Government News Analysis

The threat from a terror magnet

American troops have been given their marching orders. Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, has said they should remove themselves from areas of southern Mindanao, the country’s Muslim heartland, where their presence is inflaming the situation as the Philippine Army steps up its campaign against Islamic extremist groups. The Volatilian™ believes, however, that a US military presence anywhere in the country will do that right now.

Former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s ratification of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) – by which US forces were welcomed back onto Philippine soil  and given 10-year rotational lodgings on five bases – did not take into account the sensitivities in the south. He may have thought it would provide greater national security, vis-à-vis Manila’s South China Sea islands dispute with Beijing, but in the context of the terror threat in Mindanao, it could only have one result – a further angering of Philippine Islam.

Moderate Muslims, too, are far from comfortable with the US presence among them. This is the former Republic of Mindanao and Sulu, a successful independent state from 1949 to 1967, the flag of which is still flown openly across this region. These people form the vast proportion of the south’s Muslim population; they are the last sector of society that needs to be alienated – and at a time when all efforts are being put into a brokered peace settlement that will usher in a new territorial entity, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.

But the problems of the EDCA go beyond Mindanao. Having US troops re-stationed in the Philippines has effectively painted a target on the country’s back. It’s not surprising then that since this agreement was implemented, Islamic State (IS) has also increased its presence and influence in the country. No fewer than five groups – among them Abu Sayyaf which carried out the 2 September Davao City market bombing which left 14 people dead – are now IS affiliated. And as Islamic State territory is increasingly reclaimed in Iraq and Syria, Southeast Asia – and staring in the southern Philippines – is being prepared as its next homeland; its new caliphate; Islamic State 2.0. Over the last year, IS flags have flown into parts of Mindanao like migratory geese. An anatomy of an atrocity.

America – and particularly its military – is the number one enemy of the jihadists. What EDCA has done, then, is to bring that prime enemy within striking distance of a number of groups eager to earn their spurs with IS and other multination terror organisations. “They have to go,” says Duterte. “I do not want a rift with America, but they have to go”. And he’s right. Any US military presence down there will raise tensions and make the situation more combustible.

Mindanao is the last place they should be – although they’ve operated there since 2002, with a force of 1,200 at one point. Since 2015, the number of US troops on the island has been cut back; most – according to the US officials and spokepersons – are there as advisers and technical/logistics support personnel, or “acting in limited liaison roles”. But the point is, they’re still there, they’re still American and the EDCA plays straight into the jihadists’ hands.

IS’s military planners – many of them former high-ranking, battled-hardened capable generals from Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard – are not stupid and they know an opportunity when they see one. And so, as long as US forces remain in the Philippines, the chance of the problems of the south becoming the problems of the north and the problems of the centre, increase. It’s like hanging a magnet over a box of iron filings.

Presently, US military personnel are stationed at two bases in Luzon, Basa Air Base in Pampanga and Fort Magsaysay in Nueve Ecija, and at one in Central Visayas, Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu. Lumbia Air Base in Cayayan de Oro provides their home station in Mindanao. This gives the American military a presence in every island region of the Philippines. This is like a red rag to a bull to militant Islam and greatly increases the risk of the insurgency spreading.

Duterte is right to require the removal of US forces, special or otherwise, from the southern theatre, but a fresh look – and soon – at the EDCA itself would also be prudent.

Furthermore, not only has this agreement inflamed large sections of the country’s Muslim population – peaceful and militant – it has also angered China, which also does not help the Philippine nation. Duterte is well aware of this also.

Big Brother Washington’s soft sell of his troops re-engagement in the Philippines was nothing more that to assist the US ‘Pivot to Asia’ – US President Barack Obama said as much; though the implied signal – largely from Aquino – was that if things got tough in the South China Sea, BB Washington would be on hand to deal with it. How’s that?  BB didn’t deal with the 30,000-plus army of the Islamic State where it resides, nor the Syrian Arab Army’s 125,000 troops in the Syrian civil war – both in a part of the world away from which he is now trying to pivot – so why could anyone possibly believe that he’d deal with the People’s Liberation Army which numbers 2.3 million personnel; the largest military force on Earth?

President Duterte, of course, is well aware of this also, which is why even before he entered Malacañang he was trying to diffuse the tension surrounding the issue. He knows that the only way to settle the South China Sea dispute is by diplomacy and hard negotiating. Armed conflict is not an option.  “If a battle can’t be won, don’t fight it” – the wisdom of the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, has not been lost on this president, even if it has elsewhere.

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