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The Never-Ending Battle

5 minute read
Phil Zabriskie/Zamboanga

The war on terror, with its surrogate warlord armies and American soldiers dispatched to far-flung regions of the globe, has become reminiscent, at least in Asia, of last century’s cold war against communism. U.S. troops are already in combat zones in two Asian countries; American aircraft carrier battle groups regularly crisscross the region; Washington is viewing its Asian allies and conceiving Far Eastern policy through the prism of a single, overriding issueand stepping up the funding of regimes or institutions that had previously been anathema. On Aug. 2, Secretary of State Colin Powell, at the end of an eight-country tour of Asia, pledged $50 million in aid to Indonesia’s police and military, citing that country as a potential bulwark in stopping the conceivable domino effect of terror in Southeast Asia. “This has to be a campaign not just against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but al-Qaeda everywhere,” Powell said.

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The U.S. suspended bilateral ties with the Indonesian military in 1999 because of horrifying human rights abuses in East Timor. While the needs of American policy may have changed, Indonesia’s military has not. “The fear among pro-reform elements is that the money could provide an opening for the security forces to go back to the bad old days,” warns Sidney Jones, Indonesia Project director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Pakistan’s dictator Pervez Musharraf found himself similarly in the U.S.’ good graces after Sept. 11. His regime has benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in debt relief, tens of millions more in aid and military assistance from Washington and a pledge of $1.3 billion in new IMF funding.

Where U.S. troops are involved in Asia, the results have been ambiguous, at times shrouded in the confusion of a war with no clear objective or measure of victory. In Afghanistan, after a string of early victories, U.S. forces are still searching for traces of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s Mullah Omar. To make matters worse, a whole lot of Afghans are howling for American scalps because of tragic collateral damage: innocent villagers killed in American raids.

The Philippine “second front” has never rivaled Afghanistan in size, ambition or difficulty. Yet, in the Philippines, where last week most of the 1,200-strong American contingent pulled out, the war, and the battle for hearts and minds, is apparently being won. A top leader of the Abu Sayyaf kidnap gang was quickly taken out, and as U.S. troops left, scores of locals showed up to regretfully send them off. During Wednesday’s farewell ceremonies, U.S. Brigadier General Donald Wurster declared the mission “an absolute success.” In a piece of agitprop reminiscent of mid-century American police actions, the U.S. is both leaving and returning simultaneously: in the same breath as declaring victory, American officials said 80 to 100 special forces agents will remain in Basilan through October, when more U.S. soldiers will be redeployed in the Philippines.

There are still plenty of terrorists lurking, including members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a 12,000-strong separatist group with documented al-Qaeda links. (The Americans weren’t allowed to put them in the crosshairs, since Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is in peace negotiations with the group.) From the beginning, the second front in Mindanao boiled down U.S.-Philippine relations to a single issue: the war on terror. Bush wanted to reward Arroyo for pledging her support after Sept. 11, and Arroyo’s military was plainly ill-equipped to track down Abu Sayyaf, which had snatched more than 100 hostages in recent years and still held three captive, including American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham. Instead of giving U.S. troops carte blanche, Arroyo welcomed their offer of training and military aid. On June 7, a Philippine patrol found the hostages, but Martin Burnham was among those killed in the rescue attempt. Later that month, soldiers cornered gang leader Abu Sabaya, who was apparently shot while trying to escape in a boat. (His body was never found).

The Southeast Asian front hasn’t been shut down as much as temporarily shifted. Counterterrorism experts have long insisted that Indonesia has served as both staging area and refuge for terrorism. Along with Malaysia, Indonesia is one of the likely operational bases for Jemaah Islamiah, a pan-Southeast Asian terrorist group with al-Qaeda connections. While President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s government has long denied the presence of substantial terror networks on the archipelago, it is willing to take Washington’s $50 million. As the cold war painfully taught us, it takes time, money, and unfortunately, boots on the ground to win a war this ambitious. The U.S., so far at least, has been willing to commit all three in Asia.

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