May 09, 2014

A base by any other name

Official secrecy, obfuscation and outright lies have characterized continuing US military presence and activity in the Philippines since permanent US military bases were booted out in 1991.

Whatever information has been made available by the two governments has been in the form of a sustained public relations campaign.  Front page photos of the US Armed Forces regaling Filipino politicians, bureaucrats and media practitioners with tours on their state-of-the-art aircraft carriers and submarines.   US forces in Balikatan military exercises engaged in civic action: building classrooms, holding medical-surgical clinics and training locals in disaster preparedness.  US participation in the Yolanda relief effort, unlike those of other countries, involve the massive, some say overkill,  mobilization of military forces and military war equipment, subsequently generating incalculable goodwill among the local population.

Filipinos critical and suspicious of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) will need to study more deeply what economic and political realities in the US and the world have brought about changes in the US global defense strategy and concomitant major adjustments in its force structure and deployment.  In turn, what political relations and legal arrangements with countries hosting US military forces have become necessary and desirable to secure and advance the strategic interests of the lone Superpower.

With the US and its allies emerging victors at the end of the Cold War in 1990-91, the US lost its justification for maintaining overseas military bases, having no clear enemies left to fight outside its borders.  Public demand no less from the US citizenry, coupled with fiscal constraints amid lingering economic recessions and crises, forced the US defense establishment to embark on a Base Reduction and Closure (BRAC) program that resulted in the dismantling of 350 military installations worldwide by 2005.

While the closure of the US military bases at Clark and Subic was not contemplated in the BRAC plan, strong nationalist sentiment brought about the rejection of a new military bases agreement that would have retained the US bases for another 10 years. The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo that came two months before the historic Senate vote hastened the abandonment of the bases by the US forces.

It would not take long, though, for the US to find – or create – another “enemy” that would justify what official US Defense documents would describe as a “robust” overseas military presence.  War, after all, has always been monopoly-capital’s solution, both in the short and long run, to economic crises. In the short run, it provides employment and revives production, although limited to the military industries.  In the long run, military intervention and aggression are needed to seize and maintain strategic resources, markets, cheap labor and dumping ground for excess capital. 

The 9-11 bombings provided the pretext – the “war against terror” – for once again deploying US forces and materiel worldwide in large numbers. The aim this time is not only to consolidate hegemony as the undisputed sole Superpower, but also to prevent the rise of another peer competitor. But with the same political, diplomatic, social and financial constraints continuing to weigh it down, the US could not go back to the old set-up of maintaining large permanent military bases on foreign soil.

Thus, the resort to an elaborate system  of having a few bases called “Main Operating Bases” (MOBs) i.e. “an enduring strategic asset established in friendly territory with permanently stationed combat forces, command and control structures, and family support facilities”. These old-type foreign military bases are combined with several other types of “facilities” with varying degrees of control and ownership shared with the host nation (e.g. Colocated Operating Bases, Forward Operating Sites/Locations, Forward Support Sites/Locations, Cooperative Security Locations, Preposition Sites, etc.), with  corresponding agreements with host nations allowing various degrees of US military presence and types of activities on their soil.

(It is worth noting that “Agreed Locations” is not included in this official list, and is either a newly evolved concept or a newly-coined term  meant to  flexibly cover any of the above types of Base or Location when it suits the US or when it becomes feasible or acceptable.)
Since the abrogation of the RP-US Military Bases Agreement, the sprawling, off-limits, in-your-face type of bases exemplified by the Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base ceased to exist in many countries.  They symbolized and constituted an affront to national sovereignty and territorial integrity; spawned innumerable social and economic problems; provoked nationalist sentiments and gave rise to vigorous anti-bases and anti-nuclear movements in the host nations.

Nonetheless, US military presence in our country has never been more firmly established than today. Fifteen years of the VFA, twelve years of the MLSA and the thirteen years since the launch by the Bush administration of the so-called US “war on terror” has made all these possible.

We are witness to the unending “rotational” deployment of thousands of US troops to the country for “joint training exercises” and so-called humanitarian and disaster response missions on a year-round basis as well as to enjoy “rest and recreation” furloughs.  Increasingly frequent port “visits” and “temporary” stationing of US war ships and air assets in unspecified locations have become the order of the day.  Even the unauthorized, in fact illegal, presence of the minesweeper USS Guardian in the protected waters of Tubbataha Reef causing massive damage to the reef was given “legal” cover by the VFA.

The Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) with its headquarters in Zamboanga, Mindanao is part of an elite, highly covert US military command  that undertakes “special operations” around the world without the host country’s consent like that which led to the killing of Al Qaeda head, Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.  An average of six hundred members of the JSOTF-P are “temporarily” forward-deployed on a “rotational” basis in what amounts to a  “Cooperative Security Locations” (CSLs), a new kind of military basing scheme. 

US DOD literature defines CSLs as “a host-nation facility with little or no permanent US presence...CSLs provide contingency access and are a focal point for security cooperation activities…may contain prepositioned equipment. ..are: rapidly scalable and located for tactical use, expandable to become a FOS (Forward Operating Site) forward and expeditionary.” 

According to the US DOD, the “Forward Operating Site (FOS) is an expandable host-nation ‘warm site’ with a limited U.S. military support presence and possibly prepositioned equipment. It can host rotational forces and be a focus for bilateral and regional training. These sites will be tailored to meet anticipated requirements and can be used for an extended time period.” 

There is every indication that not only CSLs but FOSs and other types of facilities  exist in the Philippines though neither government explicitly admits this to be the case.  The JSOTF-P was in fact deployed to the Persian Gulf theater at the height of the Iraq invasion and occupation in 2002.  Several eyewitness accounts point to exclusive  US military installations in the AFP Camp Navarro in Zamboanga and inside the Camp Aguinaldo AFP Headquarters complete with physical structures, prepositioned equipment, under the operational control of US officers, and with strictly restricted access to Filipino military and civilian personnel.  Official reports of Dutch Police investigating the charges against Prof. Sison in 2007 make mention of a hitherto secret US facility in the former Clark Air Base as the “neutral US territory” from which they gathered the testimonies of witnesses provided by the Philippine government. 

The inescapable conclusion is that even before the signing of the EDCA, the US had already been provided the authority and the wherewithal to undertake and pursue its military objectives using the Philippines as its base of operations. 

Why then the need for the EDCA?  Certainly with the EDCA, the US will hereinafter be able to “legally”  scale up and expand their presence and activities anywhere in the country as they deem necessary, useful or desirable with a minimum of cost and a maximum of effectiveness. 

The grant to the US of a wide, unlimited access to, and control over Philippine territory, clearly more than what it would need for its military plans and geopolitical objectives elsewhere in the world is curious and alarming.  Can the carte blanche possibly be explained by an intent to intervene militarily even in our purely internal affairs?  #

Published in Business World
9-10 May 2014


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