Thursday, February 24, 2005

Short of War

The peculiar problem facing US counterterrorism efforts in Southeast Asia, according to the Congressional Research Service paper Terrorism in Southeast Asia is that it cannot do so directly without offending regional political sensitivities. Thus the US has been forced to work through host governments even when the hosts are corrupt and inefficient. In the Philippines, for example, a constitutional provision prohibiting the presence of foreign combat troops has severely limited US ability to provide support for the Philippine military.

In consideration of the Filipino Constitution’s ban on foreign combat troops operating inside the country, Washington and Manila negotiated special rules of engagement ... U.S. Special Forces personnel took direction from Filipino commanders and could use force only to defend themselves.

The main focus of counterterrorism efforts has been the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group. But not only were US efforts to attack them directly hamstrung by the constitutional provision, but their key military allies were declared 'off limits' by Manila for political reasons. Two of the older-line Muslim insurgents groups, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), had long been the object of 'peace-making' efforts by left leaning groups in the Philippines. These groups have since loosely cooperated with the Abu Sayyaf and have provided them with sanctuary by merely rebranding them as their own personnel, placing them under the protection of the 'peace agreements'.

The U.S. focus on Abu Sayyaf is complicated by the broader Muslim issue in the southern Philippines, including the existence of two much larger groups, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Both groups have been in insurrection against the Philippine government for much of the last 30 years. The MILF, with an estimated armed strength of 10,000, has emerged as the larger of the two groups. Its main political objective has been separation and independence for the Muslim region of the southern Philippines. Evidence, including the testimonies of captured Jemaah Islamiyah leaders, has pointed to strong links between the MILF and JI, including the continued training of JI terrorists in MILF camps.... The MILF has had tenuous cease-fire agreements with the Philippine government. ... However, there continues to be evidence that the MILF provides training facilities to JI.

Nevertheless, US trainers managed to produce a force of 16 light infantry companies which could be deployed in an offensive capacity against the terrorists. It is worth noting that although the Philippine Army has nearly as many divisions as the US Army only the merest fraction of Manila's forces are available for offensive, the great bulk being passively scattered in garrisons and camps throughout the archipelago. In an earlier post, I had informally estimated that the Philippine Armed Forces could field approximately one brigade for two months without running out of ammunition, money and steam. Philippine government 'all out-war' campaigns have historically been limited to these parameters. In a sense, Manila must negotiate with the Muslim rebels because it has not had a military victory option available for the last forty years. While the Muslim insurgency was limited in scope that fact did not matter. Now that the insurgents have been souped up by Al Qaeda they may now pose an existential threat to Manila. The availability of 16 additional companies and US logistical, intelligence and fire support would have been transformative. But the capability can't be used, again due to leftist-inspired constitutional provisions.

The United States and the Philippines have attempted to negotiate a second phase of U.S. training and support of the AFP since late 2002. The negotiations have experienced difficulties in determining the “rules of engagement” for U.S. personnel and the terminology to be used in describing Philippine-U.S. cooperation. The basic issue has been whether any facets of the U.S. role could be considered a combat role. The two sides initially announced that U.S. training of AFP light reaction companies would take place in northern Luzon and again on Mindanao. The objective was to train 16 light infantry companies by the end of 2003 for use against both Muslim insurgents and the NPA. ...

In February 2003, Pentagon officials described a plan under which the United States would commit 350 Special Operations Forces to Jolo to operate with Filipino Army and Marine units down to the platoon level of 20-30 troops. Another 400 support troops would be at Zamboanga on the Mindanao mainland. Positioned offshore of Jolo would be a navy task force of 1,000 U.S. Marines and 1,300 Navy personnel equipped with Cobra attack helicopters and Harrier jets. ...

This and subsequent statements indicated that the Special Operations Forces on Jolo would participate in AFP offensive operations against Abu Sayyaf and that the Special Operations Forces would not be limited to using their weapons for selfdefense. The U.S. Marines were described as a “quick reaction” force, undoubtedly meaning that they could be sent on to Jolo to reinforce AFP units. The Cobra helicopters and Harrier jets would give AFP commanders the option of requesting U.S. air strikes in support of AFP operations or transporting Filipino troops on U.S. helicopters. ...

President Arroyo and AFP commanders reportedly had agreed to the plan for a second phase of U.S.-Philippine joint military activity in a meeting on February 4, 2003. The announcement of the plan caused immediate controversy in the Philippines. Filipino politicians and media organs criticized the plan as violating the constitutional prohibition of foreign troops engaging in combat on Philippine soil. Filipino Muslim leaders warned of a Muslim backlash on Mindanao.

American support would provide what would be a two-brigade Philippine force with exactly the complementary capabilities they would need: mobility, communications, combat logistics and fire support. They could actually pursue the enemy with greater agressiveness and confidence, in the assurance that US firepower could extract them from any tactically disadvantageous position. But military strategy must in this case, be subordinate to political feasibility. Recent attacks by the Abu Sayyaf on the Philippine capital itself may eventually start to turn the political tide as it becomes evident that the Philippines is already flooded with foreign combat troops -- supplied by the JI and Al Qaeda -- and that American support is actually required to repel an invasion. But things will probably have to get worse before the tipping point is reached.