A decade on: “War on terror” caused permanent basing of US troops in Mindanao

Posted: August 17, 2011 in War on Terror
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Why is the Philippine government not doing anything about the permanently stationed US  Special Forces in Mindanao?

The permanent presence, which is nearing its 10th year now, dates back from the time the US launched its borderless “war on terror” in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, which is also marking its 10th anniversary this year. The “war on terror” resulted in direct US military aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq and saw US forces conducting operations in Pakistan. Other “secret wars” were launched worldwide in the name of fighting terrorism.

In 2002, the Philippines was tagged by the US as the “second front” in the “war on terror”, and Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines was launched against the Abu Sayyaf and the Jemaah Islamiya purportedly training in Mindanao. For the first time, US forces were deployed in actual combat areas in Mindanao under the guise of training exercises called Balikatan 02-1. US forces have not left Southern Philippines since. A permanent structure has been set-up inside Camp Navarro in Zamboanga which hosts a rotating force of about 600 personnel of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, under the US Joint Special Operations Command.

It is incomprehensible why the Philippine government has not questioned the permanent basing of US troops in Mindanao, since this already goes against the definition of ‘visiting forces’ as contemplated by the Visiting Forces Agreement. The decision to maintain the US Special Forces in Mindanao was a unilateral move by the US government during the time of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. However, the Aquino administration apparently does not mind the continuing violation of the country’s sovereignty under this arrangement.

Unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan, there is no time-table for the pull-out of US troops in Mindanao. There are no clear parameters on how they will consider their mission ‘accomplished’. Clearly, the US government is circumventing a constitutional prohibition on US bases. The Philippine Constitution is clear, no foreign military bases absent a treaty ratified by both governments. With the virtual basing of US troops in Mindanao, the Philippine government is allowing itself to be hoodwinked by Washington. The Philippine government is allowing itself to be used in advancing this 10-year borderless war on terror that has claimed more lives worldwide than the original victims of 9-11.

Exactly two years ago, the New York Times reported that then US Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided to “keep an elite 600-troop counterinsurgency operation deployed in the Philippines despite pressure to reassign its members elsewhere”.

The NY Times article tells us that the decision for US Special Forces to stay in Mindanao was a unilateral decision made by the US government. It is an imposition by a super power on a puppet state. It is not a sign of enduring friendship. It is a sign that the US is trying to one-up the Philippines every chance it gets. It shows how the US government regards us a nation.

It is time to ask what the Department of Foreign Affairs is doing.  What is the Presidential Commission on the VFA doing? What is the Joint Congressional Oversight of the VFA doing? None of them appear to be even remotely concerned about this violation of our country’s sovereignty. Is it because were so desperate to get US support for our claims in the Spratlys? Is it because our government is so dependent on US economic and military aid that it is prepared to look the other way when sovereignty is assaulted?

The NY Times article described the Special Operations Forces as “the most highly skilled in the military at capture-and-kill missions against insurgent and terrorist leaders. Within their ranks, Army Special Forces, known as the Green Berets, have for decades been training (US) allied troops on their home soil and conducting counterinsurgency missions.

Meanwhile, analyst Nick Terse in an article describes the JSOC as a power-elite even in Washington. “In 120 countries across the globe, troops from Special Operations Command carry out their secret war of high-profile assassinations, low-level targeted killings, capture/kidnap operations, kick-down-the-door night raids, joint operations with foreign forces, and training missions with indigenous partners as part of a shadowy conflict unknown to most Americans.”

Analysts have also estimated that funding for these units have tripled in the aftermath of 9-11, from $2.3 billion to $6.3 billion in 2011, not counting appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Philippines, Terse says that the US government spends some $50 million a year to maintain the 600-man Special Forces unit.  The Obama administration has given the JSOC a more prominent role in US combat operations abroad.

After ‘concluding’ Balikatan 02-1 in 2002, the US government again unilaterally announced that troops will be staying behind for so-called “Civil Military Operations” and to continue training local troops. The US forces have not left since then. They have also established temporary faculties in other parts of Mindanao. January 2012 will mark a decade of US permanent basing in Mindanao, and there seems to be no end in sight for their deployment in this part of the world, not if Obama can help it.

Front page photo of the Philippine Star....duh

It is ironic that while the nation will be observing the 20th anniversary of the historic rejection of the US bases treaty by the Philippine Senate, US forces have managed to diminish this victory by having permanent and continuing presence in Mindanao. It’s like the bases never really left. While the US facilities in Mindanao host a much smaller force, the rationale for their presence remains the same.

The problem with US troops in Mindanao highlight the serious flaws of the Visiting Forces Agreement. The VFA’s vagueness is being exploited to allow the permanent stationing of an unlimited number of foreign troops, engaged in unspecified activities, anywhere in the country.

There has been a review of the VFA completed by Malacanang, yet the results have not been made public. Unfortunately, the review does not include the question of permanent basing of US troops in Mindanao. (To be continued)

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