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Strategic Effects of Conflict with Iraq: Southeast Asia

Authored by Dr. Anthony L. Smith. | March 2003

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The Overall Impact on U.S. Standing and Partnerships in Southeast Asia.

A U.S. war in Iraq will impact differently on the various partnerships within Southeast Asia. Most of these relationships will remain as they were, with possible pressure on Malaysia and Indonesia over their ties to the United States. Even in Malaysia, one suspects, the Mahathir government can both control radical elements and sway more moderate Muslim opinion, and this relationship will ride out initial anger over the war. In Indonesia, public anger, and the actions of fringe terror groups, have the most potential to undermine the relationship?one that already has been under enormous strain. There, too, the U.S.-Indonesia relationship will outlive a disagreement over Iraq, but the levels of distrust in the United States may be notched up further and have implications for other sectors of interest.

The impact on the overall U.S. strategic position in Southeast Asia largely will be unchanged. The large number of port calls by the U.S. Navy to the countries of maritime Southeast Asia will continue as before, although there are no permanent bases in Southeast Asia. Two rumored options for further military engagement in the region, the re-establishment of a permanent presence in the Philippines and port visits to Vietnam, will also not be affected by war in Iraq. The impact of a war in Iraq will be felt on the diplomatic front, and it will involve the war against terrorism.

The Impact on the Pursuit of the War on Terrorism in Southeast Asia.

It remains the case that Malaysia and Indonesia have publicly expressed doubts about the links between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it would be fair to say that the Muslim community throughout Southeast Asia remains highly skeptical. But the prospect of war in Iraq does have implications for the war against terrorism, and again this is principally in Indonesia. Since September 11, the United States, Singapore, and Malaysia have had a very difficult task in urging the Indonesian government to take seriously the problem of international terrorism?especially as it relates to the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group, an affiliate of al Qaeda. The Bali blast in 2002 changed this lethargy to some degree. Open opposition within the Indonesian public for a war against Saddam Hussein could translate into a strained relationship with the United States, which would impact ultimately on anti-terrorist efforts?or a government less inclined to be seen to be yielding to foreign ?demands.?

Prolonged conflict in Iraq that brings with it enormous civilian deaths?from fighting or starvation?will touch an existing raw nerve and radicalize some within the Muslim community in Southeast Asia, possibly to join extremist groups, or to give them succor or sympathy. It is impossible to know the extent to which this might occur, but potentially war in Iraq, which very well carries its own merits, could prove to be seed forjihadi groups in Southeast Asia. A quick conquest of Iraq, with widespread legitimacy, will undercut this phenomenon.

The sizeable Muslim community in the Philippines, which has been considered in little detail in this report, will most likely be unhappy with U.S. intervention in Iraq; however, this population is in no position to exert pressure on government policy. The vast majority of Muslims are confined to the south of the Philippines, and the various ethnic groups of Mindanao and the surrounding islands arevery much alienated from the Philippines government. War in Iraq will not alter, either way, the difficulties of the Philippine Muslim south. The introduction of U.S. personnel to assist in training for combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) on Basilan island was the direct result of September 11. Although many have questioned whether ASG, largely a gang of kidnappers, are linked to bin Laden, al Qaeda operatives have attempted to contact separatist leaders in Mindanao. The United States will continue to provide support for the Philippines government in bringing its restive hinterland?not just the south, but the Maoist-oriented New People?s Army (NPA) areas?under control.