Even before the United States wound down its military operations in Afghanistan, it began looking for targets elsewhere. But policymakers must remember that Washington’s primary interest is thwarting transnational terrorists who target Americans, not combating local criminals and insurgents around the globe.
After just three months, the Taliban was overthrown, the al Qaeda network was disrupted, and Osama bin Laden was dead or had escaped. There wasn’t much more work to do in Afghanistan, so long as the Bush administration did not take on the thankless task of attempting to build a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan. But with al Qaeda operatives active in an estimated 40 countries, a lot of other potential targets beckon. U.S. Representative Todd Tiahrt points to the Philippines: “After Afghanistan, this is the next priority because there are Americans at risk.”
However, intervention in the Philippines risks sucking the United States into conflicts that affect America only tangentially, if that. The archipelagic nation has long faced an insurgency among its minority Muslim population. The conflict waxes and wanes, seemingly insoluble but never threatening the Philippine stability, let alone American security. Commanding most recent attention is the Abu Sayyaf gang, which seized three Americans last year. In November Lt. Commander Jeff Davis, spokesman for the Pentagon’s Pacific Command, claimed that Abu Sayyaf was “an international terrorist group that poses as much of a threat to the U.S. as to the Philippines.”
The Bush administration subsequently announced $92 million in military aid, rushed in nearly 700 military advisers, and offered combat troops. Manila eagerly accepted the cash and advice. And although it rejected the troops—the Philippine constitution prohibits operations by foreign forces—the Americans will be armed and authorized to defend themselves. Moreover, constitutional objections in a country where the previous president was ousted last year in a soft coup, after the military withdrew its support, might eventually fade.
There is, however, no national security justification for American involvement. Abu Sayyaf’s ties to al Qaeda are peripheral at best. Its now-deceased leader fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets; bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, seems to have channeled some money to Abu Sayyaf.
However, the group operates more like bandits than terrorists. Although they have routinely demanded the release of Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, they have been satisfied with bountiful ransoms—collecting about $20 million in 2000, which they used to stoke their arsenal and attract recruits.
Abu Sayyaf has shown no interest in conducting a serious campaign against the United States. Rather, its American victims have been targets of opportunity, visiting the wrong resort at the wrong time. It’s awful when it happens, but it’s not unusual in what remains a dangerous world.
Nor is there any reason the Philippines should be unable to bring the bandits to justice. Manila has more than enough troops, and they are better equipped than the guerrillas. By the end of last year as many as 7,000 soldiers were searching for a band thought to have dwindled to the dozens.
Unfortunately, the Philippines has only itself to blame for its failure. In fact, Abu Sayyaf has taunted the United States about how American weapons shipped to Manila regularly end up in its hands. Bribes to military commanders have apparently helped gang members escape from government attacks.
Training, advice, and equipment from America might help. But the Philippines’ economic and political problems run deep. Coup rumors circulated last fall, for instance, and before that the Arroyo administration declared a state of emergency to combat what it claimed was another plot. Until Manila successfully addresses its own failings, it is unlikely to develop the kind of honest and loyal institutions necessary to eliminate groups like Abu Sayyaf.
Out of frustration with Filipino ineffectiveness, Representative Tiahrt, who represents the home district of the captured missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, flew to Manila to urge President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to accept the intervention of U.S. troops. Victorino Matus of the Weekly Standard says simply: “send in U.S. Special Forces.”
Yet the reason for such intervention has nothing to do with American security. Writes Matus: “it is—or should be—absolutely imperative for the United States to do whatever it takes to free its own people.” Tiahrt sounds the same trumpet: “if it were for me, and I’m sure if it were for you, as an American, you’d hope America would come to your rescue.” But U.S. foreign policy should not be driven by the activism of one particularly dedicated congressman. So Tiahrt is calling for development of a consistent American strategy of intervention.
But general human rights cases are problematic. When President Bush presented his ultimatum to the Taliban government last fall, he demanded not only the surrender of bin Laden but also the release of two American Christians charged with proselytizing. Diplomatic and public pressure to gain respect for human rights is assuredly a good thing, but not military action to enforce the same.
Intervention is usually least appropriate when the abuses are committed by unofficial groups. The right strategy is to leave the resolution of most hostage crises to local governments. Official involvement automatically raises the stakes.
A Way to Draw in Washington
Moreover, military intervention sucks the United States into what are usually broader conflicts ill-suited to easy resolution. Indeed, a consistent policy of rescue provides a trigger by which antagonists can consciously draw in Washington.
Americans, whether busy making money, playing tourist, proselytizing their faith, or doing good works, should not expect to be backed by a Marine Expeditionary Force.
For instance, the Burnhams, missionaries since 1986, are admirable folks. So is Clark Bowers, kidnapped by an Afghan tribal warlord while attempting to deliver medical supplies. But traveling and living abroad carry risks that should be borne by those who choose to accept them.
Of course, standing aloof may seem hard-hearted. But I visited Kosovo in 1998 and eastern Burma in 2000, both engulfed in guerrilla war, and Ambon, Indonesia, in 2001, in which a still-dangerous cold war followed two years of Muslim-Christian violence. I took what I considered to be reasonable risks. Had I miscalculated, however, I did not expect the cavalry to arrive. So far, the war on terrorism has been a dramatic success. But there’s more to be done. Washington needs to keep its focus on combating transnational groups that threaten the American people at home.
America need not take on responsibility for eradicating banditry the world over.
Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books.