Wall Street Journal
Manila Must Beat the Separatists
Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo recently suspended peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist group that wants to claim the southern island of Mindanao as its own. Ms. Arroyo now must devote military and financial resources to the disputed territory and win the war once and for all with U.S. help.
This strategy has worked before. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, U.S. Special Operations Forces stepped up clandestine assistance to Philippines armed forces fighting the Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. It was an urgent mission: The al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah-linked group used its southern Philippines base to carry out a series of abductions and beheadings. Unchecked, the group's violence threatened to destabilize Mindanao and nearby islands.
Manila back then accepted U.S. help, but barred the Americans from direct combat. So U.S. special forces provided their Philippine counterparts with intelligence, training, up-to-date radios and high-speed boats to patrol coastal waters. U.S. forces also won over residents in parts of Mindanao and Basilan islands by improving water wells, building footbridges, refurbishing mosques, and providing medical, dental and veterinary services. In doing so, they overcame some of the central governments neglect and siphoned off some of the local resentments that contributed to the terrorists' recruitment pools.
This technique would work throughout Mindanao, too, if Ms. Arroyo would employ it. Instead, the president agreed to surrender some 700 villages to the MILF, in exchange for vague pledges of peace. Not since the fledgling American republic paid tribute to the Barbary Pirates along the coast of Muslim North Africa in the early 19th century has a worse deal been struck with bandits, with similar foreseeable consequences -- the demand for fresh payoffs. Luckily, the Philippine Supreme Court halted the process when Catholic politicians challenged the arrangement for Muslim autonomy. MILF militants reacted predictably -- with violence.
Ms. Arroyo may worry that employing force against these militants would only aggravate the problem. That's unlikely. Killing or capturing the MILF rank-and-file who will never reconcile with the central government must be a part of any successful anti-insurgency strategy. Other nonmilitary aspects, such as economic development and "soft" approaches to insurgency, must be part of a solution. But handing over sizeable portions of Mindanao is not wise. Muslim militias -- wherever they are located -- are not appeased by surrenders; their appetite is whetted, not satiated by victories.
The U.S. is probably better positioned today to give counterinsurgency help than ever before. Since September 11, the U.S. has come to the aid of local governments from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Horn of Africa to deny sanctuary to al Qaeda and other terrorist networks. Washington has worked with numerous governments to train their security forces, extend their governance, and disburse public services to remote enclaves -- all aimed at winning over locals before they provide recruits, shelter, and sustenance to radical bands. Whoever assumes the U.S. presidency in 2009 will have to look to low-cost, lower-visibility, high-pay-off ways to combat terrorism. Aiding Manila and other besieged capitals with assistance and indirect military backing is a realistic option.
If Ms. Arroyo balks, then the MILF separatist threat will metastasize with the possibility of an anarchic Mindanao. This outcome would endanger shipping lanes, nearby Malaysia and Indonesia, and the Philippines itself. The stakes are too high not to take an aggressive stance against the MILF.
Mr. Henriksen is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and at the U.S. Joint Special Operations University. His latest book is "American Power after the Berlin Wall" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).