WASHINGTON - The death of an American hostage in the Philippines during a firefight yesterday illustrates the limitations on U.S. military might and the painful trade-offs required to keep important allies in the global campaign against terrorism.
Late last month, American commanders handed Philippine forces a crucial piece of information about the hostages' suspected whereabouts, American and Philippine military sources said, and helped the Philippine military plan a rescue mission. But because of political constraints the Philippines had imposed on the six-month military training mission, American advisers were not allowed to play a direct combat role.
As a result, Philippine Scout Rangers, who typically use 30-year-old radios and drive World War II-era jeeps, and the 50 or so Abu Sayyaf rebels holding the two Americans, Martin and Gracia Burnham, and a Filipina nurse, Ediborah Yap, stumbled across each other yesterday afternoon.
It was a "chance encounter," a Pentagon official said.
In the ensuing chaos, Martin Burnham and the nurse were killed. Gracia Burnham was shot in the leg, but was rescued and taken to Manila for medical treatment.
The yearlong hostage crisis may be over, but some military experts and lawmakers on Capitol Hill asked whether there might have been a different outcome had the mission involved American forces, who are better trained and armed.
"This is a common problem in hostage rescues when host countries assert their sovereignty," said Michael Vickers, a former Army Special Forces soldier. "I'm sure there'll be a lot of second-guessing about what would have happened if this had been done by our elite counterterrorism forces."
Indeed, the second-guessing has already started. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican who represents the Burnhams' hometown of Rose Hill, said he has asked the Pentagon to investigate the Scout Rangers' training. The Rangers involved in yesterday's firefight were trained by American advisers last year in a program separate from the continuing effort on Basilan Island in the southern Philippines.
"Had American advisers been present, with greater access to intelligence, I have to think that the outcome today would have been more favorable," Tiahrt said.
But the Bush administration yesterday praised efforts of the Philippine military and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for their support in the larger effort to prevent terrorism.
"This tragedy transpired despite the best efforts of the government of the Philippines to secure a safe release of the hostage," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "The United States stands with President Arroyo, the armed forces and the people of the Philippines in this just cause."
Rescuing hostages is always a dicey proposition, as the Pentagon knows all too well from its disastrous operation to free American hostages in Iran in 1980. Since then, though, the American military has made great strides in hostage rescue operations.
But when 600 American troops, including 160 Green Berets, began arriving in the southern Philippines in late January, their main mission was to train and advise about 4,000 Philippine soldiers how to track down Abu Sayyaf guerrillas on Basilan, a rugged jungle island, and to rescue the hostages.
American and Philippine commanders pinned their rescue hopes on an elite Philippine counter-terrorism unit, the Light Reaction Company, that was trained last year in the Philippines by American Special Forces. With the hostage crisis resolved, the hunt for Abu Sayyaf is likely to accelerate on Basilan and nearby Mindanao Island, where yesterday's firefight took place.
"They won't have to sneak around looking out for the hostages," said Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and a former 82nd Airborne paratrooper. "They can go in and go in hard."