Military Access and Status of Forces Agreements: US license for impunity

The general outrage over the transfer from Philippine custody to the US embassy of a convicted US serviceman Daniel Smith who raped a Filipina in 2005 is a direct example of the social costs of US military presence under the Visiting Forces Agreement. The violations of national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country is aggravated by the US policy and practice of shielding its troops from criminal prosecution or jurisdiction under the host's judicial processes and system. The US resorts to blackmail when it suspended the Balikatan joint war exercises over the custody issue. When the Philippine president Gloria Arroyo and her functionaries relented, the US immediately announced the resumption of the war exercises.

Access agreements and status of forces agreements (SOFA), such as the VFA, have become increasingly important as US forces and bases have been reconfigured and plans to downsize its forces in the region are underway. In South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia, access to key host nation facilities, ports and airfields are critical to the US security objectives in the Asia-Pacific.

Access in lieu of bases

For the past three years (2003-2005), there has been an average of around 390,000 overseas US troops deployed around the world. This number is double that of the previous decade where overseas troops have been lowest (1993-2002) and is at levels similar to 1970-1992[1]. For the same period, the US has negotiated 20 treaties and/or agreements covering military deployment and personnel through Status of Forces agreements (SOFA), Mutual Logistic Support (MLSA) and/or Access and Cross-Servicing agreements (ACSA).

In contrast, in the previous decade (1993-2002) where US troop deployments have been reduced, there were 62 such treaties/agreements that were inked between the US and other countries, either by adding on access and cross-servicing and status of forces sections to existing agreements or inking new pacts. In all, the US has military, logistics and status agreements with at least 129 countries as of 2005[2].

Table 1. Access and Status of Forces treaties by the US and
Historical deployments of the US military

Overseas deployment752686462249212277389026
Overseas Bases886830800769

Two things are noteworthy: the reduction of US overseas military deployments during 1993-2002 and the closure of some of its bases were offset by the increased access due to the SOFA/ACSA/MLSA treaties negotiated during that period. More of these access and status of forces treaties are still being negotiated by the US with other countries until the present.

In the absence of a physical base, the US inked more than 80 bilateral agreements since 1992 to provide it with a range of access and status of forces agreements that it can call on depending on the need of the situation. In addition, through its use of advanced military technology, the US can apply greater amounts of military force over greater distances in shorter periods of time.

The number of troops stationed overseas has been reduced by more frequent but shorter deployment of troops. Advances in transportation, communications and military technology have maintained the productivity and effectiveness of overseas bases despite the relative reduction in numbers.

Coupled with the US bases in some countries, visiting forces agreements allow additional routine exercises, training and ship visits. Changi Naval Station in Singapore allows US naval combatants and include a pier which can accommodate US aircraft carriers. Thailand is an important refueling and transit point for operations in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf. Australia has long provided key access to facilities for US unilateral and combined exercises. The US makes 60-80 port calls per year to Hong Kong for minor maintenance and repair of transiting ships.

Access agreements such as Mutual Logistics Support Agreements (MLSA) or Acquisition Cross-Servicing Agreements (ACSA) makes available the use of host nation resources to support day-to-day and future operational requirements. It also enables joint training and exercises, "constabulary" operations, humanitarian and disaster relief operations. These provide the US access to basing and infrastructure necessary for its force projection without the need for permanent presence. The US is offers these countries money to upgrade and maintain infrastructure, bases and airfields. In addition, the US spent 265.7 USD M from 2001 to 2004 in training 4000 Indonesian, 1200 Filipino and 700 Thai police. Taiwan is also one of the region's largest weapons buyer from the US while the Philippines has been its largest recipient of military aid.

In its pursuit of its Global War of Terror, the Bush Administration deployed over 1,200 troops, including 150 Special Forces, to its "second front", the southern Philippines, to advise the Philippine military in their pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf Group. It has also increased intelligence sharing operations, restarted military-military relations with Indonesia and provided or requested from Congress over USD 1 billion in aid to Indonesia and the Philippines[3].

Like a gun pointed in the head

Following the logic of neocolonialism, US military presence in a country are a stark reminder and real source of control over a nation without necessitating formal political control over its territorial sovereignty. Just like bases, it can be likened to a loaded gun pointed at the government and peoples of its host country. Their presence intimidates and gives coercive power for the US to gain concessions from the host and allows it to interfere, in most cases with impunity, in internal affairs, commit crimes and violence on local people, wreak grave social costs and environmental destruction.

The 2004 National Military Strategy[4] outlines how it can increase the ability of the US military to rapidly deploy, employ, sustain and redeploy capabilities in geographically separated and environmentally diverse regions. These bases can also serve as launching pad for the preemptive strikes including nuclear attack, "peace-enforcement" and "constabulary" functions that the QDRR 2001 has called for.

The so-called "stability operations" are nothing but political and military intervention in domestic affairs and excuses for US military presence. In performing "peace-enforcement" and "constabulary" functions, such as that in Iraq, the US has shown its willingness to directly intervene to allow US companies and firms free rein in the plunder of Iraq's resources. In the Southern Philippines, under the guise of hunting for members of the Abu Sayyaf Group, the US military has provided training, war materiel, logistic support and "advice" to Special Forces of the armed forces of the Philippines. Military support has ranged from basic training to actual field exposure of US servicemen. The US has been spotted outside the areas where the ASG operates to those areas where the New People's Army (NPA) are known to be strong. That the US calls the Philippines its "second front in the war against terror" and that it has periodic and overlapping joint exercises with it is not an accident, it does this to strengthen its position in this country for the purpose of projecting control in the southeast Asian region.

Status of Forces vs. sovereignty

However, the recent Philippine experience with Daniel Smith is no different from the experiences of those countries that hosted US bases. After Okinawa was annexed to Japan, nearly 5,000 crimes involved the U.S. military and civilian personnel exceeded nealy 5,000, including twelve murder cases and 110 rape cases by 2000. In 1995, the rape of a 12 year old child in Okinawa triggered nationwide protests against the bases. In Korea, there were around 100,000 criminal cases involving US soldiers over the last 50 years with none convicted under Korean law. In the period of Dec. 1985 to 1986, 258 cases were filed against American servicemen in Olongapo courts where eventually 168 were dismissed, three were archived and one resulted in acquittal. For the same period in Angeles City, of 43 criminal cases three were dismissed while nine were classified as "pending arrest" since the accused were flown by U.S. base authorities to another country[5].

Recent U.S. war exercises have left a number of civilians, mostly children, killed. In the August 2000 Flash Piston exercise in Cebu, US Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, Land special forces) and their Philippine Navy counterparts held a secret exercise in the former Atlas Mine at Toledo where they left an unexploded rocket-launched grenade that blew up when local kids were playing with it killing two and injuring another. In March 2000, three US sailors were arrested and charged with bashing up a Cebu City taxi driver in a dispute over his fare. On 25 July 2002, Philippine newspapers reported the shooting of an unarmed Filipino civilian Buyong Isnijal by a U.S. soldier during a raid in the former's house. This was denied by the U.S. military despite the testimony to the contrary of the wife of the victim.

In the Philippines, the Daniel Smith transfer has exposed the puppetry of the ruling clique of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to US interests. Hours after a short talk with US Ambassador Christie Kenney in Baguio, and less than a week after the US suspension of the Balikatan exercises, the Philippine government transferred the convicted rapist Daniel Smith to the US embassy in the middle of the night, during the lull of the break, sneaking like thieves, scared of being discovered. The long history of the Philippine government's subservience to US wishes is being replayed once more. This is a clear case of unequal access and status of forces agreements allowing US forces to commit heinous crimes with impunity.

People's response

The intimidation on the local population by the presence of US military personnel have generated a wide range of responses. In Iraq, the Iraqi people are proving to the US as they did to the British in the 1920s that colonial occupation is no longer profitable. This directly contributed to the defeat of US Republicans in 2006 as well as the issuance of the Iraq Study Group Report which admitted the difficulties the US is facing in its occupation. Similarly, successes in the resistance of the Afghan people through guerrilla warfare has forced the US military to share the burden and responsibility of "peace keeping" with its NATO allies. The government of Karzai has not effectively stemmed the Taliban nor has it provided for the well being of the Afghan people. Instead it is becoming more and more hated for serving US interests and making life more difficult for the people. In the Philippines, rallies and protests against her puppetry to the US cannot be divorced from the unresolved issues of legitimacy of the Arroyo government.

Through its military bases and access agreements, the US makes its presence felt in an ever widening circle driven by its greed for resources and markets. However, as this circle tries to expand, it encounters resistance as it faces the ire of oppressed people of the world. Nations have also stood firm in their assertion of sovereignty and independence against the onslaught of imperial greed and power. The people under the claws of neo-colonial control are steadfastly fighting for national liberation to break free from the shackles of imperialism.###

1. Tim Kane, U.S. Troop Deployment Dataset (March1, 2006), Center for Data Analysis, The Heritage Foundation
2. Treaties in Force, US State Department, 2006
3. Terrorism in Southeast Asia, 2004, CRS Reports for Congress, US Congressional Research Service
4. National Military Strategy, US Department of Defense, 2004
5. Roland G. Simbulan, A Guide to Nuclear Philippines, 1988, Manila: IBON Primer Series

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