ZAMBOANGA CITY — The United States will not cut its military assistance to the Philippines given the country’s good track record in the fight against terror, a top US legislator said Saturday.
Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, chair of the powerful armed services committee of the US House of Representatives, made the assurance after his five-member delegation yesterday visited American troops stationed here to help train Filipino soldiers battling the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group.
“The US Congress will continue to pour support, including financial, to boost whatever efforts both countries have done to fight terrorism,” Reyes said.
He said the US was happy over what the Philippines had achieved in the fight against terror.
“We are proud of the work being done here and more than that, we know that it’s an important part of the global effort that we need to make in protecting our allies and protecting the vital regions of the world,” he said.
The military immediately welcomed Reyes’ assurance that there would be no cut in US military assistance to the Philippines.
Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres, spokesperson for the Philippine Army, said military aid from the US would lead to the eventual downfall of the enemies of the state.
“It is a welcome development. That would translate to better training and equipment for our soldiers, thereby hastening the defeat of the insurgents and the destruction of terrorists,” Torres told the Inquirer.
The Army is the biggest among the three services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Late last month, it was reported that the US State Department had proposed to the US Congress a sharp cut in aid to the Philippine military and police in the light of their alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings in the country.
It reportedly requested the US Congress to cut aid to the AFP, specifically, on the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for procurement of military equipment from the US from nearly $30 million last year to only $11 million in fiscal year 2008 starting this September, and the International Military Exchange Training (IMET) program for sending and training AFP officers in the US from $2.9 million to $1.5 million.
Also reportedly included in the request is a slash on the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) assistance program to the Philippine National Police from almost $2 million to $1.1 million for the same period.
The report was posted on the website of the ABS-CBN television network and carried by its news channel ANC. The report came from its North American News Bureau which based the story on a US State Department report.
Militants had welcomed the reported US cut in military assistance which they said was being used by the Philippine military and police forces to kill activists and to commit human rights abuses.
But to Malacañang’s relief, the report turned out to be false. Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo officially denied the report.
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita had warned that if the aid reduction were true, it would affect the antiterror efforts of the Arroyo administration.
The US Embassy in Manila called the report “premature and misleading,” saying the US Congress has yet to pass the proposed 2008 federal budget, including foreign aid appropriations.
Asked about possible US cuts to its military aid to the Philippines, Reyes said that “if anything, we recommend that we expand the assistance and the support.”
“We are prepared to provide any assistance possible because we think a safe and secured Asian region, certainly the Philippines is part of this, is in the best interests of everyone,” Reyes added.
The US government had poured nearly $400 million in military assistance to the Philippines, according to the militant group Bayan Muna, citing reports from the Library of the US Congress-Federal Research Division on the Philippines.
For 2006, the proposal was $23 million while it was not specified for 2007.
Reyes, chair of the permanent select committee on intelligence and armed services committee, led four other members of the US Congress during his visit here.
The bipartisan delegation also included New Jersey Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, member of the appropriations committee and the select intelligence oversight panel; New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson of the committee on energy and the intelligence committee; New York Rep. Gregory W. Meeks of the financial services and international relations committees; and Maryland Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, of the appropriations and intelligence committees.
Except for Meeks, who is a Democrat, the other members of the team are Republicans allied with US President George W. Bush.
“This is an opportunity for my colleagues and myself to travel to the Philippines to see, first hand, the close cooperation between our two countries on several fronts,” he said.
Meeks praised Philippine-US links, saying the visit showed that “we have much more in common that brings us together.”
No to US bases
Reyes also denied reports about plans to reopen US military bases in the country.
“There is no move to reopen US bases in the Philippines,” he said.
Following their visit here, the US congressmen said they would seek more US aid to bolster the Philippines in its fight against terror groups.
The poorly equipped Philippine military has been hoping to receive more assistance from the US in the face of increased conflict with Muslim extremists.
The US solons also met with Filipino military commanders and local officials and were briefed on the security situation in the region where Filipino soldiers are still in pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf rebels.
The arrival of the American legislators comes just four days after a bomb, believed planted by the Abu Sayyaf Group, exploded in a square here, injuring 14 people.
The Abu Sayyaf has been linked by both the US and Philippine intelligence agencies to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. The group has been blamed for the worst terrorist attacks in the country and the July 10 ambush-slaying of 14 Marines, of which 10 were beheaded.
The US delegation also expressed sympathy for the scores of soldiers who have been killed in recent weeks in an upsurge of fighting with the Abu Sayyaf and their allies in the island provinces of Jolo and Basilan.
At least 57 government troops have been killed since the fighting began.
Military solution not enough
AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said yesterday that the ongoing military offensives in Basilan and Sulu are only a small component of the government’s total approach to eliminate the Muslim and communist insurgency by 2010.
Interviewed by Vice President Noli de Castro on the latter’s radio program, “Para Sa Iyo Bayan,” Esperon acknowledged that a military solution would not be enough to give lasting peace in Mindanao.
“Hindi naman po puwede na military solution lamang po ang ilalagay natin sa insurgency. In fact, iyong military component ng solution sa insurgency ay napakaliit kumpara sa kabuuang solusyon o wholistic solution (It’s not enough that we employ only a military solution to the insurgency. In fact, the military component of the solution to the insurgency is very small compared to the total solution or wholistic solution),” Esperon told De Castro.
Esperon noted that on Jan. 4 this year, President Macapagal-Arroyo ordered state security forces to defeat the communist insurgency by 2010, to defeat the Abu Sayyaf as soon as possible, and to contain the Muslim secessionist movement.
The President reiterated her deadline during the recent command conference in Zamboanga City, but added the infusion of the development component in the overall solution to the insurgency problem.
Esperon said the military operations in Basilan and Jolo were being given prominence by the media simply because of the recent terroristic activities by the Abu Sayyaf, including the beheadings of the 10 Marine soldiers, and the heavy casualties incurred by government troops.
Four Marine brigades have been deployed to Sulu and Basilan to hunt down and destroy the Abu Sayyaf. These include four Marine battalions, three Army infantry battalions, one Scout Ranger battalion, one Special Forces battalion and one Light Reaction battalion.
But in other parts of the country affected by the communist insurgents, he said, a “humanitarian” offensive or development should prevail over military operations.
Esperon said that aside from the combat operations, the President had also ordered the deployment of more engineering battalions in Zamboanga, Sulu and Basilan to construct circumferential roads.
He said that civil-military operations were also going on in other parts of insurgency-affected barangays.
“Higit na mas malaking effort ang development to give a lasting solution to the insurgency problem para wala na talagang babangong insurgency na bunga ng ideolohiya at kahirapan (Development is a bigger effort to give a lasting solution to the insurgency problem so that there will be no more insurgency based on ideology that will crop up), he stressed. With reports from Cynthia D. Balana and Inquirer wires