June 5, 2002
WASHINGTON, June 4 — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today that he would not be willing to expand an American military training mission in the Philippines unless top aides justified a step that would put Army Special Forces at greater risk and would probably commit the Pentagon to a longer-term military role there.
The immediate issue is whether 160 American military advisers should go out with Philippine forces to provide side-by-side training while the soldiers are on jungle patrols in search of members of a militant Muslim group called Abu Sayyaf who are holding two American hostages. American advisers are now confined to training at battalion level, and do not go out on patrols.
But success in combating the rebel group on its southern island base of Basilan raises larger questions of how or whether the United States should help the Philippine forces track down hard-core guerrilla fighters who have fled to other islands.
"I just haven't had it presented to me in a way that I felt sufficiently comfortable that I understood what was involved, what the cost would be, what the numbers of people would be, what the benefit might be," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "I need a greater comfort level that I understand what I am recommending to the president of this country to get involved — in terms of people, in terms of dollars, and in terms of potential benefit."
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of American forces in the Pacific, Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, and American commanders on Basilan have all recommended putting the Green Beret advisers with Philippine soldiers as the next step in a six-month mission that is scheduled to end on July 31. Top civilian and military leaders in the Philippines also support the expanded mission.
But Mr. Rumsfeld said he wanted more time to consider the mission, and to determine how it fit into the Pentagon's longer-term goals in the Philippines, a key ally in Southeast Asia. Moreover, he said he needed to weigh the commitment of troops and resources in the Philippines against other military priorities.
"I have to take into account not just that issue in isolation, but then weigh that issue against other uses for money, other uses for people, talents, men and women in uniform, and compare those benefits against it," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Mr. Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, returned today from a five-day trip to Asia that included a visit on Monday to Basilan. There he heard directly from the mission's commander, Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, as well as Green Beret soldiers and officers, and Philippine generals. All supported an expanded mission.
"When you're down on the ground, in the woods, you can see whether they're doing things right or wrong," said Maj. Jeff Plough, a Special Forces company commander on Basilan.
Mr. Wolfowitz is believed to be leaning in favor of an expanded approach in the Philippines, partly because he has stated forcefully that to fight terrorism successfully around the world, Western nations need to bridge the gap with tolerant Muslim nations and their people. About 10 percent of Filipinos are Muslims, most of whom live in the more economically depressed areas in the south, like Basilan, which are considered ideal to become breeding grounds for terrorists.
Philippine and American officials say the mere presence of the Americans has scared many of the Abu Sayyaf fighters from the rugged hills and dense jungle of the 20-by-30-mile Basilan Island. In addition to the Green Berets, 300 Navy and Marine engineers are also on the island, paving roads, digging wells, providing medical care and clearing a 1940's-era airstrip.
These public works projects, as well as the improving security, have won praise from local community leaders among the 300,000 residents, a majority of whom are Muslims. Earlier concerns from some political critics in Manila that the Americans would soon take over the mission, as well as the hunt for the two American hostages, Martin and Gracia Burnham of Rose Hill, Kan., also appear to have dissipated.
"Thus far, the mission in the Philippines has proceeded in precisely the way it was intended," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "It has gone well. The reception on the part of the Filipino people from everything I can tell has been very positive."
But Mr. Rumsfeld said that while American forces might have brought good will and improved living conditions to Basilan, their presence had not necessarily resulted in more dead or captured terrorists.
"You can improve the situation in one place by your presence, but unless you get the terrorists, you have not improved the situation net in the world," he said. "And there has been very little of getting terrorists in the Philippines thus far."