The presence of insurgent or terrorist sanctuaries in non-belligerent countries is one of the most intractable and explosive issues in international relations. It was a central issue in the Vietnam War, brought about the destruction of Lebanon and continues to plague the coalition in Iraq. It is also key to the present war on terror in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam differed from Korea and Malaya, where containment and counterinsurgency prevailed, because the communists could outflank allied forces in South Vietnam by using "neutral" territory in Cambodia and Laos. Like the Palestinian Liberation Organization's presence in Lebanon until 1982, this strategy plunged hapless host countries into civil war and provoked invasions by stronger powers, in turn spurring more extremist movements -- the Khmer Rouge, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.
Like previous host countries, the Philippines is a weak state, at peace with its neighbors and the West. But, since 1994, its lawless southern islands have replaced Afghanistan as the main training ground and refuge for Southeast Asian jihadists. Most are Indonesians belonging to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Mujahidin Kompak and other Darul Islam factions.
Graduates of Mindanao's terror camps, for example, now rival in number the older generation of Southeast Asian Afghan alumni that forged ties with al-Qaeda. Veterans of the Mindanao camps took part in almost every JI-linked bombing since 2000, including the attack that killed hundreds in Bali in 2002. New cohorts will pose a danger for years to come.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the US galvanized Washington's interest in the southern Philippines. Mere weeks after the planes hit, Pentagon planners negotiated a return of US troops to Mindanao for the first time since the colonial era. Indeed, Mindanao was the second front in the war on terror until Iraq came to dominate US threat perceptions. Australian Prime Minister John Howard has likewise openly mulled pre-emptive military strikes on terrorist sanctuaries in the region.
Mindanao is not Cambodia or Lebanon, but the essential dilemma is the same: How to separate the terrorist parasite from its unwilling host, without doing fatal violence to the patient?
In the Philippines, the diagnosis is complicated by the fact that terrorists are embedded in a volatile Muslim insurgency with which the West has no quarrel. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is Southeast Asia's strongest separatist group. It enjoys popular support, expresses legitimate grievances and peace talks are underway. Like the Palestinians, however, the MILF is riven by factions and its leaders cannot, or will not, exclude terrorists from areas that they control.
In part, this reflects political hedging by the MILF in the face of Manila's incapacity to make meaningful concessions. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's government is on the ropes, with a state of emergency declared in February, following an abortive coup attempt and months of instability arising from allegations of fraud in the 2004 elections. The allegations involve the armed forces' manipulation of the Mindanao vote -- underscoring how state failure in the south, a politicized military and paralysis in the capital reinforce each other in a downward spiral.
State failure in the southern Philippines now places the entire region at risk. After a rough passage to democracy, a traditionally strong Indonesian state is reasserting itself, forcing jihadists out and across Mindanao's porous frontiers. Despite concerns over conflict in southern Thailand, there are no secessionist enclaves beyond government control and no indications of foreign terrorist involvement.