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After some fits and starts, on February 15 the U.S. opened up a “second front” in the “war on terrorism” in the southern Philippines. At least, that’s how the mainstream media is depicting “Operation Balikatan 2002,” the joint exercises between U.S. and Filipino forces in a combat zone on Basilan and nearby islands. Reuters reported […]

The Philippines: “Second Front” in the U.S.’s Global War

by Gary Leupp

After some fits and starts, on February 15 the U.S. opened up a “second front” in the “war on terrorism” in the southern Philippines. At least, that’s how the mainstream media is depicting “Operation Balikatan 2002,” the joint exercises between U.S. and Filipino forces in a combat zone on Basilan and nearby islands. Reuters reported that “The deployment of the US special forces on Basilan will mark the most significant expansion of the United States war against terrorism, after its destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.” Agence Presse-France called Operation Balikatan “the Southeast Asian phase of the US campaign on terrorism.” Newsweek questioned whether the southern Philippines was really the best place to hunt al-Qaeda, but depicted it nonetheless as the “second front,”-“the least complicated second front after Afghanistan” (February 11, 2002). (The reference here of course is to more “complicated” alternative fronts such as Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Lebanon, Sudan, and Iran, that have been effectively vetoed to date by European allies increasingly wary of Washington’s bellicose rhetoric and behavior.)

Since President Bush’s bizarre State of the Union Address January 29, it has become clear that the “war on terrorism” is actually focusing more and more on states (especially Iraq) and organizations with little or no relationship to bin Laden’s network. Operation Balikatan targets the Abu Sayyaf Group, allegedly an al-Qaeda affiliate, so it can be described as a continuation of the Afghan bombing campaign. But in fact, the connections seem highly tenuous. The U.S. government has devoted little effort to justifying the deployment; it hasn’t needed to, since the force is relatively small and its role in the operation has been determined by bilateral negotiations with Manila authorities. But Americans inclined to question the “war on terrorism” should be aware that Arroyo herself told Le Monde in mid-January that there was no evidence for ties between Abu Sayyaf and al-Qaeda after 1995, and in New York for the World Economic Forum on February 2, she reportedly asked U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to please not refer to the Philippines as the “second front” in the “war on terrorism.” She and others, even in the pro-U.S. Filipino elite, are (despite their public enthusiasm for Operation Balikatan) plainly uneasy that an exercise directed at a tiny bandit group on Basilan Island might result in violations of Filipino sovereignty, triggering mass opposition in this former U.S. colony.

How did this curious situation develop? In November Arroyo visited Washington and had talks with both President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. She brought with her a shopping list, including military equipment. Bush, eager to expand his terror war, reportedly urged her to accept U.S. ground troops in the southern part of the country to fight Abu Sayyaf. Arroyo had to refuse on constitutional grounds; the Filipino Constitution, revised in 1992 as the U.S. withdrew from its bases in the country, bans deployment of foreign combat troops on Filipino soil. She told Bush that the Filipino army was perfectly capable of handling the situation. But the U.S. sent her home with $92.3 million in military equipment, including two C-130 military transport plane, a naval patrol boat, Huey helicopters and 30,000 M-16 rifles plus ammunition, and in January, it was revealed that the U.S. troops would to be sent to “train” Army of the Republic of the Philippines (ARP) forces in the combat zone of Basilan island.

What is the operation really all about? The State Department estimates the armed strength of Abu Sayyaf at only a couple hundred fully armed troops. This is not the Taliban, nor the thousands-strong al-Qaeda force that once operated in Afghanistan. Specializing in kidnappings for ransom, they are widely regarded in the Philippines as bandits, rather than guerrillas. Local ARP forces (6,000 strong) have alternately fought them and collaborated with them. (On June 2, 2001, 35 Abu Sayyaf rebels, thought to include the leadership, were trapped by Philippine government forces in Lamitan, on Basilan, but allowed to escape after releasing a millionaire construction magnate in return for ransom. Army Chief of Staff General Diomedio Villanueva has since been accused of accepting some of the money as a bribe to pull back troops, and President Arroyo of covering up the event under pressure from army.)

What do we really know about Abu-Sayyaf’s al-Qaeda connection? A brother-in-law of Osamu bin Laden, who has two Filipino wives, reportedly dispensed money to Abu Sayyaf in the early 1990s. He also, according to the first substantial CNN report on the Filipino action (“Live from the Philippines,” January 25), funded the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a ceasefire with the Arroyo government last August. Some Abu Sayyaf leaders, living and dead, may have participated in the Mujahadeen’s anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan the 1980s. But as Arroyo notes, there does not seem to be a close al-Qaeda link to Abu Sayyaf at present.

Nevertheless, the “war on terrorism” must find some new venue, and the Philippines may be, as Newsweek suggests, the “least complicated” available. But even the Philippines poses problems. One has only to consider the behavior of Vice-President Teofisto Guingona following Arroyo’s return from Washington to understand the degree of anxiety this operation has produced in the Philippines. When informed of the details of the planned operation, Guingona, who doubles as foreign minister, opposed the operation and threatened to resign. As foreign minister, Guingona had the legal authority to implement the Washington agreement as head of the Visiting Forces Agreement Commission. The executive order giving him that authority had been signed by former President Estrada. But that order was overturned by Arroyo in her Executive Order 67, signed January 22, which shifted responsibility for the implementation of the Visiting Forces Agreement to Arroyo herself. The next day, she convened a National Security Council meeting (including all the top Filipino mainstream political leadership, plus military leaders), in which she apparently received support for her arrangement with the U.S., but demands for its modification.

Following the NSC meeting, Guingona withdrew his threat to resign over the issue of U.S. troops, apparently having won a major concession from the president. National Security Adviser Roilo Golez stated that Arroyo’s policy was “that the Americans are not going to be engaged in combat, period.” But this meant confining their actions to on-base training, whereas the Americans clearly intended and desired to participate in combat patrols which might result in exchanges of fire with Abu Sayyaf forces; Robert Fitts, top U.S. diplomat in the Philippines, has noted the “possibility of hostile contact” between U.S. forces and local guerrillas. The Pentagon still calls the operation “a robust military exercise,” and U.S. officials say U.S. troops are prepared to suffer casualties in helping to defeat al-Qaeda.

Manila also demanded that the U.S. troops serve under Filipino commanding officers; after some delay the U.S. agreed to this. While debate raged over the Balikatan exercises, Arroyo declared her opponents “protectors of terrorists, allies of murderers and Abu Sayyaf lovers You are not a Filipino if you are against peace. You love the terrorists more than your own soldiers” (Feb. 9). Prominent politicians such as Sen. Joker Arroyo, a member of the ruling People Power Coalition, and opposition leader Sen. Edgardo Angara, criticized this simplistic “us versus them” mentality, obviously patterned after the Manichaean pronouncements of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft. In sum, Arroyo’s cooperation with the U.S. effort to create a “second front in the war on terrorism” has sparked a political crisis in the Philippines.

Given this background, it is not surprising that the operation has begun with minimal fanfare. (The first stage of deployment made page A16 of the February 16 issue of the Boston Globe). But it cries out for critical analysis. Consider the Palace Statement issued by Arroyo’s spokesperson February 16, devoted entirely to quelling popular anxiety that Operation Balikatan will result in “permanent [U.S.] military bases” in the Philippines. The vital passages:

“The Abu Sayyaf and the New People’s Army are now panicking to stop Balikatan 02-1, since a stronger, better-trained, and better-equipped Armed Forces of the Philippines will crush their plans to foment chaos in this country.

“We appeal to the unwitting critics of Balikatan 02-1 to see through this plain fact, and to see that quite scandalously, it is the Communist Party of the Philippines that has never recognized our sovereignty, and which has been deceiving people in their all out propaganda campaign that a joint military training exercise weakens our nationhood.” (Italics added.)

Whence this concern with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA), the guerrilla force it has led in a Maoist People’s War against the regime since 1969? (Note that here the NPA and Abu Sayyaf are slickly conflated, despite the fact that the CPP and NPA despise Abu Sayyaf and believe that it was created by security forces in 1991 to split the Moro National Liberation Front.) It’s because the CPP, and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF) which also takes leadership from the CPP, have effectively mobilized public opinion against the joint military operation.

I don’t suppose this is very hard to do. The Philippines was a U.S. colony from 1889 to 1946. One-tenth of the Filipino population was wiped out in the first U.S. exercise in counterinsurgency in Asia, the suppression of the “Philippine Insurrection” in the early twentieth century. The U.S. backed a series of vicious regimes after the Philippines’ independence, most notably that of Ferdinand Marcos. In opposition, communist guerrillas have challenged the state since the 1950s. Since 1969, the NPA (at its height, a force of about 25,000) has gained control of significant regions, especially in the northern islands but in Mindanao as well. There have been off-and-on peace talks between the Maoists and the government since 1986, but these recently broke down over the issue of Operation Balikatan.

Thus the Arroyo regime, implicitly recognizing CPP influence in the creation of public opinion, seeks to tar the CPP, NPA and Abu Sayyaf with the same brush. >From the beginnings (January 31) of the smaller (“routine”) joint U.S.-Philippine operation in the north called “Balance Piston,” Philippine officials have focused attention on the NPA. Thus, after an American tourist was killed by gunmen at the base of Mt. Pinatubo on January 31, Philippine Army spokesman Lt. Col. Jose Mabanta stated, “We have reason to believe [the attackers] were NPAs.” (The NPA denied responsibility. Later police suggested that the tourist’s German companion may have shot him, or the attacker may have been a bandit of the indigenous Aeta people.) On the same day, a U.S. MC-130 special operations cargo plane taking part in joint exercises in the northern Philippines was damaged by small-arms fire. Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes blamed the attack on “New People’s Army or criminal elements.” Communist Party of the Philippines spokesman Gregorio “Ka Roger” Rosal denied any NPA involvement, and suggested that Reyes’ comment might be part of a ploy to justify U.S. involvement in combat operations against communist insurgents.

Vice-President Guingona meanwhile sought assurances from Powell that the war games would be limited to Basilan and will not involve operations against the NPA and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). “We would like to confine the exercises, in relation to the Abu Sayyaf, in Basilan. We do not want to initiate activities against the NPA or the MILF because our policy is to forge peace with them,” he said February 10.

The concerns of Rosal and Guingona–two very different men–are not unfounded, despite statements from U.S. military officials that Operation Balikatan will not target the NPA. Statements by top U.S. officials suggest that the “war on terrorism” may well strike at revolutionary leftist organizations in the future.

Item: Colin Powell, the first U.S. secretary of state to ever visit Nepal, alluded during his January trip to the significant Maoist insurgency in that country. “You have a Maoist insurgency that’s trying to overthrow the government and this really is the kind of thing that we are fighting against throughout the world.” He thanked the unpopular and repressive regime of King Gyanendra and Prime Minister Deuba for “fighting international terrorism” and offered military aid.

Item: CIA director George J. Tenet reported to Congress on February 6 about various “terrorist groups” that have no al-Qaeda ties, but could be future U.S targets. These include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Castroite guerrilla organization which, Tenet acknowledges, has not attacked American citizens anywhere. Still, FARC in his view “poses a serious threat to U.S. interests in Latin America because it associates us with the government it is fighting against.” (For the record, this association is thoroughly valid. The Bush administration is requesting in the fiscal 2003 budget $98 million in new Pentagon training and equipment for the Colombian military. Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid. U.S. military assistance, presently provided as part of the “war on drugs,” will almost certainly be placed in service of a Colombian “war on terrorism” in the near future.)

In conclusion: Operation Balikatan, hastily planned, designed to further extend the U.S. military presence in the world and provide a follow-up to Afghanistan while war fever is still widespread in the U.S., is at best a disproportionate response to a limited, local problem. It was not initiated by the Filipino side, and indeed its implementation has produced a political firestorm in the country. The justification of the operation, hinging upon the al-Qaeda connection, is weak. But a much larger U.S. counterinsurgency role in the Philippines, and other nations where liberation movements threaten U.S.-backed governments, is altogether likely. In that event, the rhetoric of the “war on terrorism” will be employed against rebels more akin to the Viet Cong than al-Qaeda. Are such rebels our enemies? I don’t think so.

A lot of people in this country bought on to this most nebulous and ill-defined of wars in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Many will continue to support it, at least short term, wherever Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell choose to steer it. It should be clear at the opening of this “second front,” however, that this is no longer about al-Qaeda, or even about terrorism. It’s about the U.S. government’s pursuit, on behalf of those it best serves (including, of course, the big oil companies) of absolute global hegemony.

Gary Leupp is associate professor of History and Adjunct Associate Professor of Comparative Religion, Tufts University, Medford, MA. He can be reached at: gary.leupp@tufts.edu