Local officials in the southern Philippines are hoping the United States will extend its anti-terrorism training operation there beyond the planned July 15 end-date, and U.S. and Philippine officials are discussing whether such an extension is warranted. Some observers are concerned about an expanded U.S. military role in the Philipines.
Mayors on Basilan Island want the government in Manila to ask for a six-month extension of the U.S. presence there to help the Philippine Army track down the Abu Sayyaf guerrilla group. The radical Muslim insurgents, believed to number fewer than 100, have periodically seized hostages and demanded ransom for their release. They are currently holding two American missionaries and a Philippine nurse.
As part of the global campaign against terrorism, the U.S. and Philippine governments agreed to work together against the Abu Sayyaf, which is suspected of having links to the al-Qaida terror network.
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Commander Jeff Davis says the original plan for the U.S. training program in the southern Philipine region of Mindanao included an end date of July 15, but he says that was not firm and both governments agreed to regularly review the situation. He says U.S. and Philippine officials are discussing what the next step should be, whether to end the operation in July, extend it, or even change the nature of the mission.
U.S. special forces are involved in on-the-ground operations with Philippine soldiers on Basilan island, where the Abu Sayyaf is believed to be holding the hostages. And more American troops are involved in training and intelligence gathering at the Philippine Army's southern headquarters in Zamboanga.
A former senior Philippine official, Amina Rasul-Bernardo, herself, a Muslim from Mindanao, says the U.S. military presence there benefits both countries.
"Our military and our own police forces are under-manned, under-equipped, lack the training for counter-terrorism," she said. "So, this assistance provided under the joint U.S.-R.P. military exercises is really something that works very well to address the needs of my government to improve the capacity of our military and the American government in working with an ally against global terrorism. So, it is beneficial to both parties."
Ms. Rasul-Bernardo was a member of former President Fidel Ramos' cabinet and is now a senior scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. She questions whether the U.S. operation should be extended.
"The best estimates the military is giving us is that there are 60 Abu Sayyaf troops on the loose," she said. "And you are talking about a combined force, the American trainers and the Philippine troops, there are what, about 6,000 of them that are going to be running after the Abu Sayyaf. It gives you this sense that you do not have much confidence in the capability of the joint group to really come in and eradicate the threat of the Abu Sayyaf if you are talking about extending it for six more months."
Asian security specialist Sheldon Simon, says an extension of time may be useful for the U.S. and Philippine soldiers. "If the troops can assist the Philippine government in helping to dampen down the insurgency and create a prospect for a political settlement, I would answer yes. But I think that is a very tall order," he said. "...I am not sure one can bring about stability in the southern Philippines. The issue, of course, is communal, but it is also one of very deep poverty and a great deal of corruption. And all of that is very difficult for a small number of U.S. military forces to try to resolve."
Lieutenant Commander Davis says the American forces are engaged in some infrastructure projects, such as building roads and digging wells, to assist the U.S. presence. Local Philippine officials reportedly want the operation to expand and include more develolpment projects, such as building schools and providing medical care for villagers.
Ms. Rasul-Bernardo says the U.S. presence should be confined to military anti-terror operations and leave civic activities to traditional aid donors and local civilian authorities.
"In the short term, we accept that the military intervention is necessary to address the gravity of the threat of this vicious group called the Abu Sayyaf," she said. "But in the medium to long term, what is important is really to empower the civilian authorities so that they can counter any kind of threat to national security."
Professor Simon of Arizon State University says it does not matter if civic assistance is provided by people wearing military uniforms or civilian clothing. He is more concerned that U.S. soldiers could become involved in conflicts with other Muslim groups active in the southern Philippines.
Professor Simon notes that the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the MILF, is currently engaged in negotiations with the government in Manila.
"But the negotiations have not been particuarly successful," he said. "And there are elements of the MILF and another organization known as the MNLF, the Moro National Liberation Front, which actually rules a part of Mindanao, elements of those two groups which have broken away and which, if they wanted to, could probably precipitate a conflict with U.S. forces simply by attacking them."
If that happens, Professor Simon says, the United States runs the risk of becoming more deeply involved in local Philippine politics, something that would not help Washington or Manila.