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America’s forgotten frontline: The Philippines

It’s been touted as a rare U.S. military success against Islamic extremists in the so-called global war on terror. . NBC News' Adrienne Mong reports from the Philippines.
Philippine Marine Commandos train for a beach landing.
Philippine Marine Commandos train for a beach landing.By Edmund Flanagan/ NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

It’s been touted as a rare U.S. military success against Islamic extremists in the so-called global war on terror.

Since early 2002, a small number of U.S. troops, mostly Special Forces, have been supporting the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in their fight against terrorism in the Mindanao group of islands. The region is historically lawless, impoverished and politically removed from the national government in Manila.

Known as the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTF-P), they enjoyed early accomplishments that have prompted some in the U.S. military establishment to hail it as a textbook case of effective counterinsurgency tactics that could be applied to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Eradicating safe havens
For 40 years, Mindanao has been the locus of a separatist Muslim insurgency. Though its roots can be found in the American colonization of the Philippines over a century ago, the insurgency didn’t truly take shape until the1950s when Filipino Muslims – known as Moros – studying abroad in Cairo were introduced to ideas developed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Decades later, those international Islamist ties turned deadly, with Moros found training and fighting on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the 1980s, according to the International Crisis Group.

As the guerrilla links strengthened, the AFP, which consists of the Philippine army, navy and air force, enlisted the aid of the U.S.

By then, the Sept. 11 attacks had occurred, and there were signs the southern Philippines had become a training ground for groups like the Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian-based network allegedly responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people. It was also an alleged base for Abu Sayyaf, a homegrown terrorist organization that Manila and Washington say has direct links to al-Qaida.

“There’s a great need for … us to support the government of the Philippines here to eradicate those safe havens, that freedom of action, that freedom of movement they enjoy and bring governance down to the southern Philippines,” said U.S. Navy Captain Robert Gusentine, the JSOTF-P Commander who, in conjunction with the Philippine military, gave our NBC News crew rare access to their operations.  “It helps make the region safer here … and makes us safer at home.”

There are currently about 550 American soldiers – mostly Special Forces – operating in the Philippines, down from the nearly 2,000 that were serving back in 2003. Banned by the Philippines constitution from engaging in direct combat, the Americans have, in their words, “assisted and advised” their AFP counterparts in their counterterrorism operations by sharing or providing intelligence, bolstering military capacity by strategic and tactical training, and supplying humanitarian aid and development assistance in conflict areas. 

Balancing the three mission components, the AFP and JSOTF-P have made great strides early on in Mindanao, where the Philippines military has devoted anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of its troop resources. In fact, many of the counterinsurgency tactics were based on ones U.S. troops had first developed fighting Filipino guerrillas during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).

The Philippines consists of some 7,000 islands — a vast archipelago that makes it hard to police.
The Philippines consists of some 7,000 islands — a vast archipelago that makes it hard to police.By Adrienne Mong/ NBC News

Most notably, the Philippine military succeeded in weeding out extremist elements from the local population – particularly in Basilan province – by working with U.S. Special Forces on a humanitarian assistance campaign to improve villagers’ lives while at the same time pursuing combat operations. 

“[It’s] dramatically improved in terms of the security situation, in terms of the population having more freedom to move around to do their daily business,” said Maj. Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, the AFP’s deputy chief of staff for operations.

Those efforts further paid off when the country’s largest Islamic insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – some of whose members are believed to be closely allied with both Jemaah Islamiyah  and Abu Sayyaf – officially disavowed terrorism and re-engaged in on-again, off-again peace talks with the Philippines government.

In fact, MILF has been keen to involve the Americans more directly in the peace negotiations. “We have been telling the Americans point-blank that you planted the seeds of enmity in Mindanao,” said MILF spokesman Mohagher Iqbal, from one of its training camps near Cotabato City.  “Had you separated our homeland from the rest of Luzon and the Visayas [during the Philippine-American War], there [would have] been no Moro problem. So please help us address this problem.”

A fragile peace
But the peace talks, which are expected to resume in the coming weeks after a two-year hiatus, are no guarantee that the Moro “problem” will be resolved or that terrorism will be kept at bay permanently.

Twenty-eight so-called “high value targets” have been killed or captured in the region since 2002, and many of the remaining wanted individuals have been confined to the remote provinces of Sulu and Basilan.  But both still see regular outbreaks of violence.

During our stay, the local newspapers carried daily multiple reports of fire fights and kidnappings in Mindanao.  And last year saw only the second-ever attack on American troops in the southern Philippines since their return to the region. Two U.S. soldiers and one Philippines marine died when their vehicle ran over a landmine last September en route to a school development project.

In part, the challenge lies not only in the region’s geography (a collection of small islands, some no larger than a couple of square miles) but also in the local communities, which retain an entrenched antipathy to any officialdom representing Manila.

“Sulu has always been the place of, we say, seasoned warriors,” observed Col Aminkadra Undug, commander of airborne special forces for the AFP. “Some of these people have always been very proud people. They claim they do not succumb to influence from the outside, even though it’s their own government.”

‘Where the road ends, terrorism starts’
Poverty also is a big factor.

On Jolo island, for instance, where fishing and fruit farming are the main industries, the average fisherman might bring home about $3 or $4 a day, a fruit farmer even less.

A person “actually living in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao area of southern Mindanao will probably die 10 years earlier than someone in metro Manila,” said Elzadia Washington, deputy director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in the Philippines.

Villagers in Panamao Municipality line up for medical care at a health clinic set up by Philippine and U.S. security forces.
Villagers in Panamao Municipality line up for medical care at a health clinic set up by Philippine and U.S. security forces.By Adrienne Mong/ NBC News

All of which adds up to persistent conditions ripe for terrorist recruitment or an insurgency that promises better governance for its people. “The international terrorist links fed on the feeling of dissatisfaction of some fundamentalist groups in that area,” said Dr. Jennifer Santiago Oreta, who teaches in the department of political science at Ateneo de Manila University.

To counteract this phenomenon, Filipino and American troops have shifted their strategy, focusing even more on community and development.
“Even if we kill all the high-value targets, that’s not going to solve the problem,” said U.S. Army Special Forces Major Varman Chhoeung, the Commander of Task Force Sulu.  “The bigger part of the problem is denying safe havens. How do you deny safe havens? You only do that through good governance and through economic growth in the area.”

The major showed us around Jolo, where he’s stationed with 130 U.S. troops. In line with the idea that “where the road ends, terrorism starts,” modest infrastructural improvements have been made across Jolo. 

Roads have been built or repaired. An airstrip was recently refurbished with the assistance of U.S. troops, enabling the first commercial flight to land in Jolo. There are projects to build schools and ongoing plans to establish more health clinics. 

In addition to the American troops’ contributions, USAID has funneled more than $500 million in assistance to Mindanao since 2002. “Our programs have focused primarily in the areas of health, education, energy, good governance, rule of law as well as infrastructure and economic growth,” said Washington.

In Panamao Municipality, which saw recent skirmishes with what the Philippines military call “rogue MILF elements,” there is one hospital with 10 to 15 beds serving an estimated 44,000 villagers in the community. 

There is “only one doctor, one dentist,” said Dr. Silak Lakkian, the chief of the hospital in Panamao.  “We have four midwives, and we have five nurses.”

The doctor said her hospital had received a lot of what she called “disposables” – medicine and some basic medical supplies – from the Americans. But “that was four years ago,” she said. “[L]ately we haven’t received any.”

A street corner in Jolo City, still dangerous enough that US troops don't like to drive through parts of it.
A street corner in Jolo City, still dangerous enough that US troops don't like to drive through parts of it.By Adrienne Mong/ NBC News

‘Defense, diplomacy, development’
“We’re at a critical juncture thanks to the efforts of our military operation with USAID and the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” said Harry Thomas, Jr., the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines.  “We are near eliminating the terrorist threat, but we have to sustain it.… That’s why we’re still trying to do the three tenets: defense, diplomacy, and development.”

The tenets were a catchphrase the Americans sought to reinforce in all their interviews with NBC News.

Even the Filipinos talked the talk.

"The focus now is on, instead of defeating the enemy, winning the peace," said Bautista, who laid out a seven-point strategy campaign plan designed to make the Philippines security forces cuddlier. 

The ultimate aim, he said, is to become more transparent by communicating and coordinating with NGOs and other facets of civil society, conducting polls, and paying greater heed to human rights and the rule of law.

“The solution … is in the Filipino people, us coming together and solving this problem, a whole-of-nation approach, where the entire citizenry will be involved in solving the internal problem [of insurgency and terrorism],” said Bautista.

As good as the achievements have been, however, some regional security analysts have posed the question – does the Philippines still need U.S. troops to operate in the south?

The AFP and JSOTF-P think so, on the basis of finishing the job properly.

But sceptics argue there’s another agenda.

One hint: China’s growing strength in the region.

Read more about the China connection in the World Blog tomorrow and watch more of Adrienne Mong’s reporting from the Philippines on NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams.