Mindanao simmers again
I was reading an analysis “The Philippines:Counter-insurgency vs Counter-terrorism in Mindanao” when news of an explosion in Zamboanga City came in.
Two persons were confirmed dead while 23 others were injured. Investigators were looking at the possibility that Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants were involved in the attack.
The analysis I’m reading was precisely warning about this situation. It said that the Philippines is mixing up counter-insurgency with counter-terrorism “with dangerous implications for conflict in the region”.
“The ‘Mindanao Model’ – using classic counter-insurgency techniques to achieve counter-terror goals – has been directed against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and has helped force its fighters out of their traditional stronghold on Basilan. But it runs the risk of pushing them into the arms of the broader insurgencies in Mindanao, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF.”
The May 14 analysis was written by Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think- tank headed by Gareth Evans, formerly former foreign minister of Australia.
The group’s profile says it was founded in 1995 as an international non-governmental organization on the initiative of a group of well known transatlantic figures who despaired at the international community’s failure to anticipate and respond effectively to the tragedies in the early 1990s of Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. They were led by Morton Abramowitz (former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Thailand, then President of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace), Mark Malloch Brown (later head of the UNDP, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN and UK Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN), and its first Chairman, Senator George Mitchell. The idea was to create a new organization – unlike any other – with a highly professional staff acting as the world’s eyes and ears for impending conflicts, and with a highly influential board that could mobilize effective action from the world’s policy-makers.
In their latest reading on the Philippine situation, the group is worried that Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), tasked specifically “to interdict and isolate kidnap-for-ransom groups and other similar criminal syndicates operating in or near MILF communities”, has been inactive. The government is represented by Maj. Gen. Ben Dolorfino, who is currently the Marine Commandant. His MILF counterpart is Atty. Abdul Dataya.
“A policy tool of proven value is at hand. Called the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), it was designed to facilitate coordination between the Philippines government and the MILF to share intelligence on terrorists and avoid accidental clashes while government forces pursued them. Allowed to lapse in June 2007, it was formally renewed in November but not fully revived. It should be, as a counter-terror and conflict management mechanism that worked, and a similar arrangement should be developed with the MNLF. The problem is that it will only work if there is progress on the political front – that is, in peace negotiations – so that insurgents see concrete benefits from their cooperation with the government.”
The Crisis Group said, “The U.S. and the Philippines need to revive mechanisms to keep these conflicts apart and refocus energies on peace processes with these groups. That imperative has become particularly acute since the Malaysian government announced withdrawal, beginning on 10 May, from the International Monitoring Team (IMT) that has helped keep a lid on conflict since 2004. If renewed attention to a peace agreement is not forthcoming by the time the IMT mandate ends in August, hostilities could quickly resume.”
The group further said, “As part of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, U.S. forces are strengthening the Philippines military and using civic action to drive a wedge between rebels and the Muslim populace. But if their goal is to defeat the ASG and its foreign, mainly Indonesian, jihadi allies, they are casting the net too widely and creating unnecessary enemies.
“Mass-based insurgencies like the MILF and MNLF rely on supportive populations. By extension, small numbers of terrorists rely on sympathetic insurgents. Counter-terrorism’s central task in a setting like that in the Philippines is to isolate jihadis from their insurgent hosts – not divide insurgents from the population. Recent gains against the ASG came only after the MILF expelled key jihadis from mainland Mindanao in 2005. Yet AHJAG, the mechanism that made this possible, is not getting the attention it deserves.”
The Crisis group noted that AHJAG has been allowed to wither “while the Arroyo administration is distracted by turmoil in Manila, and Washington focuses on economic and military approaches to an essentially political problem in the Philippines south.”