MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 22

International Socialist Review, March–April 2002

Eduardo Capulong

U.S. intervention in the Philippines:
Second front in the “war on terror”


From International Socialist Review, Issue 22, March–April 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


IN LATE January, the Bush administration opened the “second front” of its “war on terrorism” in the Philippines. The U.S. has deployed some 660 combat troops to the southern islands of Mindanao, Basilan, and Jolo, where they have joined thousands of Filipino troops hunting down the Abu Sayyaf, a kidnap-for-ransom group that allegedly has ties to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. Already, 10 U.S. servicemen are dead in the operation after their Chinook helicopter went down on February 22, apparently during a joint U.S.-Philippines antiterrorist training exercise.

The Abu Sayyaf gained international notoriety for abducting 21 foreigners in the Malaysian diving resort of Sipadan last April. It has released most of its captives after extorting ransom payments, but still holds an American missionary couple and Filipina nurse hostage (though there are now reports that the couple has been released following a $2 million payment).1

The troop dispatch, which began quietly last November, is accompanied by $100 million in military aid, including a C-130 transport plane, eight helicopters, 30,000 M-16 rifles, several patrol boats, and high-tech gadgets such as night-vision goggles and electronic detection gear–a whopping increase from the $2 million the country received in 2000.

The deployment marks the first time since the Second World War that the Philippines has allowed its former colonial master to fight on Philippine soil. Though officials from both governments insist that U.S. troops are there only to provide training–itself a perverse reassurance given the history of brutality of U.S. methods2–it is clear that they are there to engage in battle. In an operation dubbed “Balikatan” (”shoulder to shoulder”), U.S. soldiers will accompany Philippine military patrols and are allowed to fight in self-defense. As one Pentagon official admitted, “The only combat they’re likely to see would be in a self-protection mode. Any time you’re accompanying forces in pursuit of terrorists, there are risks involved.”3 In a prescient statement, retired U.S. Army General David Grange commented, “They will be there to advise, in the same way that U.S. troops were helping South Vietnam in the early days of the war.”4

The Bush administration has found in the Philippines a convenient next phase for its endless war. Reportedly hobbled, at least for now, from attacking Iraq because of such logistical problems as a shortage of air-to-surface missiles, and acknowledging the difficulty of extending the war to countries such as Somalia–where, as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recently told the New York Times, “you don’t have a government you can work with”5 –the United States has chosen a country of strategic importance with an easy target and a subservient government. The Abu Sayyaf, the country’s archipelagic sweep, and the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo fit the bill perfectly.

There are parallels to Afghanistan, indeed. To begin with, the U.S. military will face in the Abu Sayyaf an enemy of its own creation. Like bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the Abu Sayyaf originated in the 1979–89 Afghan war. As ABC News reporter John Cooley noted last year:

As the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 1989, the CIA’s powerful Pakistani partner, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate) ... trained terrorists for the Philippines, the Middle East, [and] North Africa ... Abu Sayyaf moved operations to the Philippines, ostensibly to support the generations-long battle for an independent Muslim state in the southern islands.6

The Abu Sayyaf’s ties to the CIA were so notorious that Philippine Senator Aquilino Pimentel was prompted to call it a “CIA monster.”7 Pimentel called for an inquiry into the matter last May, saying, “There are now emerging bits of information that Abu Sayyaf was indeed the creation of probably the CIA in connivance with or with the support of some select military officers.”8

Philippine military and police ties to the Abu Sayyaf are well documented. Journalists Indira Lakshmanan of the Boston Globe and Pekka Mykkanen of Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper, jointly released a damning exposé of the Sipadan kidnapping. The Boston Globe reported:

High-ranking members of the Philippine military, as well as members of local government, have colluded with the Islamic extremists that U.S. troops are being sent here to combat.... The situation poses the potential for treacherous conflicts in loyalties that may hamper the U.S. mission ... . The sworn statements of witnesses...as well as the findings of an internal army inquiry and two government human rights reports–suggest that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo knew about, but chose to whitewash, what went wrong.

The Helsingin Sanomat report began:

An array of plausible military, eyewitness and documentary sources indicate that the ruthlessness and greed of some high-ranking Philippine Army officers may pose nearly as great a security concern for the U.S. troops as the Islamic extremist Abu Sayyaf cadres they are seeking to eradicate.9

Journalists Marites Dañguilan Vitug and Glenda M. Gloria echo these same themes in their recent book, Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao, as do former hostages, who have testified that they witnessed cooperation between the rebels and Philippine authorities. This collusion accounts for the difficulty that the 83,200-strong Philippine military in the region–40 percent of the entire armed forces–has had defeating the small rebel group, which by the most generous estimates numbers no more than 200.

The line between the Abu Sayyaf and the Philippine military is a fine one indeed. The perpetrators of countless atrocities, the Philippine military and its paramilitary appendages are regularly condemned by human rights organizations as responsible for politically motivated killings, forced disappearances, and torture.10 The United States, New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof recently observed, is “siding with murderers and torturers ... [I]nterviews with officials and ordinary people alike leave no doubt that the antiterror operation that the United States is enthusiastically backing here in Basilan is itself based in part on terror.”11

Like al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Abu Sayyaf is a pretext for U.S. military intervention. In an op-ed piece, Kristof notes:

Anyone who comes here to the jungles of Basilan, home to the Abu Sayyaf movement that we’re supposed to destroy, discovers pretty quickly that Abu Sayyaf isn’t a militant Islamic terror group. It’s simply a gang of about 60 brutal thugs ... [The] Abu Sayyaf has perfected the art of extorting money from foreigners. And now President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo seems to be learning the art as well. She seized upon the opportunity created by 9/11 to portray Abu Sayyaf as international terrorists, accepted an offer by President Bush to eradicate them, and promptly won $100 million in fresh American military aid ... Arroyo has astutely used the new partnership with President Bush to shore up her previously wobbly presidency. And the Bush administration has found a safe place to continue the war on terrorism, even if a closer look suggests that isn’t exactly what it is.12

The real agenda of the United States, so candidly admitted by government officials, is the protection of business investments and the projection of military power in Southeast Asia. “The important thing is to have a safe and stable security environment for domestic and foreign investors, including U.S. entrepreneurs,” said the U.S. assistant secretary of commerce, William Lash, in a recent visit to Manila.13 Fidel Ramos, former Philippine president, was more blunt. The U.S. aim, he said, “is to maintain a viable presence in Asia-Pacific as a means to secure their own interests and their huge investments.”14

The United States is clearly planning a long-term commitment. Though he says that U.S. troops will be there no longer than one year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has not ruled out building new, permanent bases in the country. Already, U.S. forces have reoccupied Clark Air Base in the north–which, along with Subic Bay Naval Base, they had hurriedly evacuated in 1992, after Filipinos voted them out in a national referendum and nearby Mount Pinatubo erupted. The U.S. military has been conducting military operations in that area, as well as setting up operations in Cebu City in the mid-region of the country. U.S. troops are autonomous under a “parallel command structure.”15 In a stunning admission, U.S. Major Cynthia Teramae told reporters, “We are here as counterparts. We will be working alongside each other. We have two co-directors and two co-generals. It shows the kind of relationship that we have.”16

The September 11 tragedy has provided the United States with the perfect cover to reoccupy its former colony. With neighboring Indonesia, the country straddles key trade routes, among them the Malacca and Singapore Straits, used extensively to supply U.S. troops in the Afghan war. Basing U.S. troops in the Philippines is even more important now that the United States is temporarily barred (by an act of Congress) from extending military aid to nearby Indonesia, after the Indonesian military massacre of East Timorese following the ouster of the dictator Suharto in 1997. The overthrow of Suharto–a U.S. client–intensified U.S. lobbying for the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The Philippine Senate ratified the VFA in 1998. The VFA gave the U.S. military broad access to Philippine territory, but it had no permanent basing provisions.

The U.S. expressed interest in strengthening its presence in the Southeast Asian region long before September 11. Before Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the region last July, a report issued by a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations warned the Bush administration: “It is in the U.S. national interest to prudently commit a larger share of our national attention and our national resources to Southeast Asia.”17 September 11 merely provided the administration with the pretext to pursue these efforts more vigorously.

Securing and stabilizing the region for U.S. interests will mean the suppression not only of the Abu Sayyaf, but also of the legitimate forces that have long fought U.S. imperialism and Philippine military occupation. Since 1968, the Bangsa Moro people of southern Philippines have been engaged in a struggle for self-determination, a struggle driven by Manila’s chronic neglect. Mindanao is the poorest part of the country; it has the lowest literacy rates, the lowest per capita income, and the lowest life expectancy in the nation. For the most part, the Philippine government has chosen to address those grievances by waging war against the Muslims. To date, this war–the Philippines’ Vietnam–has claimed 120,000 lives and displaced more than 1 million people, many of whom have fled to the neighboring island of Sabah, Malaysia.

Not coincidentally, U.S. military deployment occurs just as hostilities between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the government have resumed. MNLF leader Nur Misuari, who agreed to a peace pact with the government and became governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 1996, led a failed revolt against the government last November after Arroyo backed a rival MNLF faction in the gubernatorial elections. He later fled to Malaysia but was deported to the Philippines in December to stand trial for rebellion. Since then, scores have been killed in fighting in Jolo. Philippine government officials now charge Misuari with being “the Philippines’ bin Laden.” Any attack on the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo is certain to draw Misuari’s forces into battle. Complicating this is that those forces are now integrated into the Philippine military, pursuant to the 1996 peace pact.

A third organization fighting for a separate Muslim state in southern Philippines is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is currently in peace talks with the Arroyo administration. It was the Philippine military’s offensive against the MILF last February that hit the Abu Sayyaf and supposedly prompted it to take the Sipadan hostages. The peace process is now threatened by U.S. military intervention. “We are still maintaining a defensive position. But if we are attacked, we will defend ourselves,” said MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu. He added: “We sniff that they (Americans) are up to something and we know that in the end, they will go after us.”18 Perhaps in anticipation of provoking the MILF into battle, U.S. and Philippine sources have begun to link the organization to bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Quoting “some Philippine police and politicians,” the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized that the MILF “has stronger ties to Mr. bin Laden’s al Qaeda network...and poses a much greater threat to Philippine and U.S. forces than does the Abu Sayyaf.”19 Unlike the hated Abu Sayyaf, renewed war with the 15,000-strong MILF will likely spark popular opposition.

Finally, there is the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines, which also operates in the region. Like the Abu Sayyaf, the NPA is on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations and is a likely target of U.S. operations. Already, U.S. and Philippine military officials have accused the NPA of firing on a U.S. cargo plane, an incident the NPA has denied. NPA spokesperson Gregorio “Ka Roger” Rosal says that the incident might be a ploy to justify an attack on his group. Philippine officials have also accused the NPA of attacking American tourists, to which Rosal responded, “We are not anti-American. We are anti-imperialists.”20

The deployment of U.S. troops has provoked widespread opposition. Bolstering the antiwar movement that began with the bombing of Afghanistan, tens of thousands have demonstrated since late January. Among the leadership are the national democrats who had initially supported Arroyo’s ascension to power in last year’s “People Power II” rebellion. Demonstrators have set up a “peace camp” in front of the U.S. Embassy in Manila, calling for the ouster of U.S. troops. A broad alliance of government employees formed in early February has also promised job actions. “We will try to avail ourselves of what we call union leaves and even petition the management to recognize our rights to air grievances,” said Ferdinand Gaite, national president of the Confederation for Unity, Recognition and Advancement of Government Employees (COURAGE) and convenor of the Rise All Government Employees alliance (RAGE).21

The opposition extends to members of the ruling coalition. Invoking the Philippine Constitution, which explicitly bars foreign troop presence without senate approval,22 Arroyo’s former congressional allies have denounced her unilateral decision. One senator, Rodolfo Biazon, has threatened impeachment. Arroyo’s own vice president, who is concurrent foreign secretary, was shut out of her decision and has publicly questioned her. Another oppositionist, former senator Francisco Tatad, said in a statement: “In one deceptive and treasonous move, she has succeeded in making the Philippines a virtual extension of Afghanistan.”23

Arroyo’s recent shameless mimicry of her friend George W. Bush’s “if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists” approach has only inflamed the opposition. In a recent interview, Arroyo charged that anyone who opposed U.S. military intervention was “not a Filipino”: “If you are not a Filipino, then who are you? A protector of terrorists, a cohort of murderers, an Abu Sayyaf lover.” It is time to count those who are for “security, peace and development of the Filipino,” and those who are “with the Abu Sayyaf and continued disorder in Basilan and Mindanao,” she said.24 Her statement provoked swift condemnation and has only stoked deeper anger among Muslims, who for decades have bristled at Manila’s discriminatory attitude toward them.

Once again, a cross section of Philippine society–now with the potential alliance of the Muslim south–has begun to unite against a common enemy: U.S. imperialism and its local partner, the Arroyo government. Filipino “People Power” has a powerful tradition. It toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, kicked out the U.S. military in 1991, and ousted the corrupt president, Joseph Estrada, last year. What it has lacked is a revolutionary alternative. The nationalist, cross-class politics of People Power have repeatedly led it into collaboration with sections of the national elite. Under the leadership of the national democrats and Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines, movements of potentially revolutionary proportions become reduced to mobilizations that replace one set of bourgeois politicians with another–pending seizure of state power by the guerrilla army.

There are, however, promising signs. Amid the antiwar slogans proclaiming the sovereignty of the country are those that seek to oppose war on the basis of class: “Bagong Digmaan: Pahirap Sa Bayan!” (“New War Means Poverty for the Country!”). One organization, the coalition group Sanlakas, released in a statement: “War equals a global economic crisis and a further fall in living standards of the masses and a further widening of the gap between the rich and the poor.”25 In addition to the job actions planned by RISE, other labor groups have also reacted to employer opportunism in the wake of September 11, charging local employers with exploiting the tragedy to deny wage increases. As the Filipino mass movement confronts U.S. imperialism, the question of an alternative is once again on the horizon. The key to fundamental change lies in linking the struggle against imperialism with the workers’ fight against the economic priorities of the Filipino ruling class.

* * *


1 Laura Flanders, “Return to the Philippines,” WorkingForChange, February 8, 2002, available online at www.workingforchange.com.

2 See Katherine Dwyer, “Rogue state: A history of U.S. terror,” International Socialist Review, November–December 2001, pp. 45–50.

3 Quoted in Steve Vogel, “Special Forces join effort in Philippines: Trainers to aid anti-guerrilla patrols,” Washington Post, January 16, 2002.

4 Quoted in Jan Cienski, “U.S. troops to deploy in Philippine jungle: Vietnam parallels denied: Joint operation to eradicate Abu Sayyaf terrorists,” National Post (Canada), January 16, 2002.

5 Quoted in James Dao and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. sees battles in lawless areas after Afghan war,” New York Times, January 8, 2002.

6 John K. Cooley, “Ghosts of the past: Filipino Muslim rebels tied to Afghan war,” ABC News online, September 24, 2001.

7 Carlos H. Conde, “Dos Palmas hostages paid ransom, AFP officials took cut,” CyberDyaryo, February 4, 2002.

8 Quoted in Martin P. Marfil and Alexander M. Young, “A bloody ‘gift’ from Abu,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 13, 2001. It should be noted, however, that contrary to many news reports, there is no recent evidence linking the Abu Sayyaf with bin Laden and al Qaeda.

9 Excerpts of both reports are quoted in Conde, “Dos Palmas hostages.”

10 See the following publications of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights: Impunity: Prosecutions of Human Rights Violations in the Philippines (1991); Out of Control: Militia Abuses in the Philippines (1990); Vigilantes in the Philippines: A Threat to Democratic Rule (1988); “Salvaging” Democracy: Human Rights in the Philippines (1985).

11 Nicholas D. Kristof, “Sleeping with the terrorists,” New York Times, February 12, 2002.

12 Kristof, “A safe place for a war,” New York Times, February 8, 2002.

13 “U.S. official defends American troops in RP,” Agence France-Presse, January 29, 2002.

14 Quoted in Senator Jovito R. Salonga, “The presence of U.S. troops in combat areas in Mindanao,” CyberDyaryo, February 6, 2002.

15 Brigadier General Emmanuel Teodosio quoted in Conde, “Command issue bedevils Balikatan exercises,” CyberDyaryo, February 1, 2002.

16 Quoted in Conde, “Command issue bedevils.”

17 Council on Foreign Relations, “More U.S. attention and resources needed to avert future Southeast Asia crises says an independent task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations,” press release, July 11, 2001, available online at www.cfr.org.

18 Eid Kabalu, “Keep out, MILF warns U.S., RP men,” interview by Inday Espina-Varona, Manila Times, January 17, 2002.

19 James Hookway, “Philippine group may be another terror threat for U.S.,” Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2002.

20 Quoted in Ding Cervantes and Christina Mendez, “Communists deny firing at U.S. Special Forces plane,” Philippine Star, February 3, 2002.

21 Quoted in Rhodina Villanueva, “New alliance of government workers formed against presence of U.S. troops,” Today, February 8, 2002.

22 Article XVIII, Section 25, states, “After expiration in 1991 of the Military Bases Agreement ... foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines, except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate.” Article II, Section 2, also “renounces war as an instrument of national policy.”

23 Quoted in James Brooke, “Philippines said to have refused Bush offer of G.I.’s in November,” New York Times, January 18, 2002.

24 Quoted in Carlito Pablo, “President vows: I won’t stop until last Abu falls,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 8, 2002.

25 Quoted in “Big peace rally in front of U.S. Embassy on Sept. 2,” CyberDyaryo, press release, September 21, 2001.

Last updated on 15 August 2022