by Pauline Jelinek, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - American soldiers will march into a Philippine jungle this weekend to train local troops to battle Muslim extremists, in the process broadening the U.S. military war against terrorism.
Critics see unnecessary dangers in the move.
Backers say it's a logical step to carry the anti-terror campaign beyond Afghanistan, and with far less military commitment.
"This is not an operation like you saw in Afghanistan," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referring to the hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida terrorists in that arid, mountainous land. "This is assistance. This is training."
The Pentagon plans to start moving Saturday the first of some 160 special operations troops onto the southern Philippines island of Basilan.
There, Filipino troops are fighting Abu Sayyaf rebels who are holding hostage missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan., and Filipino nurse Deborah Yap.
The U.S. trainers, backed by another 400 support troops on another island, are to teach some 4,000 Filipinos in such activities as night flying, hostage rescue, intelligence analysis and the use of psychological operations against the rebels.
Defense sources in the two nations say the program is a watered-down version of a more aggressive role proposed by the Americans, which would have brought U.S. soldiers into the fight. The two militaries wrestled for weeks over rules for the operations. They finally finished them Wednesday.
Under the agreement, Americans will not engage in combat but may observe Philippine troops in combat zones. They may shoot in self-defense.
Myers acknowledged Americans could be in danger because of the nature of the Abu Sayyaf.
"This is a very dangerous group. They have kidnapped many people. ... They have beheaded people," he said.
"But this is to assist and advise the Philippine armed forces, so they can take the fight to the enemy," Myers told a recent Senate hearing.
Four months into the war in Afghanistan, the CIA is beginning quietly to arm and train counterterrorist teams and intelligence services of other U.S. allies elsewhere in the world to help wage the war on terrorism, U.S. officials say. The contingent in the Philippines is the largest anti-terrorist deployment from the Pentagon outside Afghanistan, where more than 4,000 troops remain.
Local critics in the Philippines, where the United States had major military bases until the early 1990s, insist the new agreement violates constitutional restrictions on activities of foreign troops in the Philippines. It is a cover for rescuing American hostages, some say.
Others say a more frightening bad side of their presence is that U.S. advisers could enflame more conflict in the country which has signed a cease-fire but not peace accord with the larger Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Still others worry about getting into a quagmire.
"Ghosts of Vietnam," is what Brookings Institution fellow Catharin Dalpino calls it.
U.S military advisers were sent to help the South Vietnam government resist rebels supported by the communist North in 1961. Four years later American combat troops went in, and four years after that their numbers had reached 534,000.
An opposing reading of the new deployment comes from Derek Mitchell of the Center for Strategic an International Studies.
"Some consider it a lower-hanging fruit - the first mission as we look around the world - where we have an ally inviting us in against an Islamic group that has some tenuous connection to bin Laden," he said. "We're not going to say `no' to that."
The training in the Philippines is not new but an expansion of longtime U.S. programs in the former American colony. It was approved in November, two months after the Sept. 11 attacks on America, in an agreement between Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and President Bush.
Filipino forces have been fighting Islamic rebels on southern islands since the early 1970s. Some of the troops still use 30-year-old radios, drive decades-old jeeps and rely on informants who walk for hours or days to report enemy sightings.
Lack of modern equipment is one reason 7,000 Filipino soldiers haven't eliminated the less than 100 extremists on Basilan, which measures roughly 16 by 25 miles. Other reasons include the rough jungle terrain and the penchant of Abu Sayyaf to kidnap for ransom and use the money for better equipment.
As part of the U.S.-Philippines agreement on the training program, the Philippines gets, for keeps, a C-130 transport plane, several UH-1 Huey helicopters, some 30,000 rifles, a couple of patrol boats and other equipment.
In all, the agreement specifies $100 million in U.S. military and law enforcement aid, as well as hundreds of millions more in food aid, debt cancellation, trade guarantees, poverty reduction programs.
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Defense officials have said the program could be a test for U.S. involvement elsewhere, including Asian neighbors such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Terrorist activity in those countries is considered worse, but U.S. relations with those governments are not nearly so comfortable as with the Philippines.