The Pentagon on Friday backed off a plan to send American combat troops to help wipe out the Abu Sayyaf rebels in the Philippines, following widespread criticism that the move would violate the Asian nation’s constitution.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his Philippine counterpart, Gen. Angelo Reyes, gave up hope of working out a compromise in a Pentagon meeting, acknowledging that a communications failure has stopped the Bush administration from opening a new front in its war on terrorism.
What has become an increasingly embarrassing dispute between the two nations has served to underscore both the Philippines’ love-hate relationship with its former colonial master, and the difficulties the U.S. faces as it tries to make good on President Bush’s pledge to hunt down Al Qaeda and break up terrorist networks across the globe.
U.S. officials say that they believe the two nations had a deal, but that when it engendered opposition, the Philippine government asked them to mislead the public about what American soldiers were doing.
With the collapse of the agreement, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered her army to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf within 90 days with or without outside help.
The controversy had threatened to undermine Arroyo’s government, one of Bush’s strongest supporters in Asia. Some Philippine congressional opponents had warned that they would impeach their president if U.S. combat troops landed in violation of the country’s constitution.
Opponents of the deployment said they were pleased by the decision but troubled that the Philippine government was not being honest about what the U.S. troops would be doing.
“There is a level of deception on the Philippine government side that is bothersome,” said Congresswoman Imee R. Marcos, an outspoken critic of the deal.
“I think the government was worried because one of the grounds for impeachment is a ‘palpable’ violation of the constitution.”
Senior U.S. defense officials say there were no substantive disagreements about how 3,000 American troops would have been used to support their Philippine counterparts in patrols on land and sea in the lawless southern Philippines. The Pentagon, intent on justifying the use of American troops on another front, had called it a “military operation,” the term used to describe combat.
But Arroyo’s government, put on the defensive by public uproar, wanted to call the effort an “exercise.”
Before Friday’s decision was announced, a Philippine military official said privately that the best course would have been to deploy the U.S. troops under the guise of an exercise and send them out on patrol without publicizing it. If the Americans saw action and suffered casualties, he said, “we could always cover up.”
The term “exercise” was unacceptable, U.S. officials said. Rumsfeld told reporters Friday that American negotiators would be “perfectly comfortable from our standpoint” calling the current plan a “joint combat operation.”
“Whatever it is we do, we describe in language that is consistent with how we do things. And we do not tend to train people in combat,” Rumsfeld said. “We have to find an approach that will help them without violating their constitution.”
Rumsfeld said there will be some joint “activity” between the nations eventually, but Reyes told reporters in a separate news briefing that the two sides are still “groping for the exact term” in a “semantic” debate.
The problem, Pentagon officials said, is that the Philippine government wanted Washington to describe the operation in terms that the U.S. felt did not give American troops sufficient credit and that would not prepare the U.S. public for casualties in hostile terrain where Americans are nearly as unpopular as the Manila government.
Reyes has complained about leaks from the Pentagon, but U.S. defense officials and military analysts say the problem all along has been the inherent difficulty the Philippine government has in announcing that it needs help from its former colonizer. Arroyo and Reyes failed to lay the groundwork with the Philippine public, and backtracked after strong opposition arose, analysts said.
In Manila, Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, a former chief of staff of the Philippine armed forces, said the dispute was not merely a matter of words but reflected a fundamental disagreement over the legality of allowing foreign forces to engage in combat.
It would have been misleading to call the operation an “exercise” when it involved deploying heavily armed troops in a combat situation against a live enemy for a period of months, he said.
“It’s not semantic issue,” the senator said. “It’s a constitutional issue.”
The Abu Sayyaf, which once espoused a militant Islamic philosophy, has degenerated into a bandit gang that makes a living from kidnapping for ransom. The group, with about 225 members, is hiding out in the jungles of Jolo island in the southern Philippines.
Marcos, the eldest daughter of late President Ferdinand E. Marcos, said Filipinos are anxious to be rid of the Abu Sayyaf, which has beheaded many of its victims, including Guillermo Sobero, a Californian.
But she said the Philippine government should negotiate assistance from the United States in a straightforward way.
“It’s really sad that the American officials have been much more candid than the Philippine government has,” she said. “We can’t get our act together, and we are asking the Americans to come over and die.”
After Adm. Thomas Fargo met with Reyes last week, both sides agreed on all but the most minute details of the operation, a senior defense official said: They would mount an intensified version of last year’s “Balikatan” -- the Tagalog term for a “shoulder-to-shoulder” exercise in which U.S. special operations troops trained the Philippine armed forces but did not join them on routine jungle patrols.
That effort is credited with driving the Abu Sayyaf from Basilan island, though many merely moved farther south to lawless Sulu province.
In the new operation, about 350 Army Special Forces and possibly other special operations troops in groups as small as three were supposed to accompany Philippine soldiers on active patrols in the Sulu region, particularly Jolo island, where quasi-governmental groups have had autonomy with little interference from Manila. The Philippines was to deploy 5,000 troops to Sulu.
The ground forces were to be complemented by a contingent of 2,000 Navy sailors and Marines offshore. Separately, the U.S. has deployed 400 troop trainers at a Philippine army base in Zamboanga City.
Reyes later told reporters that he was thinking of calling the whole thing off.
“We say that we would rather hold deployment in connection with Balikatan ... until after the final agreement on exactly the size and shape is reached,” he said, emphasizing that the U.S. troops could not engage in “offensive combat” operations on Philippine soil.
Reyes sought to bridge the gap before his meeting Friday with Rumsfeld, telling reporters in a separate news briefing that Philippine Rangers are not fully qualified until they train in active combat. So therefore, he reasoned, the Americans would simply be “training” their counterparts in hostile territory.
“At some point we will have something like a Balikatan ... that will be related to terrorism, and it very likely will have an intelligence component, a command-and-control component, a training component, some exercises,” Rumsfeld said.
“And whatever it ends up being, it will clearly be consistent with their constitution and it will be consistent with what we tell you we are doing.”