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When Uncle Sam comes marching in

Posted in the database on Sunday, February 26th, 2006 @ 14:38:08 MST (1315 views)
by Herbert Docena    Asia Times  

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About 5,500 US soldiers are coming to the Philippines this month, the latest and reportedly the largest batch in the continuing and uninterrupted deployment of US troops to the country since the "global war on terror" was launched after September 11, 2001.

About 250 of them will join an undetermined number of US troops already in Sulu, an island in the southern Philippines where the

Abu Sayyaf group supposedly fled after being driven out of neighboring Basilan island, where US troops were also previously deployed. If official pronouncements are to be believed, US troops are coming only to train Filipino soldiers, give away medicine, build schools and even give veterinary services.

According to people who claim to have actually seen them in action, however, US troops who have been coming to the country are doing more than that. The target: not a terrorist group but legitimate liberation movements in the country.

The never-ending games

In 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to close down what were once the largest US military installations in Asia, signaling an end to permanent US military presence in the country. While there were regular US deployments to the country even after the closure of the bases, these were limited to small, short, and close-ended training exercises with Filipino soldiers as part of the Philippines' military alliance with the United States. From 1991 to 2000, not one US aircraft or warship came.

Since September 11, however, the United States has maintained what former US ambassador to Manila Francis Ricciardone has described as a "semi-continuous" presence in the country. The prefix "semi" may be unnecessary, since not a day has passed when not one US soldier is in the country; on any given day, between one and more than 5,000 US troops are deployed somewhere in the archipelago. Not only has the duration of the "war games" been extended to as long as nine months, for the first time, they began being held in actual conflict areas with live enemies whom US troops are allowed to shoot in case they get fired at.

For the past four years, there have been about 17-24 training exercises annually; this year, that number jumps to 37. Apart from the exercises, US troops are also engaged in different and overlapping humanitarian and civil- works programs under different names scattered all over the country. Aside from stationing troops, the US also began enjoying access to various ports, airports, depots and other military infrastructure throughout the territory, under the Mutual Logistics and Servicing Agreement signed in November 2001.

At one level, US and Philippine officials justified the deployments as part of the "global war on terror". With the presence of the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and its alleged links with terrorist groups Jemaah Islamiah and al-Qaeda, various US officials have repeatedly branded the Philippines as "the next Afghanistan" or a "doormat for terrorism in the region" - a charge Philippine officials both echo and deny, depending on the circumstances.

At the local level, however, officials have tended to play down the counter-terrorist aims of the deployments and instead emphasize their accompanying civil or humanitarian projects.

The Philippine constitution prohibits the presence of foreign military troops in the country without a treaty. While the Supreme Court has qualified this and allowed the entry of foreign troops for military exercises, it bans their involvement in actual combat. The Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement, which are often invoked to justify the US military presence, also do not allow participation in actual fighting. So legally to justify and counter formidable domestic opposition to the US deployments, Philippine officials have consistently maintained that the troops keep coming for a variety of reasons - but never to engage in war.

The unconquered colony

Involving about 1,300 US troops, including 160 special-operations forces, the first and most controversial of the new type of post-September 11 "exercises" was held in Basilan, an island in the southern Philippines, where the Abu Sayyaf was holding foreign, including American, hostages. It was the largest US deployment to Mindanao since the US war of pacification against the Moros (predominantly Muslim Malay tribespeople of the southern Philippines) from 1901-13.

Tagged a "terrorist" group by the United States, dismissed as a bandit group by some and suspected by others to be a creation of the military, the Abu Sayyaf could not be understood accurately if not in the context of the long-running struggle by the Bangsamoro against the central Philippine government. The Bangsamoro, who are mostly Muslim people from the southernmost parts of what is now considered the Philippine nation-state, claim a national and historical identity distinct from that of the mostly Christian northern and central areas. Once ruled under independent sultanates prior to the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 16th century, the Bangsamoro were never fully ruled over by the Spanish throughout their three centuries of colonization. It is often said that the Spanish sold what they never really possessed to the Americans at the end of the 19th century.

What followed was a long - and still ongoing - attempt to subordinate the area and its people under the Philippine nation-state. Perhaps the most decisive of these efforts was a massive resettlement policy in which mostly Christian and mostly landless people from the north were encouraged to migrate to the south. Filipino landlords and elites, multinational corporations and settlers claimed ownership of the lands that historically belonged to the Moros or the non-Muslim and non-Christian indigenous groups in the area.

In 1913, Muslims constituted 98% of the region's population and "owned" all the lands prior to colonization. But so successful was the long-running resettlement program that by the time war broke out during the Moro uprising in the 1970s, Muslims accounted for a minority of the population but a majority of the landless. They accounted for only 40% of the population and owned less than 17% of the land, with more than 80% of them landless. Today, the Muslim-majority areas are the poorest provinces in the country.

In the late 1960s, the Philippine military - widely believed to be supported by loggers and politicians - organized and financed paramilitary groups that massacred entire Muslim communities to drive them from their lands. This finally sparked massive, organized resistance on the part of the Bangsamoros (Bangsamoro is the name of the area claimed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF). In 1972, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF, from which the MILF split in 1978) formally emerged, with widespread legitimacy and popularity among Muslims. War followed, but even after more than 100,000 were dead, neither the government nor the MNLF had won decisively.

A protracted period of negotiations ensued. The MNLF eventually gave up its goal of establishing an independent state by accepting a degree of autonomy under the Philippine government. Hawks in the military and other forces that had an interest in keeping control of the Bangsamoro consistently attempted to deprive the Moros of what they had settled for. The peace talks dragged, and faltered. But in 1996, the MNLF and the government forged what they called - or hoped would be - a final peace agreement in which the MNLF would once and for all lay down its arms and the government would give real power to the Bangsamoro under Philippine sovereignty.

The invincible enemy

It is in this context that what later came to be known as the Abu Sayyaf first emerged. It started out in the early 1990s as a loose grouping of mostly former MNLF leaders and their followers who split from the MNLF after it negotiated for autonomy with the central government. Disenchanted with the MNLF leadership under Nur Misuari, the group attracted mostly young recruits. With the MNLF lying low, with Misuari abroad, but with certain interests continuing to sabotage the negotiations and the military continuing to commit human-rights violations against Moros, the group filled the vacuum vacated by the MNLF and was seen by many as taking over the struggle on behalf of the Moros at the period when it emerged.

Initially, the group launched operations to push for political demands, including the banning in the Sulu seas of large fishing trawlers from the north that were displacing Moro fishermen in the south. While the group eventually decided to conduct kidnap operations, it was supposedly divided on whether only to make political demands or also to ask for ransom in exchange for releasing hostages. After its founder and ideologue's death in 1998 and after reportedly being infiltrated by agents planted by the military and by politicians, what was once a highly political group became increasingly known for its high-profile kidnapping and bombing operations. After abducting mostly foreign Catholic priests, tourists, journalists and local residents, the group raided a diving resort in neighboring Malaysia in 2000, taking hostage mostly European tourists and local workers. In May 2001, the group kidnapped another batch of hostages, including three Americans.

US Special Forces then joined the hunt for the Abu Sayyaf in February 2002. Prior to the US entry, Philippine officials discounted, if not altogether ruling them out, the reported links between the group and the so-called al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden. As late as November 2001, presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said of alleged links between the Abu Sayyaf and al-Qaeda, "Of course there are historical ties, but our investigations have yielded no signs that these international terrorists are at work here." The national security adviser then confirmed that there was no proof al-Qaeda was financing the Abu Sayyaf. Since then, however, the group's alleged association has simply been assumed as a given; almost all media reports now prefix the Abu Sayyaf as "al-Qaeda-linked" or mention its alleged association with the regional grouping Jemaah Islamiah.

While such connections to external groups could not be altogether ruled out, the ideological affinity of the Abu Sayyaf with them and the extent of their operational cooperation are widely disputed and meet with great skepticism in the country. By 2003, even officials from different countries interviewed by the New York Times admitted that their information on al-Qaeda presence in the Philippines was "sketchy". The Washington Post also reported that Abu Sayyaf's alleged ties to al-Qaeda "appeared dated and tenuous". While US officials continued to trumpet Jemaah Islamiah's growing links to Philippine-based groups, a White House assessment concluded that the Philippines had "more or less contained the terror group in Mindanao".

With numerous and credible accusations that the Philippine military has been conniving with the Abu Sayyaf, the group's supposed lines to the generals resonate more than its alleged links with bin Laden. For many, the Abu Sayyaf is understood less as a branch of a global "Islamic terrorist network" and more as the fringe of a local secessionist movement - its survival more dependent on the solution of the Bangsamoro issue and less on the intensification of military operations.

'By far the most dangerous group in the country today'

The Abu Sayyaf hostage-taking ended in June 2002 and since then, there have been contradictory assessments by US and Philippine officials as to the threat posed by the group. At times, the Philippine government has tended to portray it as a spent force even as other officials and analysts talk of the group as if it were stronger than ever.

The supposed number of Abu Sayyaf members, and the accompanying pronouncements, tell the tale: in December 2001, the chief military commander in the south said there were only 80 members. A Department of Defense report in late 2002, after the deployment of Americans, put the number at 250, down from 800 in 2001. A few months after, just as the government had announced the deployment of US troops to Sulu, the military chief of staff said a review of military documents showed that the membership is actually bigger, closer to 500.

Near the end of the US deployment to Basilan, US Army Brigadier-General Donald Wurster remarked that the Abu Sayyaf "are non-functional as an organization". And Philippine presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said, "It is widely acknowledged that the training, advice and assistance we received in Basilan [from the US] were critical factors that led to the defeat of the Abu Sayyaf there." A senior US diplomat was quoted by the New York Times as saying that the Abu Sayyaf is "practically null and void".

In May 2004, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo triumphantly said the Abu Sayyaf "can no longer resuscitate itself under other guises or names". As of June 2004, a government report states that the group counts only 508 members, down from 1,300 in 2001. Last August, just as some military officials were blaming Abu Sayyaf members for a spate of bombings in the south, newly installed army chief Major-General Hermogenes Esperon said, "We are on full offensive and the Abu Sayyaf are not likely to be able to launch any offensive that could inflict harm to our people."

Almost all the Abu Sayyaf leaders have now been killed. Those who remain are those leaders and factions that are more political than criminal and which reportedly objected to the kidnapping operations. According to people in Sulu, the primary reason the Abu Sayyaf is still able to draw people to its fold is that the military continues to commit atrocities against Moros and victims feel the only way to get justice is by joining armed groups. Stop the military atrocities, they say, and the group will fade away. Despite the limited popular support, the Abu Sayyaf's ranks are depleted; it is isolated, with few sources of funds, and has very little capacity to inflict damage.

And yet, if one listens to the government and the media, the Abu Sayyaf is still everywhere and nowhere; everyone and no one. Everywhere because almost all "terrorist" incidents are still routinely blamed on the group. And yet nowhere because - despite more than 50,000 troops based in the south running after them for more than 10 years and despite the US military's help - the Abu Sayyaf continues to elude pursuit and to be cited as the justification for military offensives in the region, for efforts to institute more repressive laws throughout the country and, bizarrely, even for justifying a raid on a house where evidence of alleged electoral fraud against Arroyo and Vice President Noli de Castro was stored. Everyone because almost all of those killed or arrested by the military as part of the anti-terror campaign are labeled Abu Sayyaf members. And yet seemingly no one, because - for all those arrested or killed - the Abu Sayyaf lives on and continues to be projected as, in the words of National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, "by far the most dangerous group in the country today".

The right to name thine enemy

Last February, the Abu Sayyaf, according to the military, struck again. Four people were killed in Maimbung town in Sulu, including a pregnant woman and a child, in what the military called an encounter with the group. People who know the casualties and other people in the province maintained otherwise. Frustrated by government's failure or refusal to look into the incident and other previous human-rights violations allegedly committed by the military, the MNLF attacked military camps, sparking clashes that lasted for a week and that killed more than 70 people. As early as then, a US military official confirmed the presence of US troops on the island during the fighting but denied that they were involved in combat.

In April, more groups of US soldiers started arriving in some of the very towns in Sulu that the Philippine military claims to be the base of the Abu Sayyaf and that would later be the site of military offensives. The Americans were supposedly on a mission to conduct an "assessment" of Sulu's infrastructure ostensibly for the civil projects they were going to implement. Among the things they checked out was whether US military ships and planes could use the island's infrastructure. US officials declined to specify exactly how many US soldiers were involved. By November, six months after they arrived, the Americans were still conducting their "assessment".

On November 11, Philippine marines attacked what they initially again claimed were members of the Abu Sayyaf in Indanan town in Sulu. Almost all media reports of the fighting followed the military's story line. Those who were being attacked - and who were fighting back - claim they are not members of the Abu Sayyaf but of the MNLF. The Philippine military then revised its story by reporting that it was also clashing with members of the so-called "Misuari Renegade Group" (MRG) or "Misuari Breakaway Group" (MBG) because this group was allegedly coddling members of the Abu Sayyaf. The MNLF, however, flatly rejects these labels imposed on it by the military. It questions why the military should reserve for itself the right to rename it and why the media should unquestioningly follow the military's labels.

Various accounts of what transpired in that offensive challenge the military's version of events. According to Brigadier-General Alexander Aleo, chief of the military's Sulu-based task force assigned to root out remaining Abu Sayyaf members, fighting erupted when patrolling soldiers were attacked by Abu Sayyaf members. Witnesses and residents in the area, however, claim the fighting was initiated by the military when it forcibly entered a known MNLF camp, despite warnings from the area's village official that it was indeed an MNLF camp and that the MNLF was not just going to sit back and watch them.

Supposing the military was really chasing Abu Sayyaf members, there are questions as to why the armed forces insisted on passing through the MNLF camp even if there was a shorter and more direct route to the area where the military claims the Abu Sayyaf members were located. Even Esperon was quoted in newspapers, four days after the fighting, openly contradicting his subordinates in the field by saying there was no confirmation that the MNLF were protecting the Abu Sayyaf.

Invoking the 1996 peace agreement, which they claim allows them to maintain their camps, the MNLF leadership said they were forced to defend themselves when the marines intruded into their territory. The MNLF's military chief of staff, Jul Amri Misuari, believes the attack was a deliberate attempt by hawks in the military to sabotage back-channel talks between them and the government. General Nehemias Pajarito, the commander who supervised the offensives in November, disputes this, maintaining that the MNLF is not allowed to run camps and that the marines were not crossing any bounds when they decided to enter their area. He also said that while his forces were aware that they were entering what he calls the "MRG/MBG" camps, they went ahead anyway despite the risk of provoking the "MRG/MBG" if only to seek the Abu Sayyaf.

'Dirty tricks' department

Certain sections in the Philippine military have long held that the Abu Sayyaf is the "dirty tricks department" of the MNLF, a charge that the MNLF has consistently denied. What the MNLF stands to gain from joining ranks with the Abu Sayyaf is not clear. Associating with the Abu Sayyaf would only have given the MNLF's opponents in the government - those factions who continue to insist on wiping the MNLF out once and for all - justification to undermine the 1996 peace agreement and continue military offensives against the organization, something the MNLF presumably doesn't want, as shown by its insistence that the peace agreement be respected.

Moreover, the MNLF could presumably have calculated that in this "global war on terror", associating with the Abu Sayyaf would only train the guns of the world's only superpowers at them - a prospect the MNLF might not necessarily relish, especially in its current condition.

The Philippine military, on the other hand, seems to have much to gain from blurring the lines. Given the prevailing opinion against the Abu Sayyaf, to claim that one is running after that group - or those who are coddling it - is a sure way to garner public support, elude scrutiny and label those who question the military's actions as, in the words of Arroyo, "Abu Sayyaf-lovers". Under the "war on terror", to claim to fight against the Abu Sayyaf, even as one is really targeting other groups, is a way to argue for a bigger budget from the national government and more military largesse from the United States.

In fact, a group of Filipino soldiers who staged a mutiny in July 2003 had accused the military top brass of setting off bombs in Mindanao to pin the blame on "terrorists" and thereby demand more military aid from the United States. Among all other countries in the region, the Philippine armed forces has received the most dramatic increase in foreign military funding from the US since 2001.

In January 2003, the military launched an offensive in Pikit, Cotabato, initially claiming it was chasing the Pentagon gang, a kidnap-for-ransom group, only to admit later that it was really going after the MILF. After the fighting, military officials couldn't identify the alleged Pentagon gang members from among the casualties. An intelligence officer was quoted as saying the threat posed by the Pentagon gang was exaggerated and that the military's oft-repeated allegations of supposed links between the gang and the MILF were inconclusive.

Training in action

In pursuing the so-called Abu Sayyaf members, the military assembled about 1,500 soldiers. Military planes dropped 500-to-1,000-pound (227-454-kilogram) bombs. Troops bombarded the area with howitzers and mortars for three days. In the end, Pajarito admitted that of the 200 Abu Sayyaf members the military claimed to be pursuing, his forces were not able to retrieve any of the bodies of those they had killed in their offensives.

Through all that, various civilian witnesses claim US forces were in the middle of the action. They say they spotted US soldiers in full battle gear together with their Filipino counterparts aboard trucks and Humvees at the battlefield. One witness reported seeing at least four US soldiers aboard a military truck proceed to the combat zone. Another report states that US troops were seen aboard rubber boats along the shores very close to the scene of the fighting. Others claim to have sighted US soldiers helping their Filipino counterparts mount heavy artillery, operate military equipment and remove land mines. Throughout the fighting, a US military spy plane was seen constantly hovering above the area where fighting raged. One spy plane crashed and was later recovered by farmers in the area.

There were even reports that at least four US soldiers were killed in the operations, including one identified as "Sergeant Grant". Witnesses allegedly saw their remains in body bags being transported by helicopter back to the military bases. This cannot be verified independently, however, unless the US military releases the complete and uncensored list of its casualties in its operations. In October 2002, one US Special Forces soldier was actually killed in a bombing in Zamboanga city, supposedly by the Abu Sayyaf, but this incident only made it to the foreign news - and only as an aside - a few months later.

Witnesses who attest to seeing US forces during the operations have executed sworn affidavits and have testified at a closed session of a Philippine congressional committee that went to Sulu to hear the allegations. But their allegations seem not to have caught the national attention. Other witnesses decline to speak on record because, on an island where massacres and killings almost always end up unresolved, they are afraid the military would seek revenge if they refute its claims.

Is the US engaged in 'actual combat' in Mindanao?

US officials dismissed the allegations as "absolutely not true". While they admit US soldiers were indeed on the island during the fighting, US Army Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Zimmer, public affairs officer of the Joint Special Operation Task Force Philippines, said, "We are not in any way involved in military operations conducted by the Philippine armed forces." According to Zimmer, the Americans' mission has not changed: "We are there to advise, assist and to train the armed forces" and "also share information with counterparts".

Philippine military officials, however, corroborated some of the witnesses' claims. One colonel who refused to be identified was quoted by Reuters as saying US troops have been asked to clear land mines. Pajarito confirmed witness reports the soldiers were where they were seen. According to him, at the time of the fighting, he was asked by the mayor of the municipality of Indanan to fix minor damage to a water pipe but, since his troops didn't have the resources nor the expertise to do so, he asked the US soldiers for help instead. The US troops hitched with them on the way to the battlefield, he said, so that Filipino troops would not have to provide a separate security convoy for them.

Such an explanation has only served to raise more questions regarding the US troops' actual role in the November clashes, in particular, and their mission to Sulu in general. Why do fully armed US soldiers - and not civilians - have to conduct "humanitarian" missions? Why was the minor water-pipe damage such a pressing concern in a time of war and why was no less than the top general leading the war worrying about it? Why did US soldiers - and not Filipino soldiers or civilians - have to fix the water pipes? Weren't the US troops aware that fighting was going on? Did they know the Filipino soldiers they tagged along with were attacking fighters of a national-liberation movement, or were they led to believe they were running after a "terrorist" group? Or were they aware that the fighting was against the MNLF but they went along anyway? And what interest, if any, does the United States have in joining the fight against the MNLF?

Humanitarian spy planes, medical assault ships

This is not the first time reports of involvement by US forces in fighting surfaced. In a little-known incident, the Los Angeles Times reported that US troops fired back and killed guerrillas when they were in Basilan in June 2002. In June 2005, US forces also allegedly joined the Philippine military in operations against Abu Sayyaf members in Maguindanao province in mainland Mindanao - even when no training exercises or civil projects were announced.

A Bantay Ceasefire mission, a coalition of groups monitoring the Philippines armed forces and the MILF, reported recovering empty MRE (meals ready to eat) packages that were issued to US soldiers in the area. As in Sulu, a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft for pinpointing enemy positions was sighted and was even caught on video. An Associated Press report suggested the operations were "backed at times by US surveillance aircraft". A Philippine military official denied this, saying the US is not permitted to conduct reconnaissance flights in the country, but claimed the surveillance aircraft may have been used for a "humanitarian" mission, not for spying. Another spy plane that had crashed and gone missing would also be recovered a few months later in Central Luzon.

At times last year, unannounced appearances of US military ships and planes appeared to have caught Philippine government and military officials by surprise, giving rise to questions as to the extent by which the US military informs Manila of its actions within the country's territory. In October, for example, an 11,000-ton US military ship was spotted off Basilan near Zamboanga city. Foreign Ministry and military officials gave the ship different names and conflicting explanations as to its mission. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson initially claimed the US didn't inform the government of the presence of the ship, only to retract that later. US officials eventually stated the vessels had come for medical, dental and civil-works projects.

The foreign media have a description for all these mysterious sightings of soldiers, spy planes and ships. According to the Associated Press, the Philippines is fighting the "war on terror" with "covert US non-combat assistance" in Sulu. Another key US ally in the region, Australia, is also helping out by sending personnel who are involved in what Australian media refer to as a "covert operation" in the country.

'Emerging targets for preemptive war'

The possibility US troops are not just playing games, building schools or handing out pills in Mindanao is not such a wild allegation. In an editorial questioning the vagueness of the stated objectives of US troop deployments abroad, the New York Times had earlier warned, "The Pentagon has a long and ignoble history of announcing that it is dispatching American forces abroad as 'advisers' when they are really meant to be combatants."

That these "advisers" are doing more than looking after pets is not a conspiracy theory: certain factions in Washington are known to have been agitating for more action since 2002. Some of the highest-ranking US military officers, such as former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Richard Myers and Pacific Command commander Admiral Thomas Fargo, were reported to have been advocating a "longer and more intense mission" in the country after the initial deployment to Basilan.

Outside the US military, there have been calls for US forces to assume a more direct role in the fighting. In an opinion column for the International Herald Tribune, Brett M Drecker wrote: "If Washington and Manila are serious about eliminating Abu Sayyaf, the US Special Forces should be given the assignment. The terrorist group consists of about 100 poorly trained amateurs. They would be no match for American soldiers already in the Philippines, but they are still eluding Filipino troops."

In an editorial published after the July 2003 mutiny by Filipino soldiers, the influential conservative Wall Street Journal echoed the suggestion, saying, "If the US wants to defeat terrorists in places like Mindanao and Basilan, it should insist on a more hands-on role in the partnership with the Philippine military."

The Philippines has since been included on the list of "emerging targets for preemptive war" of a new US military unit authorized to conduct clandestine operations abroad, according to a memorandum prepared by the same Myers who had been pushing for deeper involvement in the country. Seymour Hersh, a prominent investigative journalist, has written about a US presidential order that allow the Pentagon "to operate unilaterally in a number of countries where there is a perception of a clear and evident terrorist threat". Though the list of countries was not revealed, the description fits that of the Philippines: "A number of the countries are friendly to the US and are major trading partners. Most have been cooperating in the war on terrorism."

'We can always cover it up'

When US troops were first supposed to come to Sulu in February 2003, they had already announced that they were going to fight. A US defense official said then, "This is not an exercise, this will be a no-holds-barred effort." Reportedly worried about the possibility of suffering casualties and not being able to explain them to the public if they presented the operations as mere games, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld decided to call a spade a spade. He said: "Whatever it is we do, we describe in language that is consistent with how we do things. And we do not tend to train people in combat."

That triggered a public outcry in Manila, prompting denials from Philippine officials. This was despite the fact that a Justice Department undersecretary had already previously declared that the government would allow Americans to participate in combat. After Pentagon pronouncements, then Philippine defense secretary Angelo Reyes stuck to the official justification, saying, "It's a question of definitions and semantics," implying Manila and Washington were both referring to the same thing but just had different names for it.

But however the operations are labeled, the fact is that US forces in the Philippines are sent to actual conflict areas with the right to shoot back at real enemies. Whether merely providing military aid to the Philippine military to fight enemies, giving them training and advice, sharing information or actually joining them in the battlefield constitutes "participation in combat" is, as Reyes put it, a question of semantics.

Though it was eventually called off, the US government never took back its characterization of the planned deployment as an actual combat operation. According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, US officials maintained their Filipino counterparts asked them to lie to the public in case Americans were killed or wounded in action. "We could always cover it up," one Filipino official was quoted as telling them.

'Like rats in a trap'

With the recent military offensives and with successive unexplained and unresolved killings gripping the island in the past few weeks, Sulu is again teetering on the precipice of full-scale war. With spy planes and helicopters hovering above and naval ships berthing and dislodging military equipment, residents of Sulu say it feels like the 1970s all over again - but this time, with American GIs around. One thing is for sure: if true, the involvement of US troops in attacks against the MNLF will not push the island away from the edge.

Even before the November offensives, the 1996 peace agreement between the government and the MNLF already was in tatters. It began disintegrating even before 2001 when open clashes resumed between the MNLF and the government and Misuari was subsequently arrested by the government.

According to the government, only factions loyal to Misuari - the so-called MRG/MBG - attacked the military after the administration refused to support Misuari's candidacy for governorship of the Muslim-majority autonomous region. According to MNLF fighters, however, they were finally provoked into taking action then by successive military attacks on MNLF forces despite the ceasefire, continuing military atrocities against Moro and continuing government and military attempts to render meaningless the concept of autonomy.

While Misuari, who remains in prison, has ordered the MNLF to maintain "peace and order" for the duration of the US troops' indefinite stay, MNLF commanders said they will remain on the defensive and will not just sit back when they are again attacked. Further military offensives in the name of fighting "terrorism" will only escalate the fighting and, as has been the case for the past 30 years, they will likely result in more human-rights violations and killing of innocent civilians. It will do nothing to address the roots of the conflict.

According to one official, the MNLF is not only reconsolidating but also, because of the failure of the 30 years of peace talks, becoming more radicalized. Having learned its lessons from the past and having cast off its dependence on outside support, the MNLF, the official says, is now even stronger and more determined to carry on with what the Bangsamoro have been doing for the past 500 years: resisting and fighting. Even the military concedes that the movement continues to enjoy wide popular support.

And as American GIs roam Sulu, many residents can't help but remember what they did the last time American soldiers were around. In March 1906, about 500 US troops supported by Filipino members of the constabulary climbed up Bud Dahu, an extinct volcanic mountain in Sulu, and surrounded at least 900 Moros who had fled to the bowl of its crater to escape from and resist the rule of the US colonizers in the towns below.

From the rim of the crater, US troops bombarded the Moros below for four days - "like rats in a trap", wrote American novelist Mark Twain. Following their commander Gen Leonard Wood's order to "kill or capture those savages", US troops spared no one, not even women and children - "not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother".

A hundred years ago, the Americans also said they had only come to help.

Herbert Docena is with Focus on the Global South, a research and advocacy organization.

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