By Herbert Docena

The ruse that US soldiers are going to the Philippines for training finally collapsed last week with Washington’s unexpected admission that they’re really here for war. What they still failed to say however is that they’re really here for good.

WASHINGTON FINALLY admitted last week that a new batch of US soldiers will be going to the Philippines not to play war games but to fight a real war.

After the September 11 attacks, hundreds of US soldiers have been coming and going to what the international media has initially touted as “the second front after Afghanistan.” The Philippine government has managed to sidestep public opposition and skirt around the constitutional prohibition against their presence by insisting that they’re here only for “joint military exercises” with Filipino soldiers.

With the Pentagon’s surprise admission, that pretext has crumbled.

“This is not an exercise,” a Defense official was quoted as saying. “This will be a no-holds-barred effort.”

Who to believe?

Caught off-guard by Washington’s unexpected candor, Philippine officials were all over themselves the next day, fighting of treason charges while frantically denying the Pentagon’s statements. The President’s spokesperson, for instance, suddenly found himself attacking the credibility of giant media outlets, saying “Even CNN can also get taken for a ride.”

For a joint undertaking, the many inconsistencies in Washington’s and Manila’s pronouncements are glaring. This has been an unprecedented split in packaging the US military presence.

The Pentagon official said he was forced to come out with the admission only because Arroyo’s spokesperson has been misleading people by “mischaracterizing” the nature of the US military deployment. Manila insists that plans have “not been finalized yet” even as Washington says it’s a “done deal.” Bunye claims that US soldiers will be put under the command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The US, of course, says that this has always been a no-no and will remain so.

And yet, for all its seeming effrontery, the Philippine government has refused to make its strongly worded denial more convincing by demanding that its counterparts in Washington issue a formal public disavowal of its statements.

The convenient excuse that US soldiers are just here to play war games and not to fight a real war has unraveled.

Filipino counterparts of the Northern Alliance

So now we can call this war a war – which is exactly what it should have been called all along. The so-called joint military exercises, dubbed “Balikatan” or “shoulder to shoulder,” that have been conducted between Filipino and American soldiers in the southern Philippines since last year were never just military “exercises” for three very simple reasons: they involved real fighting, they were held in actual combat zones, and they had real, breathing and walking enemies as targets.

The ruse about US soldiers not really fighting because they’re only allowed to fire back in self-defense is particularly lame. Surely, US soldiers who go shoulder to shoulder with their counterparts to enemies’ lairs do not expect their targets to just stare in awe as Filipino soldiers shoot at them. In the crossfire, US soldiers cannot expect not be fired at.

Washington was not being unusually and uncharacteristically honest in calling this war by its name. It was merely stating the obvious.

The next “Balikatan” will be no different.

If this will just be an ordinary training exercise, as the Philippine government will adamantly maintain, then why does the USS Essex, a large warship, have to be moored in the seas of Sulu? Why does the chief of the US 3rd Marine Division have to lead the “exercises”? The New York Times certainly considers this designation a “sign of the importance the Pentagon was placing on the mission.

Most importantly, if the US troops will only be “assisting” the Filipino troops in a Philippine-led mission, as the Pentagon claims, then why can’t American soldiers be placed in the position of taking orders from Filipino generals? Is it because, in this war, Filipinos will really be nothing more than willing and obedient pawns, much like the fighters of the Northern Alliance were in the US’ war against Afghanistan or the Kurdish armed troops will be in the coming war against Iraq?

Al Qaeda, again

While the pretext that this is all a game has collapsed, the pretext that this is part of the “war against terror” to eliminate the Al Qaeda network is still standing. It should crumble soon.

As with Saddam Hussein’s supposed links with Osama bin Laden, the evidence that the Abu Sayaff has an Al Qaeda connection is simply not there. No less than American and Filipino intelligence officials, the New York Times reported, have declared that the relationship never really took off. Pentagon vows that it has new intelligence supporting stronger links between the Abu Sayaff and the Jemaah Islamiya, and hence, the Al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, this is all-too reminiscent of the Bush administration’s repeated – and always broken – promises to show more convincing proof tying Saddam to bin Laden. Unfortunately, the United States’ credibility, at least when it comes to linking people to the Al Qaeda, has been permanently damaged by the CIA’s and FBI’s own admission that the Bush administration has been distorting and exaggerating their intelligence.

Bringing back the dead

Interestingly, the Philippines is willing to do whatever it takes to justify this war – even to resurrect the dead.

Last year, when key Abu Sayyaf leaders were reported killed in an encounter, President Arroyo tapped herself on the back and celebrated the end of the bandit group. The chief of the armed forces is now saying: um, sorry, but we may have underestimated the Abu Sayaff’s strength, they’re not really gone and they’re not likely to be wiped out anytime soon.

Last year, in a report submitted to Congress, the defense department said that the group’s membership is down from 800 members in 2001 to only 250. In fact, military officers told an international peace mission last year that there were actually just 60 of them. Now the chief of staff is saying oops, a recheck shows that there are actually still 500 of them.

What the US and Philippine governments seem to forget in re-inflating the threat of the Abu Sayaff, however, is that they are, in effect, highlighting the utter failure of the Balikatan. Last year, President Arroyo vowed that American help would finally exterminate the bandit group. What she’s saying now is that all that help has been worthless.

It still seems utterly unbelievable, how a ragtag group of 500 can elude 17,000 Filipino soldiers and paramilitary troops that had been chasing them for months and that had cornered them a couple of times – with the backing, no less, of the world’s sole superpower.

The Pretext of All Pretexts

But then, think of how much more difficult it would be to give a valid reason for mooring the USS Essex in Sulu without the Abu Sayaff. They have been resurrected from the dead – and will be kept alive – for as long as they serve the useful purpose of justifying American military presence in the Philippines. This latest deployment of US soldiers to the “second front” is gradually confirming people’s worst fears about the terror of this “war on terror.”

As expected, national governments are riding on it to quell local insurgents. Already, the Philippine military has been demanding that the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) be declared a terrorist organization, and hence, a legitimate future target of the US.

As was the case in the first front in Afghanistan, where US military bases suddenly sprang up in Central Asia, the US will use this war as a pretext for expanding its presence in the region. Already, Pentagon officials are saying that this war on Sulu will last for as long as necessary.

They do not intend to leave. The Financial Times just two weeks ago quoted an American official as saying that the reestablishing US presence in the Philippines would advance Washington’s strategic goals. “If the southern Philippines, where Muslim separatists have long operated can be stabilized,” reported Jane Perlez of the New York Times, “the islands then could make a perfect future listening post, and a good jumping off point for guarding a whole range of American interests in the Pacific. “

Dr Chalmers Johnson, author of the best-selling Blowback: The Costs and Consequence of Empire, also believes that the US has been itching to return to the country. Johnson argues that the neo-conservative cabal now lording it over in the Bush administration have never been able to get over how the Philippines kicked out the US military from Subic and Clark in 1991. Current State undersecretary Richard Armitage, Johnson points out, was the same official renegotiating the bases agreement with the Philippine government in 1987.

Armitage failed to keep the bases for the US then. But with this “war on terror” and its endless list of undefeatable “terrorists,” the entire country is being served to the US in a golden platter by the Arroyo government.

The author is a Research Associate working on a security issues for Focus on the Global South, a policy research and advocacy institute. He can be reached at [email protected].