The two sides struck a middle ground: U.S. forces would train and support the Philippine armed forces but not engage in combat.
One year later, that caution is gone. The Pentagon last week announced its intention to send close to 2,000 U.S. military personnel to the southern Philippines where they would fight Abu Sayyaf directly.
Philippine resistance, however, has replaced U.S. reticence. In the face of protests and outrage from the Philippine people, the government is putting limits on the U.S. troops. Contradicting the Pentagon announcement of last week, Manila says U.S. troops will only serve in a training and advisory capacity.
The Pentagon this week is offering a more nuanced version of its announcement: officials emphasize the way the American troops will be used is up to the Philippine armed forces, as they will direct the mission.
They point out, however, that U.S. personnel are no longer under the constraints they once were.
“We are respectful of our agreement with Philippine government, and we have been closely consulting with them,” said Pentagon spokesman Cdr. Jeff Davis.
Philippine National Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes was in Hawaii on Monday meeting with U.S. Pacific Command officials. He will visit Washington on Friday to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The Philippine constitution prohibits foreign forces from fighting on its soil, according to news reports.
Filipinos succeeded in closing U.S. military bases there in 1991 after some 90 years and are reluctant to see them return. For its part, the Pentagon maintains it has no interest in reestablishing bases on the archipelago.
Roughly 750 U.S. military personnel will deploy in the coming weeks to open a new front against the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group on Jolo Island in an unprecedented joint counter-terrorism operation, the Pentagon said last week.
Besides the special operations forces on Jolo and roughly 400 support personnel who will be based in Zamboanga, around 1,000 Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit will be based off Jolo on the USS Essex. They will act as a quick reaction combat or evacuation force if needed and provide air support, medical services and command and control to the troops on the ground.
This move follows a six-month train-and-advise effort on Basilan Island last year known as Balikatan ’02, which was part of a $25 million counter-terrorism aid package for the Philippines.
The mission resulted in the capture or death of dozens of Abu Sayyaf members. Basilan Island is now under the control of the Philippine government. However, the mission apparently didn’t rout the rebels — but instead pushed hundreds of them further south.
Balikatan ’02 was not without American casualties. A U.S. soldier died in a motorcycle bomb attack last year in Zamboanga for which Abu Sayyaf was blamed.
The group is estimated to have several hundred members, but as many as 1,000 might have joined in the past two years to profit from kidnapping ransoms, according to the State Department.
Abu Sayyaf was formed in 1991 after it broke off from another Islamic separatist group, but according to the U.S. State Department, its first large-scale action was a raid on the town of Ipil in Mindanao in April 1995, which left 50 people dead.
In April 2000, a faction of the group kidnapped 21 persons, including 10 foreign tourists, from a resort in Malaysia. Also in 2000, the group abducted several foreign journalists, three Malaysians, and an American citizen.
In May 2001, the group kidnapped three U.S. citizens and 17 Filipinos from a tourist resort in Palawan, Philippines. Several of the hostages, including one U.S. citizen, were murdered.
Last year, Abu Sayyaf captured three missionaries. A rescue attempt resulted in the death of two, including American Martin Burnham.
Initial U.S. military assessment teams are moving to the Philippines “within days,” officials said.
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