WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- U.S. military assistance to the Philippines has been effective in building counterinsurgency capacity, according to a forthcoming study for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, but critics say it has come at the price of a U.S. blind eye to extrajudicial killings there.
The debate highlights different views among policymakers and experts about the right way to implement a hearts and minds approach to counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism.
The Filipino government has been locked for decades in a conflict with separatist groups in the southern region of Mindanao, home to the far flung archipelago nation's Muslim minority.
Peace deals and cease-fires were negotiated with the mainstream rebel groups in the 1990s, and Mindanao was granted autonomy in 1996, but more radical elements, some linked to al-Qaida and other Islamic terror groups have emerged since -- principally the Abu Sayyaf Group, or ASG, the primary target of U.S. and Filipino counter-terrorist operations in the area.
In addition to ASG's links with transnational terror networks, the study, to be released by the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center Thursday, says the U.S. government "views the ASG as posing a direct threat to a highly important ally."
The current Filipino government, it says, is "one of the most ardent supporters in President Bush's global war on terrorism" and "remains crucial to legitimating U.S. basing options in the wider Asia-Pacific."
The Philippines is now the largest benefactor of the Pentagon's Foreign Military Financing budget, receiving $11 million in 2005, $12 million in 2006 and $13 million in 2007.
"The bulk of this money has been used to promote defense reform and underwrite the logistics for ongoing counter-terrorism efforts in the southern Philippines," reads the study.
According to the study the main thrust of U.S. security assistance "has been directed toward vitiating the operational tempo of the ASG -- an effort that, at this point, has met with some relatively significant results."
"One of the key factors" in the success of the U.S. assistance program "was the attitude of the Philippines government," its author, Peter Chalk, told United Press International.
Chalk, an analyst at the RAND Corp., a think tank with historic links to the U.S. military, said Filipino officials had "recognized they need help, taken ownership of the problem and come to table" to get the assistance they. "If you don't have that buy-in, you can't succeed," said Chalk.
Chalk said there were currently "less than 1000" U.S troops in Mindanao, about one third of them special forces.
"The strategy (the Filipino military) were employing -- hit 'em as hard as you can -- wasn't working," said Chalk, adding that the new strategy, implemented with U.S. assistance, was oriented to winning hearts and minds.
"The key drivers of militancy in the south are seen as poverty and underdevelopment," he said, adding that the Filipino military was now concentrating on so-called civil-military operations -- using troops to do development work like building roads, sewer systems and clinics.
He cited the forthcoming U.S.-Filipino joint training exercise called Balikatan 2008, scheduled to start later this month, which he said would not involve any war games or conventional military exercises. "That will be exclusively civil-military operations," he said.
Human-rights advocates were unimpressed by the study, citing reports that the Filipino military was involved in widespread extrajudicial killings of government opponents.
"What is needed to build (the population's) confidence in the military is for people all the way up the chain of command to be prosecuted for their involvement in these killings," Human Rights Watch Asia Program Deputy Director Sophie Richardson told UPI.
She accused U.S. officials of soft-pedaling the issue of accountability for the killings and other human-rights abuses.
"The United States disgracefully backed one murderous dictator" in the Philippines, she said, referring to U.S. support for anti-Communist strongman Ferdinand Marcos. "The tragedy of U.S. policy is that they cannot see that it is not inimical to their counter-terrorism agenda to push for … accountability."
"It is ironic," she added, that U.S. officials could not see the value of "publicly enforcing the laws" in combating an insurgency "partly fueled by disenfranchisement and discrimination -- precisely the feeling that the laws offer them no protection."
Other observers say that counterinsurgency operations directed against the ASG have complicated the peace negotiations that the government is conducting with other armed Islamic groups in the region. "It is a complicated situation," acknowledged Chalk.
He said that the other plank of U.S. assistance, reform of the Filipino military, was also moving ahead.
For the first time the government had a strategic plan for resource allocation within the military, he said, and the armed forces were engaged in a process of transformation.
"They are moving away from large scale procurement (of aircraft and other major weapons systems) designed to enable them to do force projection against an external enemy."
Instead, military leaders were trying to shape "a smaller, more nimble force oriented towards dealing with internal security threats."
Critics said these observations were beside the point.
"Improved budgeting processes and better administration … cannot be the benchmark" for reform, Richardson said. Real reform would be orientated towards producing "a truly disciplined, rights respecting military."
"I don't see any evidence of that," she concluded.