Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The End of the Hudna

A little more on this tomorrow, but for now hat tip to reader JM, who links to an article describing the landing of large quantities of small arms by the Mindanao Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an act which may signal a resumption of hostilities against the Philippine Government. The Malaya reports that more than 1,000 rifles have been landed at two points in Mindanao (Marked in red flags on the map below. Click to expand) This may be followed by further shipments of mortars and machineguns.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation also reports that Philippine officials suspect that the truce may be over.

The Philippine Government has questioned the sincerity of the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front in pursuing the peace process. Our correspondent in the Philippine captal, Manila, Shirley Escalante, says the rebel group has allegedly received a large shipment of automatic rifles and ammunition:

The Philippine military has increased its battalions in the southern Philippines where the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is encamped. Military intelligence officials have accused the rebels of continuing to acquire weapons, and recruiting and training guerrillas, despite the peace talks. The rebels have allegedly received almost 2,000 automatic rifles and hundreds of thousands of ammunition rounds in two shipments last month.

The "peace talks" had begun with high hopes when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took the helm from disgraced President Joseph Estrada in 2001. Estrada had attempted to destroy the MILF encampments spread throughout the length of the Cotabato valley (Green flags in the map above). Arroyo reversed Estrada's policy and essentially returned those installations to the possession of the rebels.

The government would not give up any territory it had seized from the MILF in the course of the war last year, but the Arroyo administration agreed to allow Muslim residents to return to their communities inside the former MILF camps. ....."This agreement upholds the belief that areas such as Abubakar or Rajah Muda are not military camps, but sites of Muslim communities that must be accorded respect, self-reliance and dignity like any other community of citizens," Mrs. Arroyo said in a statement.

Soon it became clear that the MILF had not given up its ambitions when they turned six of their "camps" into training sites for the Jemaah Islamiyah. US Ambassador to the Philippines Francis Ricciardone warned:

... the camps, located on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, are run by the radical Islamic terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah. Speaking to reporters in Manila Tuesday, the ambassador says the situation presents a global danger. "The training that they might be doing in the southern Philippines is portable, certainly if that activity is going on then there are possibilities to further erode the peace and order situation, not only in the southern Philippines but in broader areas as well in the country and in the region," said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Karen Kelley. Experts believe JI has close ties with al-Qaida and it was responsible for the 2002 bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali, which killed 202 people.

When the Philippines arrested four Al Qaeda members who had blown up a commuter train in Manila during the Christmas holidays four years ago, the MILF was outraged and the the last shreds of the ceasefire began to fray.

The MILF has demanded the release of the four alleged terrorists presented to the President last Sunday at the Davao City airport, saying they were MILF regulars and not JI members. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), however, refuses to free the four suspects, saying it has enough evidence to pin them down. AFP vice chief Lt. Gen. Rodolfo Garcia also revealed yesterday that two of the alleged terrorists have confessed to links with the regional terror group JI. The two were among four Filipino men arrested late last week on suspicion of having organized at least two deadly bombings and of plotting more terror attacks in the southern Philippines, military officials said. Garcia said two of the men admitted during interrogation that they were connected with Taufiq Rifqi, an Indonesian arrested last year on suspicion of handling finances for JI operatives and organizing explosives training in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, in an arrangement that predated the Philippine pullout from Iraq, twenty four US personnel deployed for exercises to Central Mindanao (Helicopter symbol on the map above) in coordination with a larger naval exercise.

Known as "Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Exercise 2004," the week-long naval maneuvers are in line with the mutual defense treaty between the Philippines and the US. "CARAT aims to enhance the operational competence of Philippine Navy personnel on selected naval and marine warfare doctrines, techniques and procedures, including naval special warfare and salvage operations," a joint statement issued by the Philippine and US navies yesterday said. "The exercise will also promote friendship and strengthen the relationship between the Philippine and US Navies," it said.

Two Philippine Navy aircraft will take part in the naval exercise, along with the ships BRP Artemio Ricarte, BRP General Mariano Alvarez, BRP Lanao del Norte, BRP Hilario Ruiz and BRP Alberto Navarette. Led by Navy Capt. Buzz Little, commander of Destroyer Squadron One, the US task group will be comprised of US coast guard cutter Mellon, the docking landing ship USS Fort Mellenry, guided missile destroyers USS Russell and USS McCampbell, and rescue and salvage ship USS Salvor. The maneuvers will include actual exercises at sea involving 10 Philippine and US navy vessels, including the USS Russell and USS McCampbell. Rear Adm. Kevin Quinn, commander of the US navy’s logistic group Western Pacific, will be the overall coordinator of the CARAT operations.

The scene is now set for a possible resurgence of fighting. A glance at the map dramatically illustrates the bind that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the Philippine Government have worked themselves into. For the first time in a century, Muslim rebels have established themselves in force on the Mindanao mainland, away from their traditional strongholds of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-tawi, island groups in the southwest corner of the archipelago. They are positioned on the west side of Mindanao's breadbasket, the Cotabato valley. The MILF camps guard the the approaches to mountain massifs to the west which then give on the sea, their line of supply. They isolate the predominantly Christian Zamboanga peninsula from Northern Mindanao and essentially cut the huge island in two. The Armed Forces of the Philippines, despite a nominal strength of ten divisions, has very little combat power. A lack of logistical support and ammunition stockpiles means that (Belmont Club estimate) it can sustain offensive operations with only two battalions for a period of 12 weeks after which it simply runs out of everything. Thus, Manila has long lacked an offensive option against the MILF and has tried to compensate by "peace talks", which are another name for appeasement.

The answer to many of the Philippine Armed Force's problems is to supply sealift to allow Manila to concentrate forces from separated garrisons into the Cotabato valley. The CARAT Exercise will improve the Philippine Navy's ability to project and sustain force into places like Carmen, North Cotabato directly facing the MILF camps, thus rehearsing a response to the nightmare scenario. That consists of the MILF cutting the road up the Cotabato valley and possibly launching attacks against the larger towns in the area. By using IEDs covered by machineguns, RPGs and mortars, they can effectively cut off whole sections of the countryside. A roadbound Philippine Armed Forces, without much amphibious lift, would be hard pressed to reopen the lanes.

The strategic dilemma facing the US is how far to pick up the slack for Manila, which lives in a Byzantine dreamworld fed by the fantasies of a Leftist "intelligensia". American support enabled Manila to recover lost ground in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi but many of the gains have been thrown away by the "peace lobby" which gave the MILF space to rearm and train thousands of fighters according to the playbook developed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unless Manila reforms its Armed Forces and reorganizes it as a mobile, offensive force the Philippines faces an eventual and crushing defeat at the hands of the international Muslim militancy.