Courtesy Reuters

On October 18, 2003, President George W. Bush stood before the Philippine Congress and declared that the Philippines and the United States are "bound by the strongest ties that two nations can share." The statement was not just the sort of rhetorical flourish that often dominates a U.S. leader's address to a former colony. The long-simmering Muslim separatist rebellion in the southern Philippines has been identified as a critical battle in the war on terror, and the Philippine government has become a key U.S. ally as a result.

In January 2002, 600 U.S. soldiers were sent to support Philippine forces fighting the Abu Sayyaf, a loosely organized gang of Islamist bandits entrenched on the southern Philippine islands of Basilan and Jolo. The operation was a failure: a year after the deployment, U.S. forces had withdrawn with their enemy still in place and the Philippine government suffering from a damaging scandal. Since then, the focus of U.S. assistance has changed: military and development aid to the Philippines has soared to well more than $100 million a year, and President Bush has urged the Philippine Congress to increase its own military appropriations to meet the separatist Muslim threat.

The need for action is real. The chaos and criminality sown by the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have created an environment ripe for exploitation by international terrorists, and Philippine government attempts to address the situation have been ineffective. But Washington's flawed understanding of the problem has hamstrung the mission and lowered its chances of success. Policymakers treat the conflict as a case of a violent Muslim population terrorizing its Christian neighbors under the influence of radical Islamist agitators. They emphasize reports of al Qaeda support and the presence of operatives from the Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah network. They have failed to recognize, however, that terrorists did not create the conflict in the southern Philippines and do not control any of the combatants. The troubles are rooted in specific local issues that predate the war on terror by centuries, and neither soldiers nor money will end Mindanao's war.

MINDANAO'S WAR

Conflict has plagued the southern islands of the Philippines since 1566, when Spanish forces, fresh from centuries of war against Muslims in their homeland, found their traditional enemies in their new colony. Muslim ferocity and Spanish torpor combined to leave Mindanao unconquered, but the reflexive Spanish hostility toward Muslims was passed on to Christian Filipinos, and Muslims responded in kind. American forces finally subdued the Muslim chieftains in the early twentieth century but ruled Mindanao as an entity separate from the rest of the Philippines. The divided populations were joined only with Philippine independence in 1946.

Ethnic tensions plagued this union from the start. Separatist sentiment flared into conflict in 1970, after years of government-sponsored Christian migration into Muslim regions, and Libya stepped in to support the Muslims, serving as midwife to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). As fighting ground to a bloody stalemate, Muslim leaders urged Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos to negotiate with Muslim rebels. Dependent on oil imported from Muslim countries, Marcos complied, and a peace agreement was concluded in 1976.

With the truce signed, Marcos left control of Mindanao to his subordinates, who looked after their own interests. Military forces in the area were virtually abandoned. Soldiers went into business, by themselves or with local political overlords. Former rebels took to crime, often receiving official protection in return for a cut of the profits. Manila's influence over Mindanao dwindled, and the style of governance embraced by the region's feudal lords quickly inspired a new round of rebellion.

In 1978, disgruntled MNLF members under the leadership of a Cairo-educated cleric named Hashim Salamat formed the milf. Salamat's strong religious identity and non-negotiable goal of an independent Islamic state proved more compelling than the MNLF 's Libyan-influenced socialism. The MILF quickly grew to include some 12,000 armed men -- concentrated mostly on Mindanao -- and claimed the mantle of Muslim resistance. Since then, despite two decades of warfare and negotiation, government forces have been unable to establish lasting control over MILF territory.

In 1990, contact between a young militant named Abdurajak Janjalani and Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law Mohammed al-Khalifa led to the founding of another Muslim separatist group, the Abu Sayyaf, which quickly entrenched itself on the islands of Basilan and Jolo, west of Mindanao. The new group proclaimed a radical Islamist ideology and gained early notoriety with grenade attacks on Christian targets. Before long, however, it had diverted its energy to ransom-driven kidnapping. Soon, members of the criminal underground had emerged in key leadership positions, and the group's Islamic identity was subordinated to the quest for profit. After Janjalani's death in 1998, the Abu Sayyaf deteriorated into a loose federation of bandit chiefs bound mainly by convenience.

Despite the Islamist foundations of both the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF, the extent of their links to global terrorism is debatable. MILF fighters have trained in Pakistan and with the Taliban and have had contact with members of al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. There is no evidence, however, that the MILF is directed by outside powers, and its limited arsenal corroborates this independence. Its new chief, Al-Haj Murad, who took over after Salamat's death earlier this year, is not considered a religious extremist. The Abu Sayyaf similarly shows no sign of significant outside support, despite having initially received aid and military training from foreign terrorists. (Widely circulated rumors of Iraqi funding spring from a single, unreliable source.) The group's most important outside connections are not terrorists at all; they are police, military, and government officials, who sell firepower and immunity to the brigands for a share of the spoils.

COLLISION COURSE

In March 2000, the Abu Sayyaf took 51 hostages on Basilan. A month later they kidnapped 30 more, of varied nationalities, from a Malaysian resort. The tactic proved lucrative: they exchanged hostages for large ransom payments, including $25 million from the Libyan government. As cash flooded the impoverished islands, men flocked to the group, attracted less by ideology than by the promise of large guns and fast boats. In May 2001, an Abu Sayyaf group seized several Filipinos and two American missionaries in another resort raid, setting the group on a collision course with Washington.

In the first months of this minor crisis, the Bush administration viewed the hostages as victims of crime. There was no talk of terrorism and little enthusiasm for military action, or even for restoring much military aid to the Philippines. After September 11, however, the United States rapidly reversed its position. Manila was suddenly reclassified as a staunch ally in the war on terror, and Washington rediscovered the ties between Mindanao and jihad. The Abu Sayyaf was tagged a terrorist organization, and in January 2002, 600 U.S. soldiers joined 4,000 Filipino troops on Basilan. Philippine laws restrict foreign troops to training roles, but the Americans, though designated as trainers, entered hostile territory with explicit authorization to fire if attacked.

Critics immediately disputed Washington's claim that the Abu Sayyaf was a terrorist organization, rather than a criminal syndicate. They argued that the MILF posed a far greater danger and that the size of the operation against the Abu Sayyaf was disproportionate to the threat. Many Filipinos suggested that the exercise was intended to secure a U.S. base in Mindanao or prepare for a later move against the MILF and the communist New People's Army.

Although U.S. soldiers gained local approval by building roads and bridges, the military outcome was ambiguous at best. The American hostages turned up elsewhere, discovered by Filipino troops unconnected to the operation; their captors had apparently slipped through a U.S. Navy cordon. One hostage was killed during the rescue. The operation halted the Abu Sayyaf's dramatic expansion, but most of the group's leaders and troops escaped.

In February 2003, American and Filipino officials announced another, larger exercise directed at the Abu Sayyaf presence on Jolo. As forces prepared for the operation, an unnamed Pentagon spokesman declared, "This is an actual combined operation, and it is U.S. forces accompanying and actively participating in Philippine-led offensive operations." The next day, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer added, "The Armed Forces of the Philippines will conduct operations supported by U.S. troops against the Abu Sayyaf group. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has the lead, and U.S. forces will assist them." In the Philippines, this was interpreted as a declaration that U.S. troops would be illegally deployed in a combat role. The subsequent outcry forced the cancellation of the exercise.

Days later, a bomb exploded outside an airport in the primarily Christian city of Davao. The next month, another explosion hit a crowded Davao wharf, and just before Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo left for a visit to Washington in May a blast in the Christian town of Koronadal raised the combined toll to 50 dead and 200 wounded. Arroyo has blamed the recent bombings on the MILF, without citing any convincing evidence. The MILF, which had not previously designed attacks to maximize civilian casualties, has denied involvement.

Arroyo returned from Washington with a substantial aid package, but the MILF has not been added to Washington's list of terrorist organizations, despite suggestions from Manila officials that the designation was "inevitable." Negotiations brokered by Malaysia and encouraged by the United States are in progress. The focus of turmoil has since moved to Manila, underscoring the connection between Mindanao's conflict and the fragile state of Philippine democracy. In July, convicted Indonesian terrorist Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi and two Abu Sayyaf members walked out of Manila's national police headquarters. The escape, which clearly had inside help, provoked outrage in American and Australian counterterrorism circles and severely embarrassed Arroyo.

Two weeks later, several hundred soldiers seized a commercial complex in a 19-hour mutiny, accusing senior military officials of selling arms to the rebels and staging the recent bombings to encourage American support. Arroyo called the rebellion an attempted coup, but the participants claimed that they were only trying to publicize legitimate grievances.

The al-Ghozi escape, the mutiny, and subsequent attempts to capitalize on allegations of corruption within Arroyo's family appear to be coordinated moves aimed at undermining the Philippine administration and its generally pro-U.S. policies. Arroyo is running in the 2004 election, and opposition figures still consider her a leading contender. Several other candidates are prominent allies of Joseph Estrada, Arroyo's spectacularly inept predecessor. Estrada built his successful campaign around quasi-populist demagoguery, rallying discontent with the existing political order without offering any practical alternative. His administration had few definable policies beyond the pursuit of self-interest, and it oversaw a precipitous decline in political, economic, and security conditions, particularly on Mindanao. There is no shortage of grounds on which to criticize Arroyo's administration, but if her successor adopts the Estrada model, the consequences -- for Mindanao, for the Philippines, and for the struggle against terrorism in Southeast Asia -- will be severe.

TREATING CAUSES, NOT SYMPTOMS

The situation in the Philippines is not an international crisis demanding immediate intervention. But if it is ignored or subjected to simplistic short-term solutions, it could easily become one. Discussions of a constructive U.S. role typically focus on promoting security and development, but this approach fails to recognize a simple truth: the traditional prerogatives of power in the southern Philippines are fundamentally incompatible with either. A thin veneer of democratic institutions covers a society that remains essentially feudal, conforming less to democratic ideals than to the style of the datus, the warrior-chiefs of old. Leadership is personal and paternalistic and functions largely above the law; power flows from guns and money.

President Bush has lauded Arroyo's commitment to bringing terrorists to justice. His praise is somewhat justified, but terrorism and banditry cannot really be controlled until the members of the political and military elite who cooperate with terrorists and turn the powers of the state to their own ends are brought to justice as well. The Philippine government has the capacity to do so -- it controls the money, the justice system, and the armed forces -- but it lacks the will. Manila's elites seem reluctant to start a trend that might eventually result in restrictions on their own power.

Military action alone is not sufficient as a strategy. There is no central terrorist cell or evil genius in Mindanao to provide a discrete target for American action. In the face of overwhelming force guerrillas simply disperse and take refuge; if one leader is removed, several others emerge. Military force is nonetheless a necessary component of any solution, because security is a prerequisite for progress in other spheres of life. Development aid is necessary as well: Mindanao's enduring poverty is an effective incubator for violence. Neither ilitary nor development aid will succeed, though, until the problems of collusion and corruption are decisively addressed.

Washington cannot root out corruption in the Philippines. The Philippines' desperate need for U.S. aid, however, could provide an incentive for reform. U.S. policymakers must make clear, accordingly, that the United States will discontinue aid if Manila does not take sustained, aggressive action against the abuse of power.

Such demands might draw protest from Manila's political elite, but, if presented effectively, they would gain considerable sympathy among most of the population. There is a growing constituency for change in the Philippines. Public discontent is high, focused on a governing class that has traditionally functioned above the law. Issues that for decades had only been discussed in private -- such as cooperation between government officials and terrorist leaders -- have finally entered public debate. Such discontent is a powerful and unharnessed force. With effective leadership, it could bring great benefits; exploited by self-interested demagogues, it could do great damage. Washington cannot lead a movement to reform the Philippine system of justice, but it can at least align itself with the right side.

ACTING LOCALLY

Applying the simplistic terms of the war on terror to the fight against the Philippines' Islamic extremists obscures the enormous complexity of the situation. But continued fighting on Mindanao could indeed generate the kind of chaos that terrorists are apt to exploit, channeling the anger and lawlessness of a centuries-old ethnic and political conflict to their own ends.

For U.S. policymakers, therefore, Mindanao is both an object lesson and a test case. As open sponsors of terrorism fall to political pressure or military action, the focus of Washington's efforts will shift to terrorist groups operating within countries that, like the Philippines, are at least nominally friendly. Respecting the laws and political processes of foreign governments, even when seriously flawed, can be frustrating. The answer, however, is not to ignore constraints but to find ways of operating effectively within them.

The conflict in the Philippines defies the moral clarity and aggressive rhetoric that the Bush administration has favored since September 11, and recognizing that is the key to progress. In the end, only the Philippine government can bring peace. If negotiations are unaccompanied by real change and Mindanao returns to the status quo, as in past attempts to secure an end to violence, the rebellion will surely resume. At best, the United States can help suppress the rebels militarily while encouraging negotiations and boosting Manila's political will to achieve the meaningful reform necessary for lasting peace. Such a strategy will not assure success, but neither will it make the conflict worse. Moreover, it is the only course available, since the conflict in the southern Philippines is not some nefarious external conspiracy or a clash of civilizations but the internal problem of an allied sovereign state.