By BENJIE OLIVEROS
MANILA — Amid the depressing devastation caused by typhoon Ondoy, the frantic relief efforts, and the Arroyo government’s disappointing display of its inability to act swiftly and decisively to help save Filipinos in distress as well as mitigate the sufferings of those affected by the storm, the story about another brewing storm hit the headlines. Two American soldiers were killed by a blast from an improvised explosive device as their vehicle, a Humvee, was traversing the road between Kagay and Bato-bato, in Indanan town in Sulu on Sept. 29.
Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago immediately called for the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). She said this proved that US troops were in a battle area and were taking part in combat operations against separatist insurgents. This was denied by the US embassy, saying that the American soldiers were merely inspecting the area where they plan to build a school.
However, events prior to and after the blast that killed the American soldiers prove otherwise. First, Major General Ben Dolorfino, commander of the Western Mindanao Command, admitted that a 45-minute firefight between government forces and unidentified gunmen occurred in Barangay Bitanag in Panamao, Sulu, before the blast that killed the US soldiers. While Panamao is in another side of the island, Jolo is a small island with a land area of only 894 square kilometers.
Second, at around 11 a.m. of the same day, a mere two and a half hours after the blast that killed the two American soldiers, a small bridge in Sitio Dauyan, Barangay Bunot, also in Indanan town, was bombed. Earlier, Sept. 25, a bridge in Bato-bato, Indanan,
was also bombed. Dolorfino explained that these two bombings were “retaliatory attacks” by the Abu Sayyaf because the AFP had “decided to launch offensive action on Sept. 20.”
A day after the blast that killed the two, more American soldiers arrived supposedly to help in relief efforts in flood-stricken areas, a move that raised suspicions that they might participate later in retaliatory action against the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu.
What are the implications of the death of the two American soldiers? Will this result in an escalation of US military intervention in the Philippines much like what happened in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975?
At the minimum, the death of the two American soldiers emphasized the urgency of abrogating the VFA. Clearly, the incident proved that US soldiers are indeed embedded in AFP units conducting combat operations.
There would be retaliatory action from US forces, that’s for sure. However, without precluding the probability of an escalated US military intervention in the future, there seems to be not enough reason yet for the US to pour in troops at the scale it did in Vietnam from 1964-75. The current level of US involvement and positioning in the country, in general, and Mindanao, in particular, is still well within its current defense strategy and policy. It has unlimited access to AFP facilities and has built support infrastructure for its operations. It has command over a surrogate army, the AFP, while practicing its small unit Special Forces operations, as well as joint combat operations. And its interests are well-protected by the Arroyo government.