Americans don't fare well in the historic memory of residents of the Sulu Archipelago, a Muslim-dominated group of islands in the far southwestern Philippines. In one 1906 incident, U.S. troops under the command of Gen. Leonard Wood killed more than 1,000 ethnic Tausugs, leaving a bitter animosity that survives to this day. "It is a scar left by the Americans that cannot be healed," Gerry Salapuddin, the Philippine House of Representatives' deputy speaker for Mindanao, a group of islands in the southern part of the country that encompasses Sulu, recently told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. "We do not want to repeat the mistakes of history."
Repeating the mistakes of history pretty well captures what the U.S. and Philippine governments appear ready to do in the Sulu and other parts of the Mindanao region. With little debate and even less sense, the Bush administration is poised to rush U.S. troops into a politically and militarily dangerous conflict. With public attention focused on Iraq and North Korea, the Pentagon has been quietly preparing to play an increased role in the southern Philippines, where a U.S.-allied government has been battling a variety of Islamic groups -- terrorists, bandits and more legitimate separatist movements -- and left-wing rebels since the early 1970s. Last week, with little fanfare or advance warning, defense officials told reporters that 1,750 troops, including 350 Green Berets and other elite forces, would land in Mindanao and on nearby islands on a training and combat mission. If the mission takes place as the United States plans, several hundred of these troops will fight alongside members of the Philippine military against Abu Sayyaf, a small band of Muslim bandits notorious for kidnapping and murdering Filipinos and foreigners, including Americans, who live in or stumble into their area of operation.
The exact nature of the operation remains murky. While the Pentagon says U.S. forces will be involved in combat, Manila is hesitant to publicly commit to such a plan -- which is not at all surprising. Last year, when several hundred U.S. troops went to Mindanao on a training mission, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo faced a political crisis. There were the expected street demonstrations -- the Philippines has a sizable left-wing movement that has been railing against "U.S. imperialism" and a succession of "U.S.-fill-in-the-Philippine-president's-name dictatorships" for decades -- and grumbling from opposition politicians (some heartfelt, others opportunistic). But the real crisis, however short lived, took place in Malacañang (the Philippine White House), and ended only when Vice President Teofisto Guingona, a social-democratic warhorse, stepped down as foreign secretary after protesting the operation. This time Guingona and other prominent political leaders are calling a U.S. combat mission unconstitutional.
That an elevated U.S. role might well create a political and even constitutional crisis for an ally in an always-shaky democracy is just one reason the operation makes little sense. There are big military questions as well. Abu Sayyaf is a tiny force. Estimates of its current size range from 250 to 500 members under arms. Even at that size, Abu Sayyaf is a military and police problem for the Philippines. Whether it has connections to al-Qaeda or not -- the United States has alleged but not demonstrated that Abu Sayyaf is part of an al-Qaeda network in Southeast Asia -- the organization is bad news. Its campaign of kidnapping and murder -- typically of Filipino Christians but also of foreigners, including at least four U.S. citizens (two died, two were rescued) -- has contributed greatly to instability in parts of Mindanao and the climate of fear that exists in the southern Philippines. And Abu Sayyaf apparently has connections to a 1,000-member-plus faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Nevertheless, a convincing case for direct U.S. military engagement with Abu Sayyaf has not been made: The organization is tiny, geographically isolated and does not pose a security threat to the United States or a real political threat to the Philippine government.
One reason for official U.S. anxiety may be a lack of trust in its ally. The Philippine military -- despite decades of experience in fighting jungle-based insurgents and extensive aid from the United States -- has failed to rout the rebels and bandits, and successive Philippine governments have failed to sufficiently address the conditions that give rise to rebellion. Southwestern Mindanao is a land of shadows and intrigues. Abu Sayyaf itself is, by different accounts, a product of some combination of intelligence operations gone bad, dissent within the larger Moro (or Islamic Filipino) groups, criminal gangs and a shifting array of partnerships. Stories have surfaced of Philippine troops trapping members of the gang only to allow an escape. Family ties, religious and ethnic affinity, and corruption -- Abu Sayyaf can pay off many a beleaguered mayor, police chief or soldier with the lucre from its kidnapping-for-ransom operations -- make it difficult to ascertain who is on what side at any given moment. Wading into this situation carries great risks -- risks that would be reduced if the United States instead supported efforts to professionalize the Philippine police, military and intelligence agencies and to find political and economic solutions to the troubles that plague Muslim Mindanao, including the armed conflicts with true guerrilla movements.
It's the presence of these much larger guerrilla movements in Mindanao that makes the situation extraordinarily explosive and dangerous for U.S. troops. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a guerrilla force with as many as 15,000 fighters and considerable popular support, typically operates to the east of Abu Sayyaf territory in central Mindanao and draws support from a different set of Islamic ethnic groups, but it considers the whole of Muslim Mindanao to be its terrain. In recent days, there has been significant fighting between the MILF and the Philippine government in central Mindanao, and the MILF reports launching "sympathy attacks" against military targets in Sulu Province in conjunction with an MNLF group. While there have been believable reports of contact between al-Qaeda operatives and at least some MILF commanders, the organization has apparently remained independent of the al-Qaeda network. It's also remained off the U.S. list of international terrorist organizations, thanks in part to ongoing negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF. With these negotiations going badly, there are suggestions from Manila that the government will approve the addition of the MILF to the U.S. list -- an action that could well turn a bad situation into a terrible one. (And this is without even mentioning the Communist-led New People's Army. Though a much smaller force on Mindanao than the MILF, the Communist Party of the Philippines is militantly anti-American and has in the past hit targets in the U.S. military.)
Because the U.S. Congress signed off on all military operations against groups with even a whiff of connection to al-Qaeda shortly after September 11, plans for the Philippines did not have to be debated on the floor of Congress. Instead, quiet negotiations between Washington and Manila allowed the Pentagon to present the U.S. public with a fait accompli last week. The public has had virtually no opportunity to ponder the proposals for the Philippines, or to weigh the benefits and risks for the United States, the Philippines and the people of Mindanao. We don't have a reasoned policy that would support the Philippine government in its legitimate effort to rid the region of Abu Sayyaf, or in its engagement in the more difficult process of forging effective political and economic responses to the problems plaguing an impoverished and culturally unique part of the Philippine Archipelago. Instead, we're left with a foreign-policy adventure that could easily turn into a foreign-policy disaster.
One hundred years ago, U.S. troops were engaged in what is remembered in the Philippines as the Philippine-American War. At one point, more than 70,000 U.S. troops were on the islands. The U.S. conquest of the Philippines involved a series of brutal campaigns that left hundreds of thousands of Filipinos dead. (At the time, a U.S. general estimated that 600,000 had been killed or died of disease as a result of the war on the northernmost island, Luzon, alone.) It would be hyperbolic to suggest, at this point, that such a thing could happen again. But it would also be irresponsible to wade into the Philippines without an awareness of this history.
James B. Goodno is the author of The Philippines: Land of Broken
Promises. He lived in the Philippines for seven years during the 1980s and 1990s.