The Two Faces of Counterterrorism Strategy in Mindanao

By Ishak Mastura

On the one hand there is that prevailing thought that “Counterterrorism is now 90 per cent law enforcement and intelligence,” according to Jonathan Stevenson, a senior strategist with the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in London . “Since Sept. 11, the only overt military actions have been the Predator (missile) strike in Yemen , and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – and I don’t think there will be many more. I think there’s a much higher priority placed on law enforcement and intelligence now. It’s not a traditional war.” (The Globe & Mail/Canada, September 6, 2003).

On the other hand, there is the Pentagon push, which is being felt in Mindanao, for regional militaries to establish control over what is called “ungoverned spaces” – urban shantytowns where gangs operated, borders, coastlines, and rivers where arms, drugs, and human smuggling took place, and jungle and rural areas where guerillas and terror cells could take root (Washington Office on Latin America, “Blurring the Lines: Trends in U.S. Military Programs with Latin America,” September 2004). Such a vision of international security implies a major expansion of the role of the armed forces in domestic affairs, “eroding the fragile firewall between police and military operations that human rights activists had fought so hard to erect since the end of the Cold War” (Grandin, G., Empire’s Workshop, 2006). In June 2005, for instance, Washington encouraged Central American nations to create a regional “rapid response” team composed of military and police units that could deal with cross-border drug trafficking and gang violence – an operation that harkens back to the 1960s, when U.S.-created rapid response units turned themselves into death squads (Ibid). In the Philippines, U.S. Special Forces have conducted training at the company level of the Philippine military to establish Light Reaction Teams, that are supposed to pursue JI and Abu Sayyaf terrorist groupings, but which in turn have been used to suppress Moro rebel groups fighting for legitimate Moro grievances, such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

In the case of Mindanao, the U.S. relationship with the Moros is as old as that of its relationship with Latin America since it began in the age of American imperial expansion in 1898. Volumes and reams of papers have been written about the American success at the pacification of the Moros and the establishment of a separate Moro Province uniting the different tribal groupings of the Moros into one unified body politic. The failure is on the part of the Filipinos who took over the governance of the Moros from the Americans from Philippine independence in 1946 despite warnings that the Filipinos could never govern the Moros and that the animosities between the two would be rekindled sooner or later.

The question for U.S. policy makers is: Does the U.S. want to completely throw away all that history of its Military and Economic success for the Moro Province established by the likes of Generals John Pershing, Arthur MacArthur, Trasker Bliss and Leonard Wood, legends in their own time in the American pantheon of great generals?

Asia expert, Michael Vatikiotis, in his article “Brain not Brawn, the key to winning the War on Terror” (http://www.opinionasia.org/, April 4, 2007) showed us examples of success in counterterrorism operations by highlighting the differences in approach of Indonesia and the Philippines . “If there is one lesson to be learned from the war against terror as it has been waged in Southeast Asia , it is that good intelligence and careful police work rather than brute military force are the best counter terrorist strategy. And some of the best police work has been conducted in Indonesia, where many so-called terror experts once believed the government would be least effective in countering the terrorist threat”, he says. The success of Indonesia in its counterterrorism operations is in no small part attributed to the training in police and detective work and small unit operations provided by the U.S. Special Forces, FBI and Australian Federal Police.

And now we hear that the Australians have signed a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippine government to conduct military trainings (operations?) in Mindanao . How different can the counterterrorism operations in the Philippines be from that in Indonesia , which is the source of the jihadists in Mindanao ?

In parting, my best advice for the U.S., Australia and other interested international actors in Mindanao is to identify the Moros that can be on your side, befriend them, offer them support on their legitimate aspirations (particularly regarding the peace process with the MILF), and you can be sure of longer term gains in the Great Game as China looms on the horizon. After all, the Moros are Muslims and what is critically important for the West is engaging the Islamic world since the Filipinos are already co-opted into the Western fold.