WASHINGTON – Faced with political turmoil in the Philippines, the Pentagon Friday backed away from a plan to launch a joint combat offensive against Muslim rebels there.
A week after defense officials announced they had an agreement to deploy more than 1,000 U.S. troops in March in an effort to rout Abu Sayyaf forces from the island of Jolo, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he didn't know how many would go, or when, or exactly what they would do.
The Pentagon's initial announcement of planned joint operations -- which could draw Americans into combat -- had stirred controversy in the Philippines.
The former U.S. possession prohibits foreign groups from engaging in combat unless allowed by a treaty.
"We have to find an approach that will help them without violating their constitution," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference. He said the two governments were working on details of an undetermined kind of joint counter-terror effort.
Rumsfeld said it was likely the end agreement "will have an intelligence component, a command and control component, a training component, some exercises, and whatever it ends up being, it will clearly be consistent with their constitution, and it will be consistent with what we tell you we are doing."
Rumsfeld's comments followed a weeklong diplomatic row that played out in the press in both nations with Manila repeatedly denying there would be a U.S. combat role and saying Americans were coming for a "training exercise."
Washington stuck to its version all week, calling it a plan for "joint operations" until Rumsfeld's news conference, which followed a Pentagon luncheon with Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes.
Officials had hoped the two could have a joint news conference, but Rumsfeld came instead with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, his usual partner for briefing reporters.
Reyes met with reporters earlier in the day, saying the two countries were "groping for the exact term" to describe the joint operation.
He said that under the Philippine definition of training, people train and then there is a test mission -- trainees can't graduate until they've gone on an actual operation that includes "an encounter in a hostile area."
"Some students die, and the others graduate. That's our definition," he said.
Apparently attempting to avoid the words "combat," "joint operations" and "exercise" on Friday, Rumsfeld referred to the next effort on Jolo as an "activity" and once started to say exercise but ended up saying "exer-activity."
Last February, some 1,200 Americans, including 160 special forces, were sent to the country in what officials said was a mission to "train, advise and assist" Filipino forces battling the radical Muslim rebels on the island of Basilan.
Manila called that effort "an exercise" as well, and the Pentagon didn't object, at least publicly.
Months of negotiations went into trying to come up with a plan for a new effort -- this time on Jolo.
One official said Friday that the problem began Feb. 17, when Manila announced President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had approved a new joint exercise, which the Pentagon viewed as a misrepresentation of what had been agreed to.
The Pentagon, in turn, announced a few days later that it was really "joint operations."
Three officials said that because the operations presented more risk of combat and casualties for Americans, Rumsfeld said he didn't want to "dance around the words," as one official put it.
Rumsfeld said that whatever is decided "will be known, and it will be known to the Congress, and it will be known to you.
Pressed on whether there would still be joint combat operations, Rumsfeld said:
"The fact is that the way you phrased it would be perfectly comfortable from our standpoint. From their standpoint, it would be inconsistent with their constitution Therefore, what we have to do is find an approach where we can provide the maximum benefit to them and do it in a way that is not inconsistent with their circumstance."
The Feb. 20 Pentagon announcement on joint operations was made to a number of news organizations by a senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity and confirmed by several others.
When pressed on that, Rumsfeld said: "You weren't told by me," then complained that the press often prints "leaked" information.