places like Okinawa, Japan and in South Korea.

"A flexible network of arrangements is really preferable to fixed bases, such as those that we have in Northeast Asia," he said. "They [flexible bases] provide all the access and support needed for these kind of operations, and they don't incur the costs and liabilities of major fixed bases."

Possible alterations in the U.S. security presence in Asia mirror similar changes projected for other parts of the globe. The Washington Post last month reported that American military planners are working on "the most extensive global realignment" of U.S. troops overseas since the Cold War. The ambitious project aims to replace many of America's permanent bases with dozens of smaller, more flexible ones, for quick strikes around the world.

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