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Why America Won't Fight Thailand's Islamic Separatists

One of America's strongest Asian allies, Thailand, struggles to quell a gruesome killing campaign waged by Islamic separatists. The attacks have taken on eerie parallels to the Iraq war, with beheadings, roadside bombs and AK-47 ambushes occuring on a weekly basis. And the military is at a loss to tame the violence.

Hmmm. Wouldn't you think the U.S. military — steeped in experience battling Islamic insurgents and tight with Thailand since the Vietnam War — would want to lend a hand?

Well, some leaders in the U.S. military would love to. Certain factions in the Thai military would probably welcome the help. And though joint operations have been discussed behind the scenes, it will probably never happen.

Here's a look behind the curtain.

For years, the idea of propping up Thailand's fight against insurgents has circulated through U.S. Pacific Command, a massive military jurisdiction. Despite its size, almost no U.S. combat takes place in this sector — which is fortunate considering that it's mostly taken up by Russia, China and a vast, deep sea.

America's two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are waged inside U.S. Central Command, which monitors the Middle East. That jurisdiction gets all the "Global War on Terror" glory. (That's the G.W.O.T. in militaryspeak. Pronounced "GWAHT.")

Still, U.S. Pacific Command has seen a little anti-terror action. Several hundred American troops have joined the Armed Force of the Philippines to combat an Islamic struggle to claim several large islands. And in that vein, some high-ranking officers have pushed for a similar campaign in Thailand, according to Zachary Abuza, a Boston-based expert on Thailand's southern insurgency.

Pacific Command has even placed a small special forces team with the Thai military for a tour of the violence-plagued south, Abuza said. A high-ranking commander, touting his U.S.-Philippine model, was eager to give the Thai military "pretty much anything it wants," he said. The U.S. military consulted Abuza himself, asking for ideas on special projects they could extend to court the Thais.

In late 2007, a U.S. Marine Corps major with the Naval War College even published a brief report titled, "Insurgency in Thailand: Time to Tame the Islamist Tiger?" The briefing warned of a spreading Islamic terror network and suggested U.S. special forces assistance — or at least the use of unmanned surveillance drones.

But every attempt fizzled.

"The State Department was against it. The U.S. embassy (in Bangkok) was against it," Abuza said. "And I think Washington was too consumed with Iraq to get involved."

Few believe that Thailand's separatist militants are connected to a global terror network, removing much of the incentive for American involvement. Inviting U.S. troops into the deep south might also cause Thailand's military to look impotent. Thailand's 2006 military coup  strained U.S. relations and further dimmed prospects of joint strikes in the south.

Backdoor politics aside, inviting U.S. troops to the Thai-Malay borderlands just isn't a good idea, said Srisompob Jitpiromsri with Thailand's Deep South Watch. American soldiers would likely just stoke the flames, he said, by attracting outside radicals.

"Once you have American assistance, you get conspiracy theories," Srisompob said. "Local people already believe there's a conspiracy with the U.S. and the Thais."

By the way: The above photo, shot by Abuza in the southern Narathiwat province, shows Thai troops in a jury-rigged "armed personnel carrier" with steel plates walling off the truck bed. This is a homemade defense against roadside bombs and AK-47 attacks.