Pentagon fails in its bid to place more troops in Philipines - NY Times
- Widespread opposition to US troops in the Philipines and a court challenge
to the constitution supported by many in Philipines defeats the US, for the
Plan for U.S. Troops in Philippines Hits Snag
By ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 - A plan to send more than 1,700 American troops to
fight Muslim extremists in the southern Philippines struck an impasse today
when the countries' top defense officials could not agree on rules for the
operation that would conform with the Philippine Constitution.
The disagreement was an embarrassing setback to the Pentagon, which last
week described the mission as virtually a done deal and was already loading
1,000 marines onto ships in Okinawa and preparing 350 Special Operations
Forces for jungle combat.
A mission that Pentagon officials had said would be in full swing by next
month is now on hold, as diplomats, generals and policy makers from both
nations scrambled to define a role for American troops that would satisfy
Pentagon officials said it would be a combat operation, with American forces
supporting Philippine-led missions. This was in sharp contrast to a
six-month exercise last year, in which United States forces were limited to
an advisory role and allowed to fire only in self-defense, Pentagon
But Philippine officials immediately balked at the American
characterization, saying the Philippine Constitution prohibited foreign
troops from carrying out combat missions. "What we have to do is find an
approach where we can provide the maximum benefit to them and do it in a way
that is not inconsistent with their circumstance," Defense Secretary Donald
H. Rumsfeld told reporters after an hourlong meeting here with his
Philippine counterpart, Angelo T. Reyes.
Underscoring the gap between the two countries, Mr. Reyes did not appear at
the Pentagon news conference.
On one level, officials said today's impasse could be seen as a bump in the
road to opening the newest front in the campaign against terrorists. Both
countries pledged to work together to hunt down the remnants of Abu Sayyaf,
a band of 250 guerrillas who have kidnapped and beheaded foreign tourists
and missionaries, including several Americans.
But just as with the Bush administration's recent negotiations with another
trusted ally, Turkey, over plans for war with Iraq, dealings with the
Philippines have exposed undercurrents of political tension, lingering
cultural sensitivities and the need for foreign leaders to show their public
they can stand up to the American superpower.
"The rules of the road are still being worked out, because in the
Philippines especially, they're very sensitive to this," said Senator
Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican who heads the Foreign Relations
Committee and who met with Mr. Reyes after his Pentagon meeting. Tens of
thousands of Filipinos are thought to have died at the hands of United
States forces in fighting after the transfer of the Philippines to American
control from Spanish colonial rule in 1898.
The United States and the Philippines are in broad agreement that more than
1,700 American troops, including 750 ground troops and 1,000 marines aboard
two ships, would join Philippine soldiers in a joint mission on Jolo Island
in the predominantly Muslim Sulu Province.
But the understanding breaks down when it comes to defining their precise
role. Ignacio Bunye, the spokesman for the Philippine president, Gloria
Macapagal Arroyo, has called the mission an "exercise" that would "more or
less" resemble the mission last year on Basilan Island.
In an escalating war of words, Pentagon officials insisted their description
of American forces in a supporting combat role was more accurate. Mr.
Rumsfeld, they said, did not want to mislead Congress or the American public
about the riskiness of the new mission.
Mr. Rumsfeld, mindful of the diplomatic sensitivities at stake, pulled back
today from characterizing the mission at all until operational details were
ironed out, saying: "We can do training. We can do exercises. We can do
operations. But 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, if you will."
He added: "Whatever that role is, it has to be consistent with their
Constitution and their circumstance. But we want to be helpful."
There are other hurdles to clear besides the legal one. About 95 percent of
Jolo's people are Tausug, an Islamic tribe with a reputation as fierce
warriors. After the Philippines became a United States colony, American
troops under Gen. John J. Pershing were dispatched to subdue the tribe,
reportedly killing hundreds, if not thousands of people, including women and
In an interview before the Pentagon meeting, Mr. Reyes said stories of these
killings had been passed on from generation to generation in Jolo, and have
taken on "mythical proportions." Before any American soldiers set foot on
the island, he said, the Philippine government would have to assuage the
concerns of tribal leaders. "We have a domestic audience to address," Mr.
But Philippine officials said they were committed to wiping out Abu Sayyaf,
and acknowledged they needed American help. Mrs. Arroyo today gave the
Philippine military 90 days to eliminate the guerrilla group, and the head
of the armed forces warned that commanders who failed would be replaced.
"The damage from Abu Sayyaf is not to the military," Mr. Reyes said. "What
is more damaging is the damage to economic climate, investments, tourism and
trade. That's the reason we have to finish them off."
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