The Balikatan exercise in Basilan in 2002 has always been sold to the public as a success story — indeed, as a model for how the U.S. military should engage other nations in the fight against terrorism. Five years later, it is clear that the Abu Sayyaf remains a threat on the island, and its continued presence there is proving to be embarrassing both for Manila and Washington, experts say.

By Carlos H. Conde
Davao Today

MANILA, Philippines — In his visit to the Philippines less than two years ago, Henry Crumpton, the coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department, praised the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for its campaign against terrorism, particularly the Abu Sayyaf. In a press conference that October, Crumpton declared that “U.S. and Filipino forces worked together” in Basilan “to eradicate Abu Sayyaf Group havens on the island through a combination of civil-military operations and improved counterterrorism coordination.”

The Basilan theater, which had been dubbed as the second front in the war against terror after Afghanistan, was a model that, according to Crumpton “offers a highly successful example of what we can do together.”

“Your success,” Crumpton said, referring to Manila, “is our success.”

Three years before that, on June 21, 2002, Arroyo held a press briefing to announce that she had a conversation with U.S. President George Bush who was, according to her, “happy that the Abu Sayyaf problem has been solved.” Earlier that day, Arroyo got word that Abu Sabaya had been killed by Filipino soldiers, who were helped in no small measure by sophisticated intelligence equipment and personnel from the U.S. military.

But five years after this supposed success, the Abu Sayyaf continues to spread terror on Basilan. On Saturday, 15 more soldiers, five of them officers, were killed in the latest fighting between government troops and alleged Abu Sayyaf extremists on an island that had earlier been touted as a success in the U.S.-backed war on terrorism in Southeast Asia.

The death toll during firefights on Saturday on Basilan was the highest since July 10, the day the insurgents killed 14 members of the Philippine Marines there, 10 of them were later found beheaded. The government’s renewed offensive on Basilan was in retaliation for that military debacle, which had been blamed by military officials, who spoke anonymously to the Philippine press, on troop burnout and poor planning.

The Balikatan exercise in Basilan in 2002 has always been sold to the public as a success story — indeed, as a model for how the U.S. military should engage other nations. This was the dominant theme of the Western media’s coverage of the campaign. Mark Bowden, the author of “Black Hawk Down” who wrote a story on the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan for The Atlantic Monthly, described the campaign as a model for the U.S. military. “I think in this war, the smart thing to do is to take a back seat, to offer to help and give up a little control over the operation, but accomplish more by doing so,” he told in February.

Bowden’s colleague at The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan, wrote in an October 2005 story: “Unconventional warfare in the Philippines provides a better guidepost for our (U.S.) military than direct action in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Basilan had been the lair of the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group with alleged links to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian terror network responsible for many of the terror attacks in the region since 2001. In 2002, the U.S. sent hundreds of troops down to Basilan, in a program called Balikatan, to supposedly help the Philippine military rout the Abu Sayyaf.

Because of Balikatan, according to the military, key leaders of the Abu Sayyaf were killed and that the number of Abu Sayyaf terrorists there had dwindled, from more than a thousand in 2000 to only about 200 last year. Both governments also said the non-military assistance provided by Washington, which built bridges, schoolbuildings and clinics throughout the island, had likewise been successful in winning the hearts and minds of Basilan folk.

The recent resurgence of Abu Sayyaf activity there, however, raised questions about those claims, although Western officials insist, in interviews before Saturday’s fighting, that the success or failure of the Basilan theater cannot be gauged by the beheading incident alone.

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