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Treading Softly in the Philippines By: Max Boot and Richard Bennet
Weekly Standard | Thursday, January 08, 2009


Zamboanga City, Philippines - The war on terror that the Obama administration is inheriting comes with a decidedly mixed record. Stopping attacks on the American homeland since 2001 has been the Bush administration's biggest accomplishment. Turning around the war effort in Iraq, which was on the verge of failure in 2006, has been another signal success. But, as the Mumbai attacks remind us, the threat of Islamist terrorism has hardly been extinguished. Al Qaeda and other extremists have found in Pakistan the haven they lost in Afghanistan after 2001. Since then they have waged an insurgency, with growing success, against governments in both Kabul and Islamabad. Meanwhile, Iran continues to be an active sponsor of terrorism as well as a seeker of nuclear weapons. Its proxies may have been routed in Iraq, but they remain as powerful as ever in Lebanon, and their tentacles spread as far as South America.

Almost forgotten amid these major developments is a tiny success story in Southeast Asia that may offer a more apt template than either Iraq or Afghanistan for fighting extremists in many corners of the world. The southern islands of the Philippines, inhabited by Muslims known as Moros (Spanish for "Moor"), have been in almost perpetual rebellion against the Christian majority ruling in Manila. They fought the Spaniards when they arrived 500 years ago, and they fought the Americans when they arrived more than 100 years ago. The latest rebellion broke out in the early 1970s and has killed well over 120,000 people. It was led initially by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which challenged a martial-law regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. That group began to reach accommodation with Manila in 1975--a process completed by a democratic government in 1996. The MNLF demobilized its fighters, and most of its members melted back into the populace. Some even took positions in the local government or the security forces. But along the way several dangerous splinter factions broke off.

The largest and most moderate of these is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which, as the name would indicate, has a more religious emphasis than its socialist-nationalist forerunner. It, too, has been in negotiations with the government, but the peace process broke down in August after the Philippine Supreme Court, much to the consternation of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, ruled unconstitutional a plan to grant the Muslim region a large degree of autonomy. (Judicial activism, it seems, is one of many American exports that have taken root here.) While most of the MILF, 8,000-10,000 strong, remained at peace, several of its "base commands," numbering a few thousand fighters, declared war on the Philippine government and the non-Muslim inhabitants of the island of Mindanao, burning Christian villages and slaughtering their inhabitants. An estimated 200 people were killed, and tens of thousands turned into refugees.

The more extremist of these base commands have established a symbiotic relationship with Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian terrorist group that carried out the infamous bombing in Bali that killed over 200 people in 2002, and Abu Sayyaf, a homegrown Filipino jihadist group launched by veterans of the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Those groups, in turn, developed close ties in the 1990s with al Qaeda. Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, moved to Manila to provide financing and organizational assistance to local radicals. Training camps were set up in the poorly policed hinterland in the Muslim south, and ambitious plots were hatched. These included plans to blow up 11 airliners in midair, crash a hijacked airliner into the CIA's headquarters, and assassinate Pope John Paul II while he was visiting the Philippines in 1995. Among the chief plotters present in the Philippines were Ramzi Yousef, coordinator of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who would go on to mastermind the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The attacks on New York and Washington finally awakened the U.S. government to the need to do something about the Philippine branch of the global jihad. Military exercises were conducted with the Philippines, and Special Forces and CIA teams were dispatched to provide training and intelligence support for local security forces. An early, largely successful example of Philippine-American cooperation came in the search for an Abu Sayyaf squad that in 2001 abducted 20 people, including three Americans, from a beach resort in the southern Philippines. Eventually the kidnappers were hunted down and captured or killed, although two of the Americans died as well--one executed by the kidnappers, the other killed in a bungled rescue attempt by the Philippine Army.

Since then, the United States has set up a Joint Special Operations Task Force to direct Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines. We recently spent a couple of weeks meeting and traveling with task force members to get an overview of their operations. With only 600 or so personnel, the task force operates throughout the sprawling southern Philippines--a region known to earlier generations of American soldiers as Moroland. There are only 5 million Muslims in the entire Philippine population of 90 million; 80 percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholics, making this the only Christian country in Asia. The Philippines has a smaller Muslim minority than France, but it is overwhelmingly concentrated in a few places. The largest island in the Muslim region is Mindanao, with a population of 18 million, 30 percent of them Muslims. (The percentage was considerably higher a century ago, back when young Captain Jack Pershing was fighting Moro rebels, but in the 20th century the Philippine government resettled millions of Christians from other islands here.) There is also a string of smaller, heavily Muslim islands in the Sulu archipelago stretching through azure-blue waters to the borders of Malaysia and Indonesia.

What all these areas share, in addition to their Muslim populations, is inaccessible terrain, with lots of triple-canopy jungles, treacherous swamps, and soaring mountains that provide ideal hideouts for outlaws. The surrounding waters are plied by countless small boats that operate with little scrutiny from the Philippines' tiny navy, which has only 62 patrol boats to cover thousands of miles of coastline. Smuggling terrorist operatives, arms, and drugs in and out is all too easy.

The rebels have another advantage. They can tap into a widespread sense of alienation among some of the Philippines' poorest inhabitants. Before we traveled south in a tiny C-12 passenger aircraft, officials at the stately U.S. embassy in Manila told us that in the Philippines as a whole life expectancy is over 70 years, but in Mindanao it's only 52 years. Nominal GDP per capita in the entire country is $1,600; in Mindanao it's less than $700. More than 55 percent of families in the Muslim region are living below the poverty line, double the share nationwide.

We could see the difference for ourselves. Manila has its slums, but it also has soaring skyscrapers and gleaming malls that would look right at home in Dubai or Singapore. In Mindanao's second-largest city, Zamboanga, by contrast, there is not a high-rise in sight. Instead there are lots of tin-roofed shacks that serve as mom-and-pop stores and living quarters, often at the same time. In the countryside, even that seems luxurious. Here you enter a world of thatched-roof huts, often without windows, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Many Muslims blame their lack of economic development on discrimination and lack of sympathy on the part of the overwhelmingly Catholic authorities in faraway Manila. The more radical among them think that Muslims should rule as far north as the national capital, as they did before the Spaniards arrived in 1521. It is little wonder that jihadist propaganda, spread by Saudi-funded mosques, literature, and charities, has found a receptive audience among people with such a long history of grievance (even if the easy-going Filipinos, like most tropical peoples, are hardly the most receptive audience for the fundamentalist dictates of an austere Wahhabism born in the deserts of Arabia).

To counter the influence of religious fanaticism, Colonel Bill Coultrup directs a multifaceted counterinsurgency from the Joint Special Operations Task Force's headquarters in a small, sealed compound on Camp Navarro, a Philippine military base nestled next ato Zamboanga airport. A self-effacing man with a ready smile and a puckish sense of humor, Coultrup is not one to boast of his achievements, but he spent more than a decade with one of the military's legendary counterterrorism units. During that time he scored some notable successes that are much-discussed in military circles but remain classified. In the Philippines, he has had to master a very different way of war. In sharp contrast to Iraq, where American commandos have had virtual free rein to kill and capture "high value targets," here they are forbidden by the Philippine government from engaging in any direct combat operations. Their role is to bolster the Philippine armed forces; their oft-repeated mantra is "through, by, and with." That sometimes rankles some of these seasoned special operators. The leader of one Special Forces A-Team told us, "If I had the ability to do here what I did in Iraq last year, this fight would have been over in two days."

But that isn't an option because of Filipino nationalist sensitivities, and in the best Special Forces tradition Coultrup and his troops have made the necessary adjustments from a "Direct Action" mission to one of "Foreign Internal Defense." Their weapons include bounties for information leading to the capture of wanted terrorists as part of the U.S. "Rewards for Justice" program; training, support, and intelligence-sharing for the Philippine armed forces; and a combination of "information operations" and "civil affairs operations" to wean the populace away from the insurgents. "The goal," Coultrup says, "is to set conditions for good governance, and you do that by removing the safe havens of these terrorist groups and addressing the specific conditions that contribute to those safe havens."

We were briefed on each aspect of the task force's operations while spending time in and around the cities of Zamboanga and Cotabato on Mindanao and Jolo on Sulu island--all areas that host substantial Special Operations detachments, mainly Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, backed by support forces from all the services.

An important component of their work is providing "information operations support" to the Philippine armed forces. Psychological operations specialists showed us two initiatives designed to counter the terrorists' propaganda. One is a text messaging campaign (texting is the preferred medium of communication here) that encourages recipients to participate in peace-promotion programs and report information to Philippine authorities on terrorist activities. The other is a slickly produced comic book series aimed at 18-to-24-year-old males, the prime recruits for all extremist groups, featuring a Jack Bauer-style hero battling villainous terrorists. All of the products have to be translated into multiple languages because of the multiplicity of regional tongues spoken in these polyglot islands.

Even more than psy-ops, civil affairs is a prime "line of operations" for the U.S. forces. A U.S. Army captain, head of a four-man civil affairs team, drove us for hours around rural Mindanao to show us projects that he is funding, including a new high school in a remote region and a new building for an existing elementary school. He also showed off a huge pile of coconut lumber, bamboo, and corrugated tin--materials that will be used to rebuild 81 homes destroyed by rogue elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the fighting back in August. The goal, he explained, is "persistent engagement," creating projects that require him and his Filipino counterparts to make multiple visits to check on progress. Those visits engender trust with the locals and can lead them to provide vital intelligence on insurgents.

Such considerations were also very much on the mind of a Green Beret master sergeant a few days later while he was directing, alongside his Filipino partners, a "Medcap" (Medical Civil Action Project) in a small village on Sulu Island. Working with a Philippine Marine battalion, the Special Forces soldiers had set up a one-day clinic where residents could come in for free medical and dental treatment. Cartoons were provided to entertain kids, and free medicines were handed out to all. "It's important that they don't leave empty handed," said one Philippine soldier. "We treat those who need medical attention, and give vitamins and toothbrushes to those who don't. Everyone receives something." In return, all residents have to do is provide their names and dates of birth, which helps security forces build a better picture of the populace.

Such enterprises build goodwill with the locals and encourage them to chat freely with both Philippine and American soldiers. "I'm trying to determine their feelings toward us," the rail-thin master sergeant explained, while enthusiastic villagers swirled around him. "You can't ask directly. You have to probe around to find out if they want us here. If so, that means they're open to us, which will make it easy to push the bad guys out. But if they don't want us here after we've given them all this, that means they're heavily influenced by the bad guys, so we have our work cut out for us."

He added that the Abu Sayyaf Group, which has redoubts in nearby mountains, will try to do "negative information operations" to counter the Medcaps, telling residents they can't trust the Americans because they won't stick around. To stymie the insurgents, the master sergeant added, his A-Team will work with Filipino authorities to repaint a local school or undertake some other project. While there is nothing covert about the American role (the master sergeant is wearing his uniform), he and other Americans are careful to deflect most of the credit to their Philippine counterparts. "We want to show what the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] have done for the people," the sergeant explained, "and we want the people to ask what has ASG [the Abu Sayyaf Group] ever done for us?"

The sergeant works for a larger Special Operations force on Sulu. Its commander, Major Joe Mouer, ticked off how many such civil affairs projects his troops have undertaken in cooperation with the Philippine Marines: They have completed 80 miles of road, 34 wells, 40 schools. At their headquarters in Jolo City, the American troops even host a weekly movie night for hundreds of local kids. We attended one such event, finding hordes of happy kids sitting on the floor of a large hall, watching an animated feature while munching free popcorn. Soldiers act as ushers, but they are dressed in civilian clothes and don't carry weapons so as to create a nonthreatening environment. To counter enemy propaganda that such events are used for Christian proselytizing, Mouer has invited a local Muslim cleric to give a blessing before the start of each movie.

The Joint Special Operations Task Force is hardly alone in trying to improve life for Philippine Muslims. The U.S. Agency for International Development is also active in Mindanao, with $130 million worth of projects planned over the next five years. Completed projects include retraining former Moro National Liberation Front fighters in farming skills and installing computer labs in hundreds of high schools. The U.S. Navy has contributed by having the hospital ship Mercy pay regular visits to the Philippines to treat tens of thousands of patients.

These examples might give the impression that Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines is solely a "hearts and minds" endeavor. While "nonkinetic" operations do constitute a large part of the mission, U.S. forces also help Filipino troops to capture and kill insurgents more efficiently. At a "team house" located on a Philippine military base in rural Mindanao, a Special Forces captain ran down for us all the training missions his 12-man A-Team has undertaken since arriving in the area in May. They have shared their knowledge of mortars, long-range marksmanship, and even digital cameras. Using an array of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles they have also provided real-time intelligence that has allowed Philippine forces to track and target elusive insurgents. Just as important, their world-class medics have provided critical care to Philippine soldiers who have been injured in battle. In some cases they have even arranged for "medevac" to distant hospitals. Knowing that they will be taken care of should they be wounded encourages Philippine soldiers to fight harder.

We found out how much Philippine troops appreciate such assistance when we went to visit the hilltop command post where Colonel Marlou Salazar, a Philippine brigade commander, briefed us on the progress of his operations against renegade Moro Islamic Liberation Front commanders. On one side of his map there is a piece of paper that states his objective: "Get Kato dead or alive." Ameril Umbra Kato is a Saudi-educated MILF commander who went on the warpath in August. Salazar has not achieved his goal yet, but he has managed to put Kato on the run and capture or kill many of his men with an effective offensive that received crucial support from the U.S. A-Team. "We boxed the area, maneuvered, and attacked," Salazar says proudly, pointing out where the battles occurred in the swampy valley below. He then shows off a hoard of captured weapons, including a mortar whose serial number indicates it was made in Pakistan.

At the request of the Philippine government, which wants to negotiate with it, the MILF has not formally been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State, but some of its "lawless" elements are closely intertwined with Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf, providing these groups sanctuary in territory they control. U.S. forces are therefore allowed to support the Philippine military in their operations to reduce those safe havens. By contrast, U.S. troops are prohibited from helping the Filipinos battle another major insurgent group, the communist New People's Army, which sometimes cooperates with MILF but which is deemed by Washington of purely local interest--not part of the global war on terror.

Traditional "kinetic" operations in which bullets are fired and bombs dropped are still part of the Philippine strategy against their numerous guerrilla foes, but they have become less important over the years, thanks partly to the advice Philippine forces have received from the U.S. Special Forces. At the officers' club of the Philippine Marine headquarters in Manila, we sat down with Major General Juancho Sabban, a bullet-headed, brown-skinned, bull-necked Filipino who has spent much of the past 30 years battling various insurgent groups. Today he commands Task Force Comet, two marine brigades charged with pacifying Sulu island.

"For three decades we were using a strategy of force," he says. "It turned out to be a vicious cycle. We would have body count syndrome. Commanders would become popular because they were warrior-like. But I saw the more we destroyed, the more the number of the enemy increased. There were so many instances of collateral damage and innocent lives being sacrificed. Just by passing through fields with so many battalions we were already stomping on crops and that makes people resent the military. In the course of a firefight school buildings would get burned, houses would be razed to the ground, civilians caught in the crossfire. Everything was blamed on the military."

Now, General Sabban says, the Philippine armed forces and their American allies have "shifted strategy": "I have told my commanders that all military operations should be intelligence-driven and surgical. How do we do this? Through intelligence enhanced by civil-military operations. We do civil-military operations to get people onto our side. More people on your side will produce more and better intelligence, and if you have better intelligence you'll have more successful operations that are precise and surgical and that don't hurt innocent civilians. Thus we will get more support from the people and you will be denying the enemy resources and space to operate. People will drive them from their own areas. So now their space is getting smaller and smaller, until we can pinpoint them with information coming from the people themselves."

Much of the available evidence supports General Sabban's belief that the new strategy has been successful. Abu Sayyaf hasn't managed a high-profile terrorist attack since Valentine's Day 2005, when it set off a series of bombs in Manila and Mindanao that killed 11 people and injured 93. Smaller attacks continue, but there has been nothing on the scale of the bombing that devastated the passenger ship SuperFerry 14 in Manila Bay in 2004, killing 116 people. The group has splintered in recent years, with its remnants focusing increasingly on kidnapping-for-ransom, which is hardly different from ordinary criminal activity and signals the dire financial straits the group faces. Abu Sayyaf has also made common cause with marijuana and amphetamine producers who find shelter in guerrilla-controlled areas. Its estimated strength has fallen from more than 1,200 in 2002 to fewer than 500 today. Jemaah Islamiyah has fewer than 100 members left in the Philippines. The links between the Philippines and al Qaeda largely have been severed.

Of crucial importance, many of the top leaders of both Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf have been eliminated. Only nine or ten "high value targets" are still on the loose, but getting them has been a study in frustration. The rugged terrain allows the kingpins to slip away into the jungle before ground troops can reach them. And the Philippine armed forces are sorely restricted in their capacity for precision bombing. Several Philippine and American soldiers we spoke with expressed frustration that the Philippine armed forces lack armed Predator drones, AC-130 gunships, satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions, and other high-tech U.S. weapons that could more quickly finish off terrorist leaders. But the Philippine government isn't willing to pay for this fancy gear, and the U.S. government hasn't been willing to donate it. (Apparently some at the State Department fear that such weapons could be turned against the New People's Army, though why that should be a cause for concern is not clear, since the NPA is classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department.)

Even without this high-tech equipment, however, the counterinsurgency campaign has been enjoying impressive success. We could see it for ourselves as we drove around areas that had once been infested with insurgents. In central Mindanao, the roads we traveled were deemed so safe that neither we nor our military escorts wore body armor, and we moved in unarmored SUVs.

The question now being debated about the Philippines at U.S. Pacific Command is similar to the one being debated about Iraq at U.S. Central Command: When can we leave without jeopardizing the gains that have been made? In both cases, soldiers on the ground are saying "not yet." Colonel Coultrup points out that in 2002 U.S. troops supported the Philippine armed forces as they chased terrorists off Basilan Island, but then U.S. forces left and the Philippine forces drew down. This allowed the terrorists to stage a resurgence culminating in an attack in June 2007 in which 14 Philippine Marines were killed, 10 of them decapitated. In early December, another clash on Basilan killed 5 soldiers and injured 24. "I'm trying to work myself out of a job, but drawing down before conditions are stable creates a vacuum allowing Abu Sayyaf to return," Coultrup warns. He estimates that his operation is at the "70 percent to 75 percent level," but that more work needs to be done to eliminate the final insurgent lairs deep in the jungles and mountains. Lieutenant General Nelson Allaga, head of the Western Mindanao Command, confirms: "For now, we really need the Americans' support."

One of the beauties of this low-intensity approach is that it can be continued indefinitely without much public opposition or even notice. The reason why Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines gets so much less attention than the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is not hard to see. In Iraq there are 140,000 troops. In Afghanistan 35,000. In the Philippines 600. The Iraq war costs over $100 billion a year, Afghanistan over $30 billion. The Philippines costs $52 million a year.

Even more important is the human cost. While thousands of Americans have been killed or maimed in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the Philippines only one American soldier has died as a result of enemy action--Special Forces Sergeant First Class Mark Jackson, who was killed in 2002 by a bomb in Zamboanga City. Three soldiers have been wounded in action, the most serious injuries being sustained by Captain Mike Hummel in the same bombing. Ten more soldiers died in 2002 in an accident when their MH-47 helicopter crashed. Every death is a tragedy, but with the number of tragedies in the Philippines minuscule, there is scant opposition to the mission either in the Philippines or in the United States. That's important, because when battling an insurgency the degree of success is often closely correlated to the duration of operations.

The successes of the Philippines cannot be replicated everywhere. To make this approach work requires having capable partners in the local security forces, which wasn't the case in either Iraq or Afghanistan immediately after the overthrow of the old regimes. It helps that the Filipino population is generally pro-American and thus receptive to the presence of some American troops. As Major General Salvatore Cambria, commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in the Pacific, says, "This is a model, not the model." But this "soft and light" approach--a "soft" counterinsurgency strategy, a light American footprint--is a model that has obvious application to many countries around the world where we cannot or will not send large numbers of troops to stamp out affiliates of the global jihadist network.


Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and the author, most recently, of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today. Richard Bennet is a research associate in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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