Raissa Robles, MANILA
Nobody could be blamed for taking President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's dramatic announcement two weeks ago of a three-month crackdown on drug syndicates with a sack of salt.
This latest all-out war is, after all, the fifth highly publicised campaign in her 29 months in office. Deadlines set in the three previous campaigns have quietly lapsed and been conveniently forgotten. The fourth deadline is just about to pass, with less than dramatic results.
When her officials are reminded of this, they glare at the questioner as if to say it is rude to rake up such matters. The first deadline concerned the 'neutralisation', in a matter of months, of the Muslim terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, assigned to then armed forces chief of staff General Roy Cimatu over a year ago. General Cimatu is now retired, having morphed into an ambassador plenipotentiary extraordinaire during the US invasion of Iraq early this year.
But Abu Sayyaf is far from neutralised: only one of its top five leaders is presumed dead, despite the multi-million dollar bounties on their heads. The military knows full well the group behaves like a worm that regenerates whenever it is cut in two.
Last year, the government set two year-long deadlines - to eradicate the illegal numbers game jueteng by this May, and to 'neutralise' - that word again - kidnapping syndicates by this month. Jueteng continues to thrive to this day.
As for the rise in kidnapping cases, Mrs Arroyo herself recently excused this by saying it was the usual trend, come election time, because some politicians raised campaign money this way.
The nation watched tensely as another deadline, May 31, approached. That was the day the government was to declare the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels to be 'terrorists' if they did not renounce links with international terror groups. June 1 came and went. On June 4, presidential chief of staff Rigoberto Tiglao casually told the nation, 'There is no deadline.' The government, he said, had shifted its strategy to one of reaching out to rebels rather than branding them terrorists.
Then, two weeks ago, Mrs Arroyo launched the all-out war against illegal drugs. She personally issued the order to the police, saying they 'must buckle down to work on the priorities I have laid down - catching the big fish, clearing the most victimised communities and taking down transnational syndicates.'
She said she had 'asked the drug-enforcement agencies to do a Thaksin in about three months,' referring to a similar crackdown by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. No sooner had she said it than the man heading the crackdown, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency Director General Anselmo Avenido, baulked at the deadline. He said the agency could target 'at least one-third' of the 175 local drug syndicates in three months.
Interior and Local Governments Secretary Jose Lina denied the president had set a deadline. 'It was a three-month work programme', he said. Mr Lina was the same cabinet minister who had vowed to resign if he failed to eradicate jueteng by May.
Perhaps the president sets these deadlines as an exercise in management-by-objective. Maybe it is a politician's way of adding sexy, headline-grabbing zest to plodding institutional tasks. Perhaps governments, like people, can be afflicted by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. While deadlines send them into hyperactive mode, accomplishments come haphazardly.