Philippine forces fight on shoestring

Manila struggles to fight extremist militants despite receiving the most US aid in the region.

A Philippine Air Force personnel checks a UH-1H helicopter at Villamor airbase in Manila, 29 April 2005, shortly after President Gloria Arroyo called for a check on the safety of all military aircraft in the wake of the crash of a military UH-1H helicopter 29 April that killed nine people including Raymundo Punongbayan, the country's best-known scientist. The air force's 50 UH-1H chopppers have been grounded pending an investigation of the crash but officials say the US-made helicopters will continue to be the workshorse of the Philippine military's counterinsurgency campaign against Muslim separatists and communist guerrillas.  AFP PHOTO Joel NITO
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MANILA // The Philippine military is poorly equipped to fight a separatist insurgency in the south, leading to accusations by former military officers and researchers in the Philippines of corruption and ineffective US training and funding. The Philippine navy operates outdated vessels, the air force no longer has a jet fighter capability, helicopters are second-hand Vietnam War-era Hueys, and the army still uses Second World War US lorries.

"We are a shoestring fighting force ? we make do with what we've got," a retired Philippine marine colonel said in an interview. He agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. "We lack all the basics, from boots to weapons and even radios. Our guys go on missions and have to take their personal cell phones because the field phones don't work. And we are fighting insurgencies on two fronts - the Muslims in the South and the communists in northern Luzon, central Philippines and north-east Mindanao, " he said.

The army recently suffered one of its worst defeats at the hands of the Abu Sayyaf Group, a loosely knit group of young Muslims who engage in kidnapping and extortion. When the smoke settled after nearly a day of intense, close-quarter fighting high in the mountains of Basilan Island off the southern Philippines, 23 soldiers were dead and more than 20 were injured. It was the worst casualty list for the Philippine armed forces since July 2007, when 14 marines were killed, 10 of them beheaded, during a botched rescue operation for a kidnapped Italian priest.

The Philippine defence secretary, Gilbert Teodoro, recently said he would like to see the government increase its defence spending to at least the level of Thailand. The defence budget for the Philippines is US$1.2 billion (Dh4.4bn) while Thailand, which also is fighting a Muslim insurgency, spends $3.4bn. Since 2001, the Philippines has been the largest recipient of US military assistance in South-east Asia with 85 per cent of the total regional allocation going to Manila. The annual average of $54 million is at least 10 times more than the next biggest recipient, Thailand, another close US ally.

At the same time, the Philippines has one of the lowest military budgets in the region despite the insurgencies it is fighting. In absolute terms it tops only Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in average military spending and spends roughly a little more than one-fifth of Singapore, the top spender, and one-third of Indonesia and Thailand. The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, recently said the 600 US special forces troops would remain in the Philippines as they are essential in his country's anti-terrorism campaign.

The state department reported in its annual assessment of worldwide terrorism that the southern Mindanao region, specifically Sulu province and Basilan, which are predominantly Muslim, remains a sanctuary for extremists - mostly from Indonesia - despite US-backed efforts to eliminate them. Pete Troilo, a director with Pacific Strategies and Assessments in Manila, said: "When these guys [Filipino soldiers] go into battle they are totally under resourced.

"The government over the years has said it is going to crush the Abu Sayyaf, but they never do. It only highlights the administration's smoke-and-mirrors approach to problem solving and its complete lack of any long-term and comprehensive strategy to address the conflict in Mindanao." Another Philippine military colonel who did not want to be named said: "Corruption is one of the biggest problems in the Philippine armed forces today. The money goes in at the top and very little trickles out down at the other end.

"Manila will announce it is sending another battalion of troops down south. A battalion is roughly 500 men armed and equipped with 1,100 rounds each. In reality they will send 200 or 300 men and half as much ammunition per man. The generals are making a killing financially and our foot soldiers are dying and that is the reality." Herbert Docena, a researcher on the US military in the Philippines, said: "We know the Philippine military is poorly equipped, but they also have the benefit of US help. There have been long-standing, unresolved allegations of high- level collusion between corrupt military officials and Abu Sayyaf members."

Persistent reports of ammunition and equipment being recovered in Abu Sayyaf camps - or of Abu Sayyaf members being warned of impending military attacks - have only served to buttress suspicions. While these have not been definitively proven or disproved, the structural conditions in the long-running war make it probable: military officials are faced with financial and professional incentives to continue warfare.

"The US assistance is supposed to help root out terrorism in the southern Philippines, but more and more people - especially in Mindanao, and to a growing extent, the political class in the rest of the country - believe that the US is simply interested in regaining what it had lost in 1991: military presence, albeit in a new form," Mr Decena said. "Even if one grants that the US is indeed here to help end the insurgency, that objective will not be achieved if the structural conditions that fuel war do not change."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae