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Australian Defence Minister Robert Hill's proposal to boost his country's military role in Philippine counter-terrorism (CT) operations, made during a 17 October visit to Zamboanga City, faces a rocky road to approval in a nationalistic Philippine Senate. The proposal, spurred by concern at terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah's growing reliance on Mindanao as a training base and safe-haven for attacks across the region, requires a two-thirds vote of the 23-member upper house under the Philippine Constitution.
There are three aspects to the proposal. First, the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment - whose commander, Major-General Mike Hindmarsh, was in Zamboanga four days earlier - would train Philippine special forces, focusing on Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols. These patrols would seek out terrorists associated with JI and other jihadi networks finding sanctuary in the southern Philippines, including Darul Islam factions, Mujahidin Kompak and Laskar Jundullah. Bali bombers Dulmatin and Umar Patek, carrying bounties of US$10 million and US$1 million respectively since 7 October, have been the target of several US-supported air-strikes in Mindanao over the past year, but these have proven inconclusive in the absence of close ground support. Highly mobile intelligence-led teams on the ground could fill this gap.
SAS already trains elite Philippine units under a Defence Cooperation Program Memorandum of Agreement (MOU) effective since 1995. But the current Caracha program, underway since 2001, only involves half a dozen Australian personnel, who supplement US training assistance to newly formed Philippine Army Light Reaction Companies. These four-week crash courses hone abilities in reconnaissance and surveillance, small unit tactics, close quarters battle and night fighting, as well as other, non-lethal, skills. Developing an effective predator capability in the Philippine special forces demands a more significant Australian commitment, as they have been oriented towards a static role since the 1980s, overseeing local paramilitary garrisons in areas of communist insurgency. This model is inappropriate for the new threat.
The second aspect would also enhance Philippine forces' ability to hunt high-value targets, while leaving as small a footprint as possible in the volatile Muslim separatist communities harbouring them. Australian-made Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats with Kevlar armour would be supplied with training support, allowing penetration of inaccessible riverine and marshland terrain, particularly in parts of Maguindanao province where key JI figures are known to seek refuge. Australian participation in maritime surveillance and interdiction of jihadi infiltration/exfiltration routes across the Sulu and Celebes Seas is the third aspect of the proposal.
The difficulty arises from Article XVIII, Section 25 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which specifies that 'foreign military bases, troops or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate'. Although this is a transitory provision originally aimed at the major American bases of Subic Bay and Clark Field - evicted by the Senate in 1991-92 - the Philippine Department of Justice ruled in 1996 that training programs involving more than twenty foreign personnel were subject to the same provision. US-Philippine defence cooperation went into a deep freeze for the next four years.
The Philippine Senate was only persuaded to ratify a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US in May 1999 after aggressive Chinese activity in the disputed Mischief Reef. This has permitted resumed joint exercises since 2000, but the two years of diplomatic wrangling and further fifteen months taken to gain Senate approval of the VFA are not encouraging signs for Australia, which needs a similar treaty-level Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to proceed with its full CT proposal. A reported gang rape by US Marines at Subic on 1 November is heightening nationalist resentment amid calls for a review of the VFA.
Other areas of Philippine-Australian CT cooperation are moving forward. Canberra has doubled its assistance package to A$10 million, increased its in-country Australian Federal Police contingent from a single officer to seven - lending invaluable forensic and intelligence aid - and signed a border control MOU with Manila. But Senator Hill described the obstacles to his defence initiative as 'quite challenging'. The proposal will be identified with President Gloria Arroyo's administration, weakened by an election-rigging scandal and opposed by a majority of Philippine Senators, also ill-disposed in principle towards any foreign military presence.
Australia may thus initially pursue less controversial aspects of the plan, possible without a SOFA. Small numbers of Australian troops could operate in tandem with US forces already in place, or alongside other ASEAN partners with a shared interest in southern Philippine security. Offshore patrols would not require Senate concurrence, nor would bringing Filipino trainees to Australia, though this would lose the advantage of familiarization with the actual operational environment. Australia's continuing advocacy of the full Hill proposal should stress the professionalism and limited numbers of the forces involved, and the benefits for the Mindanao peace process of a surgical approach to excising the cancer of terrorism.
WATCHPOINT: Would a dramatic new attack by Mindanao-based terrorists create a sense of urgency in the Philippine Senate not seen since the Mischief Reef crisis?
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