The War on Terror in Southeast Asia

Notwithstanding the daunting work still ahead in Afghanistan, attention is turning to second fronts in the fight against global terrorism. One frontier in the next round will likely be Southeast Asia, where U.S. policy-makers fear that al-Qaeda has found common cause with separatist movements and Muslim extremist groups in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

In 1995 bin Laden cells in Manila plotted the assassination of President Clinton and the pope, and planned to blow up American planes on East Asian routes. Their interdiction was thought to have reduced, if not extinguished, the threat to the United States from terrorism in the region. Since then, however, social networks in these countries have been severely strained by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, providing extremist groups with new openings.

And the Sept. 11 attacks revealed that terrorism is more tenacious, and more lethal, than our episodic attention had allowed.

These developments combine to make Southeast Asia a proxy battleground in the global war against terrorism, as it was in the anti-communist struggle of the Cold War. Indeed, the recent dispatch of American “advisers” to the Philippines, although only a handful, strikes a chord with populations on both sides of the Pacific who lived through the American intervention in Vietnam. What does Cold War experience tell us about fighting a new threat in Southeast Asia? Equally important, what changes in the region since then must be factored into present American policy?

Two broad lessons from the past are applicable to the new fight against terrorism. First, the profound diversity of the region?historical, political, ethnic and religious?offers fire walls that guard against widespread contagion. In the Cold War, the sweep of communism envisioned by the domino theory stopped abruptly at the Indochina border.

Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were breeding grounds for Marxism, largely because it was a means to resist French colonialism; Thailand, never colonized, was not. In the post-Sept. 11 world, this diversity augurs well for moderation. Even the region’s Muslim- majority countries, notably Indonesia and Malaysia, must balance the concerns of their Islamic populations with those of other significant religious and cultural groups. As a result, there is little enthusiasm for theocratic government and, thankfully, no possibility of state-sponsored terrorism.

But a second lesson of the Cold War is less reassuring. A half-century ago, Communist insurgency found a beachhead in Southeast Asian provinces that had grievances with their capitals, most often because of severe economic disparities.

Today, in part because of the economic crisis, similar resentments have flowered into secessionist movements and made these provinces vulnerable to extremist influence from abroad. Mindinao in the Philippines and Aceh in Indonesia are particular targets of concern in a counter-terrorism campaign.

As in the Cold War, however, there are no short-term solutions to these problems. More effective decentralization, both economic and political, will make these soft spots resistant to extremism, but that will take years to accomplish. A policy that treats extremism as the disease rather than the symptom in Southeast Asia risks being a short-term success and a long-term failure. Cooperation to extinguish al-Qaeda in the region is important, but only a first step. Assistance for these underlying problems, even when they appear to have little direct bearing on terrorism, is an essential accompaniment.

Last, the United States must take into account the sea change in its political relations with Southeast Asia since the Cold War. The patron-client tone of Cold War alliances is anathema to even the friendliest leaders today. Heads of state in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia share Washington’s concern over terrorism.

Paradoxically, their ability to combat this mutual threat is dependent upon keeping an arms-length distance from Washington. To avoid destabilizing the region further, the United States will have to adopt a more restrained and indirect role than it has in Pakistan and Afghanistan. American troops on the ground (or in the air), especially in a unilateral military action, would be untenable on the Asian side.

And what did Southeast Asia learn about the United States from its Cold War experience? Certainly, that there can be long-lasting benefits to cooperation in fighting a common enemy. The assistance packages and trade preferences granted to U.S. allies in the region no doubt helped to jump-start the economic “miracles” of the 1980s.

But these countries also know that the United States can turn away too soon when a threat abates. The erosion of U.S. attention to the region after the fall of Saigon, and Washington’s lackluster response to the 1997 crisis, color the prospects for cooperation on the new counter-terrorism campaign.

For best results, Washington will have to convince Southeast Asia that it is in for the long haul.