Commentary Magazine


Topic: Philippines

Fighting Terrorism: A Third Way

It is not just in Iraq that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are on the march. This is a general trend across the Islamic world. As Seth Jones of Rand notes in a recent report, “from 2010 to 2013 the number of jihadist groups world-wide has grown by 58%, to 49 from 31; the number of jihadist fighters has doubled to a high estimate of 100,000; and the number of attacks by al Qaeda affiliates has increased to roughly 1,000 from 392.”

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It is not just in Iraq that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are on the march. This is a general trend across the Islamic world. As Seth Jones of Rand notes in a recent report, “from 2010 to 2013 the number of jihadist groups world-wide has grown by 58%, to 49 from 31; the number of jihadist fighters has doubled to a high estimate of 100,000; and the number of attacks by al Qaeda affiliates has increased to roughly 1,000 from 392.”

How should the U.S. combat this distressing trend? Simply pulling back from the Middle East, as President Obama envisioned, is not working–American retreat is increasing conflict, not decreasing it. But that doesn’t mean that the only other alternative is, as the president suggested in his West Point address, to launch a major ground war with American troops.

There is a third way and it can be found in the Philippines where, after 9/11, the U.S. set up a Joint Special Operations Task Force to combat Abu Sayyaf and other Islamist terrorist groups. That task force, whose operations I described in this 2009 Weekly Standard article, never had more than 600 personnel and it never went directly into combat. Rather its mission was to assist the Philippine armed forces with intelligence, planning, civil affairs, psychological operations, training, and other important tasks. Now, having accomplished a lot, the task force, based in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, is being disbanded.

The New York Times quotes one analyst as saying “that the unit ‘undoubtedly helped the Philippine military to curb the activities of violent extremist groups operating in the region’ so that militants ‘now only pose a small, localized threat.’ ” That doesn’t mean Abu Sayyaf has ceased to exist but its numbers have been drastically cut–from an estimated 1,200 fighters to 400–and it has become more of a criminal than a terrorist menace.

That’s not a bad result, all things considered; it would certainly look like victory if we were to achieve anything approaching that outcome with such groups as Boko Haram, the Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and of course the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

That’s not to say that 600 Special Operations troops by themselves can get the job done everywhere; circumstances were propitious in the Philippines where the insurgency was localized among a minority Muslim population and where the state had a long history of functioning, albeit with substantial problems of corruption and ineffectiveness.

The crisis is more acute in countries like Yemen, Sudan, Syria, and Iraq where large sections of the countryside have fallen entirely out of the government’s control. In some places–Iraq and Afghanistan among them–it will take a lot more than a few hundred special operators to keep the enemy at bay. But in other countries the Philippine model could prove to be sufficient. We should certainly try to apply it where we can, because the alternatives–retreat or massive military intervention–are so unpalatable.

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The Philippines and the American Empire of Liberty

If you want to know the secret of American power, look no farther than the Philippines. 

The U.S. once had a sprawling infrastructure of military bases there including a massive naval facility at Subic Bay and a massive air force base at Clark Air Base. But with the end of the Cold War and with nationalism rising in the Philippines–a country that was an American colony for a half-century–the U.S. agreed to pull up stakes in 1992. 

Now, President Obama is visiting the Philippines on Monday to sign a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will allow the U.S. Armed Forces regular access to Philippine military bases. This is not the same thing as getting permanent bases again–something prohibited by the Philippine constitution–but it is the next best thing, because it allows the U.S. to pre-position supplies and equipment in the Philippines.

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If you want to know the secret of American power, look no farther than the Philippines. 

The U.S. once had a sprawling infrastructure of military bases there including a massive naval facility at Subic Bay and a massive air force base at Clark Air Base. But with the end of the Cold War and with nationalism rising in the Philippines–a country that was an American colony for a half-century–the U.S. agreed to pull up stakes in 1992. 

Now, President Obama is visiting the Philippines on Monday to sign a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will allow the U.S. Armed Forces regular access to Philippine military bases. This is not the same thing as getting permanent bases again–something prohibited by the Philippine constitution–but it is the next best thing, because it allows the U.S. to pre-position supplies and equipment in the Philippines.

This demonstrates, in different ways, why America is an empire of liberty–not an empire of coercion. It’s true that we have a military presence around the world, with more bases in foreign territories than any other power by far. But we never–except for rare and short instances at the conclusion of wars–impose bases by force. Even countries that were once conquered by the United States–as the Philippines was at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War–eventually win the right to kick us out if they so desire. 

But countries that exercise their privilege to proclaim “Yankee, go home” often find themselves regretting their nationalist impulse. Certainly many Iraqis must by now regret the departure of U.S. forces, which has allowed violence to surge back to 2008 levels and sectarian strife to get worse and worse. And many Filipinos are equally sorry they kicked out the U.S. now that they see a far bigger threat looming on the horizon: China, which is using its navy to assert its claim over a tiny island in the South China Sea also claimed by the Philippines.

China is not an empire of liberty–it is the old-fashioned kind of territorial empire that imposes its diktat by force on Tibet and Xingjiang, among others, and threatens to do the same with Taiwan and various islands in the South China Sea. Chinese aggression is scaring its neighbors–just as Russian aggression is now doing in Eastern Europe. In both cases the threatened countries are looking to America for protection because they know we are the No. 1 champion of freedom in the world.

Those who predict the demise of American power ignore this obvious reality–namely, that America remains powerful because of a silent referendum on the part of most of the world. However much others may enjoy engaging in anti-American rhetoric, when the chips are down, they know they can count on the United States to keep them free.

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A Welcome Show of Strength from Obama

Perhaps this is what the Pacific pivot means. The Obama administration is telegraphing weakness, indecision, and retreat in the Middle East but is showing some welcome spine in the Far East.

This past weekend China had the temerity to proclaim an Air Defense Identification Zone over much of the East China Sea, including islands disputed by Japan and South Korea. If recognized, this would serve to extend China’s effective sovereignty and could lead to a dangerous confrontation with its neighbors, since China’s new air-defense zone overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But the Obama administration rightly said it would not recognize the Chinese power grab, and to underline the point a pair of B-52s flew into the disputed air space without notifying Beijing.

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Perhaps this is what the Pacific pivot means. The Obama administration is telegraphing weakness, indecision, and retreat in the Middle East but is showing some welcome spine in the Far East.

This past weekend China had the temerity to proclaim an Air Defense Identification Zone over much of the East China Sea, including islands disputed by Japan and South Korea. If recognized, this would serve to extend China’s effective sovereignty and could lead to a dangerous confrontation with its neighbors, since China’s new air-defense zone overlaps with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. But the Obama administration rightly said it would not recognize the Chinese power grab, and to underline the point a pair of B-52s flew into the disputed air space without notifying Beijing.

This is precisely the sort of action that a liberal superpower needs to take to maintain freedom of the skies and the seas. It, indeed, recalls the Reagan administration using force in the 1980s to challenge Libya’s power grab off its coast and Iran’s power grab in the Persian Gulf. Of course challenging China–a superpower in the making–is a lot more perilous an undertaking than challenging regional powers such as Libya or Iran. So it is all the more to Obama’s credit that he did not flinch from what could be a potential confrontation.

In reality China has made plain that, while it is happy to bully lesser states such as the Philippines, it has little appetite yet for an open confrontation with the United States which can still–but for how much longer?–bring overwhelming naval and air assets to bear in the western Pacific. By stepping forward, the U.S. is actually reducing the chances of a much more dangerous confrontation between Japan and China which might have ensued–and still may–were Japan’s nationalist new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to send his own aircraft to challenge China’s air defense claims.

This is yet another sign of why the world needs a strong and vigorous American military that can keep the peace, as it has done for the most part since 1945. That capability, sadly, is now imperiled by imprudent defense cuts. Ten years from now, China may be able to not only assert wide-ranging territorial claims but make them stick, because by that point the U.S. may be too weak to resist.

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Philippines Will Regret Terrorist Treaty

After almost four decades of battling the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an Islamist insurgent group best known in the West for beheading captives, the government of the Philippines has reached a peace accord which will grant the Muslim and ethnic Bangsamoro people an autonomous Islamic entity on Mindanao Island in the southern Philippines.

While diplomats and academics will always applaud deals purporting to end bloodshed, this agreement both legitimizes the terrorists’ often bloody tactics and signals to Islamists in other states that they should not accept living as a minority but rather should always push to succeed. Manila’s concession strikes a blow at the notion of multi-confessional democracy in Asia. Should Islamist insurgents in southern Thailand now get their own autonomous state? Should Burmese Muslims secede? Is there space for a healthy Muslim minority in India?

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After almost four decades of battling the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an Islamist insurgent group best known in the West for beheading captives, the government of the Philippines has reached a peace accord which will grant the Muslim and ethnic Bangsamoro people an autonomous Islamic entity on Mindanao Island in the southern Philippines.

While diplomats and academics will always applaud deals purporting to end bloodshed, this agreement both legitimizes the terrorists’ often bloody tactics and signals to Islamists in other states that they should not accept living as a minority but rather should always push to succeed. Manila’s concession strikes a blow at the notion of multi-confessional democracy in Asia. Should Islamist insurgents in southern Thailand now get their own autonomous state? Should Burmese Muslims secede? Is there space for a healthy Muslim minority in India?

Nor will the deal bring peace to the Philippines. Not only is the Abu Sayyaf Group (a related Islamist organization) not party to the agreement, but precedent also shows that Islamist terrorists will simply interpret treaties as truces during which they can regroup or expand their ambitions. The Moro partisans can pursue politics on one hand, while using Abu Sayyaf terrorism to pressure for greater concessions.

When the Pakistani government famously signed the Malakand Accords, the result was a doubling of the Taliban in nearby Swat and a renewed Islamist offensive deep into Pakistani territory, catching Islamabad off guard. Diplomats can applaud today, but they are condemning not only Philippine citizens, but others around the world to renewed insurgency and terrorism down the road.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Road to China’s Rise to Global Power….

A funny thing happened recently on the road to China’s supposedly inexorable rise to global power. Actually, a couple of funny things.

First and most prominent has been the scandal swirling around Bo Xilai, onetime Politburo member and party boss in Chonqqing, who has now been removed from power–and from sight–because of a variety of corruption and abuse-of-power allegations. The latest twist is the news that his wife, Gu Kailai, is a suspect in  the murder of the mysterious upper-class British expatriate and fixer Neil Heywood, a character who seems to have wandered straight out of a Graham Greene novel. The whole affair is causing major embarrassment to the ruling class in China for the way it brings into the open the shady machinations and rich deals that are a regular part of life for Communist mandarins. While Bo Xilai’s fall is being used to spread the message that no one is above the law, in fact no one knows exactly what led to his downfall; there is widespread suspicion it was not the result of his crimes per se, whatever they may have been, but rather of a murky behind-the-scenes power struggle whose features can be glimpsed only dimly by outsiders.

The second news item of note is this standoff in disputed waters of the South China Sea between a Philippine Navy gunboat and two Chinese “surveillance” ships. It seems that the Philippine warship had arrived to discover Chinese fishing vessels operating in waters claimed by Manila. Filipino sailors found plenty of illegally harvested clams, corals and other sea treasures aboard the ships before being blocked from further access by the arrival of  two Chinese “surveillance” ships–presumably unmarked vessels belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Why are these two news items so important? Because both cast doubts about whether China’s rise is as inevitable as the pundits have it.

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A funny thing happened recently on the road to China’s supposedly inexorable rise to global power. Actually, a couple of funny things.

First and most prominent has been the scandal swirling around Bo Xilai, onetime Politburo member and party boss in Chonqqing, who has now been removed from power–and from sight–because of a variety of corruption and abuse-of-power allegations. The latest twist is the news that his wife, Gu Kailai, is a suspect in  the murder of the mysterious upper-class British expatriate and fixer Neil Heywood, a character who seems to have wandered straight out of a Graham Greene novel. The whole affair is causing major embarrassment to the ruling class in China for the way it brings into the open the shady machinations and rich deals that are a regular part of life for Communist mandarins. While Bo Xilai’s fall is being used to spread the message that no one is above the law, in fact no one knows exactly what led to his downfall; there is widespread suspicion it was not the result of his crimes per se, whatever they may have been, but rather of a murky behind-the-scenes power struggle whose features can be glimpsed only dimly by outsiders.

The second news item of note is this standoff in disputed waters of the South China Sea between a Philippine Navy gunboat and two Chinese “surveillance” ships. It seems that the Philippine warship had arrived to discover Chinese fishing vessels operating in waters claimed by Manila. Filipino sailors found plenty of illegally harvested clams, corals and other sea treasures aboard the ships before being blocked from further access by the arrival of  two Chinese “surveillance” ships–presumably unmarked vessels belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Why are these two news items so important? Because both cast doubts about whether China’s rise is as inevitable as the pundits have it.

The Bo Xilai affair exposes the fragility of a regime that does not rest on the consent of the governed. The exposure of corrupt politicians is always traumatic even in a democratic system such as ours; they are far more serious in a one-party dictatorship such as China where civil unrest is never too far beneath the surface. The Communist Party justifies its monopoly on power by claiming that democracy is far too messy for a giant developing country like China and that wise, if unelected, mandarins can deliver economic growth and good government better than politicians beholden to grubby political parties. But scandals like the one swirling around Bo Xilai cast serious doubt on that propaganda line and in fact undermine the very legitimacy of the entire government–something that could not be said of even the most serious scandals (e.g., Watergate) in the United States.

Meanwhile, the South China Sea standoff is yet another indication of how China’s increasing assertiveness is alarming its neighbors and drawing them closer into an alliance with the United States. U.S.-Filipino relations are closer than they have been since the closing of the U.S. military bases in that country in the early 1990s–and we have China to thank for that. The same is true of U.S. relations with Singapore, Australia, India, and other neighbors of China–including even Vietnam and Burma. Thus China, like other dictatorial powers that aspired to great power (e.g., Wilhelmine Germany or Imperial Japan), seems to be creating with its own actions a coalition to keep it in check–even as its ruling infrastructure is showing fresh signs of fragility.

Does this really look like a country that is about to overtake the U.S. for global dominance? If it does,we will have only ourselves to blame, because, given China’s inherent weaknesses, our fall can only be the result of our own errors, such as failing to gain control of runaway entitlement spending or letting our best-in-the-world military atrophy due to excessive budget cuts.

 

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