by Maulana M. Alonto (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 23, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1422)
Senator Sam Brownback, a member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was more honest than Filipino officials when he said that the Philippines is to be the “next Afghanistan.” This remark was made as he pointed out that the US ‘war against terrorism’ makes it more likely that Washington will send additional troops here to assist the Philippine army to fight the Abu Sayyaf group, allegedly linked to Usama bin Ladin’s al-Qaeda, that has been holding hostage two American nationals.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, naturally, was distressed by the candid revelation. She lost no time in trying to diffuse the public outrage precipitated by the statement. The president’s spokesmen blurted out the usual inane excuses in futile attempts to ameliorate the alarming impact of the statement, saying that Senator Brownback had been “quoted out of context” and that no such horrible scenario is in store.
What exactly is the truth behind Senator Brownback’s revelation? Can his statement be shrugged off as something that was merely “quoted out of context”? Coming from the horse’s mouth, Brownback’s prophesying a ‘war’ in the Philippines that parallels the bloodbath in Afghanistan is certainly more believable than the yarn spun by Philippine officialdom to deceive their people, especially the inhabitants of Mindanao.
Using the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US as a pretext, the Arroyo regime has allowed the entry of US combat troops into the Philippines under the so-called Balikatan Kalayaan Aguila-2002. Ostensibly Balikatan is a joint military exercise held by US and Filipino forces. In reality it is more because it is being held in the island-province of Basilan and in the Zamboanga peninsula, which are combat zones in war-torn Mindanao. According to CNN, quoting US official sources, a thousand US troops (more if need be) are to be deployed in the Philippines to fight the Abu Sayyaf group. Already 660 US soldiers, who comprise the initial American contingent, are being transported to Zamboanga City in batches. Why President Arroyo should need that many foreign troops to run after a ragtag bunch of kidnappers in Basilan, comprising not more than a hundred emaciated fighters, is beyond comprehension. What is even more confusing is that she insists that the Americans will not engage in combat but will only fire back in self-defense if fired upon! One can only deduce that either the Armed Forces of the Philippines have reached the peak of incompetence, or that there is something much more sinister going on.
Indeed, despite the government’s denial that US troops will be used for combat against the Abu Sayyaf group, the fact that such a ‘military exercise’ is being conducted in the war zones indicates that US troops are not here to play hide-and-seek with their Filipino counterparts or haunt the fleshpots that flourish wherever western soldiers go. The first batch of American soldiers to arrive in Mindanao have admitted that they are prepared to take casualties, belying the official tale of a ‘military exercise’.
It would seem that the government and the defense establishment have failed to understand the implications of inviting American troops to Mindanao. By opening Mindanao to foreign invasion, what Manila has demonstrated is not only obsequiousness to an imperialist power and the hollowness of Philippine ‘sovereignty’, but its contempt for Mindanao and its peoples. The present regime in Manila cares not at all that American bombs might send Mindanao to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, provided that the government survives.
What is certain is that this policy will transform Mindanao into a magnet that will attract foreign mujahideen from all over the world. Many groups are eager to hit back at the US for what it has done to Afghanistan and Palestine. Unlike Afghanistan, which is landlocked and surrounded by Muslim states hostile to the Taliban, which made it difficult for mujahideen from other parts of the world to enter the country, Mindanao and its satellite islands have a long coastline that the Philippine navy will not be able to guard all the time. Mujahideen from Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and even Arab countries, and those from as far away as the Balkans and the Caucasus who are eager for jihad and shahadah(martyrdom), can easily join their Muslim brothers here to fight what they see as an infidel invasion. Mindanao would then become an international battleground, with US military personnel, camps, facilities and installations as tempting targets. In this hypothetical yet likely scenario, the war would be far bitterer and bloodier than the ones so far fought on Moro soil: it would be a vicious guerrilla war whose arena could not be limited to the traditional war zones but must eventually involve all the cities and provinces of Mindanao, and perhaps Manila and other areas as well.
In the meantime, the Manila government would have to bid goodbye to the ‘peace process’ with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Once deployed for war in Mindanao, there is no guarantee that the US forces will target only the Abu Sayyaf group, or confine themselves to Basilan and Zamboanga. They could spread to other areas in Mindanao as they get more involved. If that happens, even the communist New People’s Army (NPA), which the US has classified as ‘terrorist’ like the Abu Sayyaf group, should be drawn into the fray.
Recently, through the media, it has transpired that vice-president Teofisto Gungona, Jr., who is also the secretary of foreign affairs, has been critical of US forces in the Philippines for repeatedly violating the restrictions prescribed by the VFA. It has turned out that in previous joint military exercises in Luzon, the Americans took unilateral actions without consulting their Filipino counterparts. Who can say that they will not do so again, this time in Mindanao? The MILF and the MNLF have forces in Basilan and Zamboanga, and the Americans, once casualties have been inflicted on their ranks, may not make the distinction between MILF and MNLF fighters on one hand and the Abu Sayyaf on the other.
In the Vietnam war, the American soldiers took to labeling all brown faces ‘gooks’ or ‘Charlies’ who deserved to be ‘wasted’. In Mindanao, there might well be a revival of that infamous American war slogan, “A good Moro is a dead Moro,” adapted from the US Army’s pacification policy in the American West that read “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”. With the US military’s history of brutality toward non-white peoples, American atrocities on innocent civilians in Mindanao are not a remote possibility.
Still, if US troops clash with Moro revolutionary forces, this could lead to the unification, not to mention radicalization, of all Moro groups and sectors in Mindanao. In the face of US technological superiority in weaponry, we may even see the resurrection of the “Moro juramentado,” or the sabil (derived from jihad fi sabilillah), that was the dread of American soldiers in the American-Moro wars in the beginning of the 20th century. It may not be in the classic manner of a lone Moro warrior brandishing a kris (a Malay blade) and attacking American soldiers who come within striking distance, but it could be in the form of a ‘human bomb’ such as felled the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, or the ‘human bomb’ that is defeating Israel in Lebanon: the same ‘human bomb’ that is also playing havoc with Israeli usurpers in Palestine and Indian colonizers in Jammu-Kashmir.
On the bright side, the arrival of US military forces has stirred a nationwide furore. Civil society groups, concerned citizens, NGOs, the political opposition, moderate and radical organizations, and even government officials and politicians are denouncing the government’s policy of inviting US forces to intervene in Mindanao. Some are even calling for the impeachment of the president for “violating the Constitution.”
The public perception is now that the stakes go beyond Arroyo’s unabashed subservience to Bush and the billions of American dollars in economic aid promised in payment for such subservience, or even her ambition for re-election. What the Filipinos fear most is that US involvement in Mindanao will turn their country into another Afghanistan, but not into another Vietnam.