The Ramadan holiday is done and the threat to U.S. diplomats in most of the middle east is over. Or at least they can return to their embassies and consulates with enough confidence to think the Al Qaeda bombers are not going to strike right away and anyway they’ll be safe and secure behind their barricades.
Al Qaeda, though, is the winner, having made clear their psywar strategy works. They can strike fear among Americans, and others, merely by sending out messages for the U.S. intelligence machine to monitor and distribute with dire warnings.
Meanwhile, from disputed borders between India and Pakistan in Kashmir to the middle east, terrorists of one stripe or another, maybe Al Qaeda, maybe the Taliban, maybe lesser groups inspired by them, go on in a wave of killings to which there seems no end. A splurge of slaughter in Iraq over the final Ramadan weekend, normally a time for joy and celebration, showed the failure of the hundreds of billions invested there and the tens of thousands of lives lost. Now U.S. forces face frustration in Afghanistan — and President Obama warily avoids a serious commitment to still more mayhem in Syria.
In this cauldron of suffering, it’s gone largely unnoticed that the U.S. ever so slowly is on the verge of expanding a commitment to the Philippines from which enormous U.S. navy and air bases had to shut down in the early 1990′s after the Philippines refused to extend the bases agreement in a surge of anti-Americanism. The Philippines faces a local version of the type of militant forces that are plaguing the middle east and Pakistan. That’s on top of worries about China’s claims to the entire South China Sea, including islands and shoals that are clearly Philippine territory.
The current idea up for negotiation between Manila and Washington is that a U.S. contingent based in Zamboanga, a major port city in the southwestern corner of the large southern island of Mindanao, will go up in numbers from the current level of about 500 troops to several thousand. They should also be able to maintain heavy-duty semi-permanent facilities there rather than have to fly in complicated equipment whenever they rotate in and out.
The central mission of the small U.S. contingent in Zamboanga has always been to advise Philippine forces on pursuing militants, most of them members of a group called Abu Sayaff that survives on Basilan island, within easy eyesight of Zamboanga, and on southwest through the Sulu archipelago almost as far as Malaysia. From time to time we hear that Abu Sayaff is a spent force, dead and gone, but, like Al Qaeda, it has a way of reappearing in kidnappings and killings.
The greater reason for increasing U.S. forces, though, is the Philippines’ fear of a rising Chinese presence in the South China Sea against which its own raggedy forces, riddled by incompetence and corruption, have little power. The Chinese claim not only the Spratly Islands, two of which are in Philippine hands, but also the Scarborough shoal within Philippine territorial waters west of Subic Bay, which was until 1991 the home of America’s largest overseas base.
The U.S. is approaching an increased military presence in the Philippines with extreme sensitivity, fully aware of the “nationalist” pressures that led to the closure first of the Subic Bay base and then in 1992 of Clark Air Base, the largest U.S. air base overseas. As a modest beginning, the U.S. has provided the Philippine navy with two old coast guard cutters — a token that won’t frighten the Chinese but might help defend nearby waters.
Concerns about China intermingle with the AlQaeda/Taliban threat from Pakistan through the Middle East. The Chinese are the biggest source of arms for Pakistan and also, along with Russia, support the Assad regime in Syria against the rebels arrayed against it. In this new “great game” for the middle east, South and Southeast Asia, great power interests are inexorably colliding while small forces, terrorists and soldiers of one country or another, engage in skirmishes that go mostly unnoticed elsewhere.