MACK WILLIAMS. Muslim Mindanao: once more into a quagmire?

Sep 27, 2017

We need to be very careful in not overhyping the IS activity in Marawi and soliciting an invitation to military involvement without a comprehensive Australian review of the complex issues at stake in Mindanao and our wider relationship with the Philippines and the US.

I have long argued that our national interests demanded that Australia devote much more attention to the evolving scene in the Philippines – especially but not only in Mindanao. This is against a background of five years as Ambassador in Manila through the volatile period of debate between the Philippines and the US leading to the withdrawal of US bases. I also travelled extensively throughout Mindanao ( including down to the southernmost island Sibutu) where, according to abundant recent local media and a very instructive Lowy report by Sidney Jones on a recent visit, the fundamentals as described by Cavan Hogue in his excellent contribution to this blog  remain.

The real challenge for us is to resist being drawn into assessing the current situation through a US prism. Despite ( or arguably because of ) its colonial rule Washington has struggled to read accurately the Philippine scene. My first experience of this was when six months after arrival in Manila, having been directed by Canberra to assist the US retain the bases, I had to report that practically none among the political elite I had met in Manila (from President Cory Aquino down) really wanted them to stay. Then the lead US negotiator, the colourful Rich Armitage, regularly sought comment from us on his visits because he acknowledged that the Filipinos spoke more openly to us than to our US counterparts. The massive campaign based on Philippine dependency on the US bases that the US mobilised  became increasingly counter-productive for the longer term US: Philippines relationship.

The attempt by the US to build back quietly some support bases in the Philippines under President Duterte’s predecessor raised some of this past history. All the more as it had more to do with the US policy of containing China – especially in the South China Sea – than with development in the Philippines. Very much in the Philippine style it took four years of legal wrangling before it could be signed. This was only just before Duterte was elected and came to office with his assertion that top priority was the resolution of the two entrenched insurgencies which have dogged progress in the Philippines for so long : the communist (NPA) and Muslim insurgencies in Mindanao.

One of his first actions was to have the US withdraw its troops from Mindanao where they had steadily grown in number assisting the Philippine armed forces (the AFP) . He argued that “foreign” boots would only complicate his attempts at settling the scene in Mindanao. Despite the gravity of the recent Marawi scene he has remained very cautious about having “foreign” troops back as this would be counterproductive for his relations with mainstream Muslim Mindanao. The IS connection may have changed Duterte’s short term perspective .

As Cavan Hogue has argued this IS connection clearly requires very careful analysis by the Philippines, its neighbours and the US before a strategy is developed to counter any IS attempt to secure a firm foothold in some part of Mindanao. Among other purely military factors that must include:

  • a realistic assessment of just how strong the IS reach is in Muslim Mindanao let alone in the major non-Muslim areas,
  • how much of a boost to IS recruitment would foreign military involvement produce,
  • what more Duterte and Manila needs to do to marshal mainstream Muslim groups into the fight against IS ( so far not very much?),
  • what could Malaysia and Indonesia contribute towards combatting IS on the ground in Mindanao – but especially on the maritime routes which incidentally carry a large amount of cargo traffic between Australia and North Asia

The alacrity with which Ministers Bishop and Payne suddenly have charged in with offers of military support for the AFP is dismaying. It demonstrated little if any understanding of the complexity of what is actually happening in Mindanao. Unfortunately it bears the hallmarks of a decision based at least partly on perceived domestic political need in Australia – raising concerns about a so-called IS caliphate close to Australia and demonstrating to the electorate our strong counter terrorism commitment. More, it clearly has been presented as another  “follow the US” flag wherever it is staked. This fits so easily into the overt campaign which senior US military have been promoting in Australia around the large joint Operation Talisman Sabre. A brace of US admirals and generals have been purveying the idea of a US:Australian Joint Expeditionary Force which could be available to react quickly to a deliberately blurred target of terrorism and insurgency in South East Asia. All of which would be so nicely capped by having , as so widely rumoured and welcomed in Canberra, the appointment of Admiral Harris as Ambassador to Australia !

Canberra has been actively soliciting an invitation from Duterte to become militarily involved – first with P3 aircraft surveillance and now with trainers and advice. Unfortunately the latter ritually leads to blurring of roles slipping into being embedded with local forces (AFP) and closer to the fighting with the attendant high risk of killing not only insurgents/terrorists but also innocent civilians ( the now infamous “collateral” damage). One wonders too just how much more training the AFP needs as unlike other military in SE Asia it has been actively engaged in both the Korean and Vietnam wars as well as ongoing operations against the NPA and Muslim insurgents for nearly 70 years. While accepting some small US involvement in the operation in Marawi, Duterte has been concerned to avoid the utter devastation involved in the retaking of Mosul and Raqqa (under US guidance) because of its longer term implications for the rest of Muslim Mindanao.

Which reminds me of an inspection he made,  as a swashbuckling Mayor, of an RAN ship in Davao when he asked the commander and me if he could mount a Vulcan anti-missile gun on a jeep! A year or two earlier he had completed the saving of the large slums in Davao from  communist NPA control  with his vigilante groups, backed by the Catholic Church!

Mack Williams : Ambassador in the Philippines 1989-94 and later to the Republic of Korea



Share and Enjoy !


Receive articles straight to your Inbox

How often?

Thank you for subscribing!