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Americans Could Face a Swamp in Philippines

Times Staff Writer

Military and diplomatic experts Friday questioned a new mission that is expected to send American combat troops to the Philippines, warning that the U.S. force would face a complex web of local politics and a danger that the effort could backfire.

By most accounts, the presence of U.S. military advisors in the Philippines over the last year has helped suppress and fragment the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf on the southern island of Basilan. But the expected arrival of 3,000 U.S. Navy, Marine and special operations troops in the southern Philippines in the coming weeks will escalate what had been a training and advisory mission.

With an apparent authorization to engage in combat alongside Philippine troops, the U.S. forces also threaten to create a constitutional crisis in the Southeast Asian nation, which bars foreign troops from combat. And the deployment could disrupt a fragile truce between the government in Manila and Muslim political groups in the Islamic region of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation, analysts warn.

“It’s a volatile soup of issues, controversies, tensions, resentments and vendettas. And there, it seems to me, is the real risk,” said Donald Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University. “One hopes the Americans can improve the situation rather than inadvertently worsening it.”

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In a less than auspicious beginning to the U.S. mission, Philippine officials continued to maintain that the Americans would be coming as part of a joint military exercise, not a combat operation.

In Manila, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople and a spokesman for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo all asserted that the troops would be authorized to fire in defense only.

“In other words, no combat troops,” presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said. “Everything will be for training and advice.”

Reyes was scheduled to leave Manila on Sunday for meetings with U.S. defense officials in Washington.

The deployment described by Pentagon officials on Thursday consists of 2,200 Marines and sailors and 750 Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other special operations soldiers. Diverging from the Philippine statements, the Pentagon said these troops will enter the country in an “operational role” rather than a strictly advisory capacity.

The stepped-up role raises concerns of escalating involvement that have dogged the Pentagon since the Vietnam War, when an advisory mission eventually grew into a deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers.

Unlike the one in Vietnam, however, the Philippine mission holds little potential to draw American forces into a bloody civil war, experts say. The relative handful of Abu Sayyaf rebels -- 208 at last count -- are separatists who want to split from the Philippine government, not take it over.

But analysts warn that the combined U.S. and Philippine forces will have to tread lightly to avoid antagonizing a broad array of other Muslim groups in the southern Philippines.

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Since 1996, the Philippine government has maintained a fragile truce with the main rebel group in the region, the Moro National Liberation Front, that allows the group to oversee small swaths of autonomous territory. Abu Sayyaf and another group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, splintered off and continue to wage an armed campaign against the government.

Philippine troops, with the advisory backing of U.S. forces, have already regained control of Basilan island, once a stronghold of Abu Sayyaf. The American and Philippine troops could now take their campaign to other Sulu islands farther south, a largely lawless region that has been rife with piracy and kidnapping for decades. Angry over the lack of economic development in the impoverished area, many residents continue to support the rebels.

“Our military forces can help keep a lid on things,” said Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “But the [Abu Sayyaf] movement is a product of disenfranchisement and is something that is going to have to be solved politically and economically.”

Inevitably, the heightened U.S. involvement will expose more Americans to attack. Last year, 10 U.S. military personnel were killed when a helicopter crashed during a training exercise, and a Green Beret was killed by a bomb that exploded outside the base housing the Americans.

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“This is a case where we are beginning to take more risks,” said Dan Goure, a former Pentagon official in charge of monitoring future threats who is now at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., defense consulting firm.

Nevertheless, he said, the Bush administration appears to have chosen its target carefully. Abu Sayyaf activists have been among the pro-Taliban fighters captured in Afghanistan, defense officials say.

The Manila government expelled an Iraqi diplomat last week after an intelligence report alleged that an Abu Sayyaf member had phoned him in the wake of the bombing that killed the Green Beret. The CIA “has no doubt” the person expelled “was an Iraqi intelligence officer,” a U.S. intelligence official said.

“These are places where Al Qaeda-connected people are doing planning,” Goure said.

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Complicating matters are internal politics and the complex relationship between the United States and the Philippines, which ejected U.S. military forces from their two bases in the country more than a decade ago.

On Friday, just a day after the Pentagon outlined the new role for U.S. troops, Philippine nationalists protested their expected involvement. During the joint exercises last year, there were almost daily protests outside the U.S. Embassy.

If the United States sends in combat troops, the move could also bring about a constitutional challenge to the Arroyo government.

“I don’t think there is a legal constitutional alternative that allows U.S. combat troops in Mindanao,” said Philippine Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, a former general.

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Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. military has provided assistance and training in other trouble spots, including Yemen and Georgia, and has set up a task force in the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence on terrorist targets.

But the United States is taking an active part in combat control in only two nations, a defense official said: Afghanistan and the Philippines.

If successful, the mission could make it easier for more wary governments in the region, such as Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, to welcome U.S. soldiers.

Pentagon officials downplayed that possibility Friday.

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“I don’t think anybody’s doing this to show Georgia or Yemen that it worked [in the Philippines], so therefore it could work here,” one defense official said. “The U.S. military is strictly looking to get rid of the bad guys.”

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Times staff writers Greg Miller in Washington and Richard C. Paddock in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.


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