Thu, 22 May 2003

A more balanced Mindanao agenda

Amando Doronila, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Asia News Network, Manila

When President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, on the eve of her departure for the United States, stepped up the military operations in Mindanao by ordering the Armed Forces to attack "embedded terrorist cells," she was sending a message to the United States that her government had the will to help the U.S.- led global campaign against terrorism.

This is the message that rings a bell to President George W. Bush as he prepares to reward President Macapagal for her steadfast support of the U.S.-led war on Iraq. No matter that President Macapagal protests she is not bringing a "laundry list" to Washington, Bush is disposed to give the Philippines economic and military aid, to show to the world that it pays to be on the U.S. side in times of its security crisis.

The military aspect of the war on the Muslim separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which like the Abu Sayyaf bandit group, is now bracketed in the category of foreign terrorist organization, was further emphasized with the designation of former executive secretary (general) Renato de Villa, as coordinator of the military, civic and political aspects of the stepped-up campaign.

This muscular pitch will not go unnoticed in the White House saturated by hawks like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. It has a resonance in the Pentagon that is still high over the swift American military victory in Iraq.

It seems to me that with the military focus on Mindanao, the President is putting the Mindanao agenda high up in her priorities as she discusses the military and economic aid she expects from Washington.

I am putting in this article two arguments: First that the Mindanao agenda is the key to unlocking U.S. aid; and second, economic aid to Mindanao, more than military action, is the turning point of reducing the level of conflict in Mindanao and of driving the MILF back to negotiations. On the second point, I would like to argue that the designation of De Villa has too much military emphasis and none at all on economic, and so, the lopsided approach provides little incentive to revive negotiations.

While the Bush administration is receptive to give aid that will strengthen the anti-terrorist flanks in Asia -- it would also like to see that U.S. money is not wasted on military action alone. Clearly the Philippine military needs significant infusions of military hardware, technology and skills to fight the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf effectively, but without an economic component this approach will require huge expenditure of resources on military operations going down the drain.

We tend to forget that civic action by the military has always been an effective component in counter-insurgency campaigns, beginning with the campaign of the Magsaysay administration that broke the back of the Huk rebellion in the 1950s. This strategy of backing military action with infrastructure building in conflict zones was successfully replicated by president Ferdinand Marcos in his first democratic term, and most recently, by the American engineering and civic action teams in the Balikatan 2 campaign, aimed at crippling the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan.

During the first Marcos presidency (1965-1969), he obtained U.S. aid as quid pro quo for sending a battalion of Philippine engineering troops to Vietnam in 1966. With the aid, Marcos organized 10 engineering battalions, which were expanded to l5 battalions in 1967. The following year, an engineering brigade was organized for Mindanao. As I wrote in my book, The State, Economic Transformation, and Political Change in the Philippines, 1946-1972 (1992, Oxford University Press), "the battalions and their equipment were the cutting edge of the Marcos infrastructure program. They built roads, bridges, schoolhouses, and dams."

With this infrastructure program, unhindered by time-consuming public bidding in civil works projects and TROs (temporary restraining orders from the courts), Marcos built more roads and schoolhouses than all those built by all post-war administrations. This program was executed by the Armed Forces with an operations action center in Camp Aguinaldo. Marcos showed he could get things done, and many academic studies have concluded that Marcos' concentration on the "performance" theme was mainly responsible for his landslide reelection in 1969.

This model was replicated in Balikatan 2 in Basilan. While the military pursued relentlessly the Abu Sayyaf gang that kidnapped hostages at Dos Palmas, Palawan, U.S. engineering and medical units worked in the background. They rebuilt the long-neglected road around Basilan, the airstrip, built schools and set up medical centers, serving the Muslim population. These projects were established or completed within six months. Left to Filipino public works officials, the projects would have taken forever, with funds dissipated quickly.

This civic action won the hearts and minds of civilians, which accounted for defections from the Abu Sayyaf and the cooperation of civilians in informing the military on the movements of the outlaws on the run. The program cost only a few million dollars. The local population was so won over that when the engineers left, they and their Muslim leaders petitioned for the retention of the American contingent.

The above models are useful in designing the economic and civic action component of U.S. aid available to President Macapagal. This approach should appeal to President Bush who, I am sure, is not keen on pouring reward money into a bureaucratic rat hole. The only institution that can fast-track this kind of program is the Armed Forces. True, De Villa is now the coordinator. But his accent -- intensified war -- is the wrong approach. It is more of the same hard-line stuff.