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U.S. aids Philippines in battle against IEDs, al-Qaida-style warfareMANILA, Philippines — Eliminating al-Qaida-linked terror groups is not likely to end problems in lawless Mindanao.

It might be only the beginning of the struggle.

"Having eliminated Abu Sayyaf, will the Philippine police or the Philippine armed forces be in a position to maintain its deterrent presence in force for a long period of time, or will it have to pull out to go someplace else … while allowing the Abu Sayyaf to regenerate?" asked former Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, during an interview with Stars and Stripes.

The Philippine military is now overstretched and ill-equipped to maintain such a presence, said Teodoro, a Harvard University-educated lawyer who resigned earlier this month to run in the country’s May presidential election.

Without being beefed up, the military would likely be unable to hold onto its victory, and the Mindanao region would slip back into the hands of the insurgency, he said.

"I think that is the story of the repetitive insurgencies in the Philippines," Teodoro said. "We have low defense spending, and we try compromise mechanisms such as peace talks without the guarantee of the armed forces or the police to stay in force in order to solve the internal conflicts."

Meanwhile, a wider and deeply rooted Muslim separatist movement is likely to live on in the region after al-Qaida is pushed out.

Accepting Philippine government rule is an "impossible proposition" for hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the region who feel oppressed and economically exploited by a Christian majority in Manila, said Nur Misuari, the founding chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front, one of the oldest armed factions aimed at creating a separate nation for Muslims in Mindanao.

"Sulu (Jolo island) used to be the most powerful kingdom in the region, and it is now the poorest area of the country," he said. "This is how they want us to be. We have no choice but to look for a way out of our circumstances."

The struggle will end only when Muslims in Mindanao are granted a separate state, and until then, they will oppose the encroachment of the Philippine military and U.S. forces, Misuari said.

"If they come here for military reasons, we don’t welcome them," he said. "It is best for [the Americans] not to associate with the armed forces because the armed forces are our enemy."

The possibility of a separate Muslim state remains remote after decades of fighting and negotiating.

"It is as elusive and intractable as ever," Misuari said. "But we Muslims never lose hope."

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