Our War Against Bandits?

This article originally appeared on National Review Online on January 18, 2001.

The Taliban has been overthrown, the al Qaeda network has been disrupted, and Osama bin Laden is dead or has escaped. There's not much more work to do in Afghanistan, so long as the Bush administration does not take on the thankless task of attempting to build a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan.

With al Qaeda operatives known to have been active in an estimated 40 countries, a lot of other potential targets beckon. The Philippines seems to be next on the administration's list, with upward of 700 military advisers headed its way. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R., Kan.) argues that "this is the next priority because there are Americans at risk."

However, the increasing focus on the Philippines demonstrates the risk of Washington wasting efforts on bandits rather than terrorists, and getting sucked into conflicts which affect America only tangentially. The archipelagic nation, for instance, has long faced an insurgency among its minority Muslim population. The conflict waxes and wanes, seemingly insoluble but never threatening the stability of the Filipino state, let alone American security.

Commanding most attention recently is the Abu Sayyaf, which currently holds two American missionaries as hostages. In November Lt. Commander Jeff Davis, spokesman for the Pentagon's Pacific Command, claimed that Abu Sayyaf was "an international terrorist group that poses as much of a threat to the U.S. as to the Philippines."

The U.S. has since announced $92 million in military aid, rushed in military advisers, and offered combat troops. Although Manila rejected the latter — the Philippine constitution prohibits operations by foreign troops — it has eagerly accepted the cash and advice. Moreover, America's advisers are armed and authorized to fight in self-defense. And Rep. Tiahrt, who represents the district from which hostages Martin and Gracia Burnham hail, flew to Manila to urge President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to accept the intervention of U.S. troops.

But there is no national-security justification for American involvement. The group's ties to al Qaeda are tangential at best. Its now-deceased leader fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets; bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa seems to have channeled some money to Abu Sayyaf.

However, the group operates more like criminals than terrorists. Although they routinely demand the release of Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, they are usually satisfied by collecting ransom — about $20 million in 2000.

Abu Sayyaf has shown no interest in conducting a serious campaign against the U.S. Rather, its American victims have simply been targets of opportunity, visiting the wrong resort at the wrong time. It's awful when it happens, but it's not unusual in a world full of criminals and insurgents.

Nor is there any reason the Philippines should be unable to bring the bandits to justice. As many as 7,000 soldiers are searching for a band thought to have dwindled to the dozens. Unfortunately, Manila's problem is its own inefficiency. In fact, Abu Sayyaf has taunted the U.S. over its planned arms shipments, since Filipino weapons regularly end up in its hands. Bribes are thought to bring the insurgents intelligence on government efforts and have allowed surrounded guerrillas to escape capture.

American training, advice, and equipment might help. But the Philippines suffers from economic and political problems that run deep. Until Manila successfully addresses these issues, it is unlikely to develop the kind of honest and loyal institutions necessary to protect its own citizens, who suffer much more at the hands of Abu Sayyaf, as well as Americans.

Since reforms come slowly in the Philippines, the Burnhams could languish in captivity forever. So Victorino Matus of The Weekly Standard argues: "it is — or should be — absolutely imperative for the United States to do whatever it takes to free its own people." Rep. Tiahrt sounds the same trumpet, telling Matus: "if it were me, and I'm sure if it were for you, as an American, you'd hope America would come to your rescue."

But the resolution of most hostage crises should be left to local governments. U.S. involvement automatically raises the stakes: "One American equals ten Europeans," says Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Sabaya.

And military intervention sucks Washington into what are usually broader conflicts ill-suited to easy resolution. Indeed, a policy of rescue provides a trigger by which antagonists can consciously draw in the U.S.

But there's an even more important point. Americans, whether busy making money, vacationing, proselytizing their faith, or doing good works, should not do so with the expectation that there will always be a Marine Expeditionary Force to back them up.

For instance, the Burnhams, missionaries since 1986, are admirable folks. But traveling and living abroad carries risks, risks that should be borne by those undertaking them.

Of course, if you're the victim in a particular case, this seems a bit hard-hearted. And it's something about which I've thought, having visited Kosovo in 1998 and eastern Burma in 2000, both suffering from guerrilla war, and Ambon, Indonesia in 2001, in which a still dangerous cold war had succeeded two years of Muslim-Christian violence. (As I write this I'm preparing to visit Pakistan.) I took what I considered to be reasonable risks. Had I miscalculated, however, the U.S. would have had no cause to intervene.

So far, the war on terrorism has been a dramatic success. But there's more to be done, and Washington needs to keep its focus on eradicating whatever remains of al Qaeda or any other group that threatens the U.S. It remains the job of other nations to deal with their own conflicts.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.