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Story Publication logo September 9, 2007

Philippines war on terror not as fierce


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Photojournalist Ryan Anson returns to Mindanao, southern Philippines to examine the pitfalls and...


Isabela City is not Baghdad. Roadside bombs don't rip through the floors of humvees, nor do masked insurgents take pot shots at Kevlar-vested soldiers from bullet-riddled buildings.

But like Baghdad, there are American servicemen here. They've been helping Filipino soldiers fight al Qaeda-linked terrorists who have made the southern Philippine region of Mindanao a hotbed of extremist activity during the past decade.

And they're doing it without firing a shot - at least not outside their camp.

"They have a fight here against terrorists, and it's their fight," says Lance Cpl. Jeff Bartlett, a sniper from Camp Pendleton's Marine Special Operations Command who has been training Philippine marines in marksmanship near Basilan Island's provincial capital of Isabela City.

Once designated by Washington as a second front in the war on terrorism, Basilan and the smaller island of Jolo are two provinces located just off the southwestern coast of Mindanao. They are also home to three different Islamic militant groups.

Philippine national law bars the nearly 500 U.S. soldiers stationed throughout Mindanao from entering into combat. So the platoon and company-size units composed of U.S. Army doctors and engineers build bridges and perform free surgeries, while elite U.S. Marines and Navy SEALs provide sniper and small-unit tactics training for the local military, which has been fighting Islamic insurgents for the past 30 years.

"They might not have the equipment or the manpower that we have in America, but they have an ungodly amount of knowledge that they can share with us," says Bartlett after wrapping up a recent sniper concealment exercise with Filipino marines near Isabela City.

Bartlett, 21, who was raised in Sacramento and has served two tours in Iraq, is training some Filipino troops who have been fighting insurgents longer than he's been alive.

While the region's oldest Islamic secessionist movements, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front, have periodically engaged in talks with the Philippine government, peace has been short-lived during their 30-year-old independence struggle.

A third and more extreme Islamist group, Abu Sayyaf, continues to destabilize the region, with its band of militants carrying out bombings and high-profile kidnappings throughout the country. Western security experts say Abu Sayyaf received startup money from Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law in the mid-1990s and is now allied with Jemaah Islamiyyah, a regional al Qaeda affiliate that bombed tourist spots in Bali, Indonesia.

Some Muslim Filipinos in southwestern Mindanao are suspicious of the U.S. soldiers, whose involvement in the region dates back a century. Manny Muarip, a religious leader and government employee from Isabela City, says the renewed U.S. military presence has triggered memories of colonial times when U.S. servicemen killed up to 1,000 ethnic Tausug civilians in Jolo during the American military pacification of the Philippines.

"There's a fear that Americans will try to control us," says Muarip. "They give us this and that, but later they may do things that don't conform to our traditions."

Maj. Kevin Brown, commander of U.S. Special Forces on nearby Jolo island, says that his men are allied guests of the Philippines and are trying to work with both Tausug Muslims and the Philippine army to address poverty, which is one of the main fuels of the rebellions. The goal of the military-to-military training exercises, coupled with large sums of humanitarian aid, is to dry up ideological support for extremist groups, says Brown.

"The joint operation hopes to stamp out the economic conditions that encourage younger generations to pick up arms," says Brown. "If you can give people that, you're going to win hearts and minds."

Since American forces arrived in the southern Philippines in 2002, the U.S. Embassy in Manila estimates that nearly $50 million has been pumped into community development projects and counterterrorism assistance in Basilan and Jolo. Brown says the killing last year of two top Abu Sayyaf leaders by U.S.-backed Filipino troops, as well as dozens of repaired and Internet-wired schools in Jolo, are examples that prove the civic-affairs approach to counterinsurgency warfare in the southern Philippines works.

Hadja Siera Tulawie, an employee of Sulu State College in Jolo, supports America's role in Basilan. "We need peace, progress and freedom. The Americans are giving us light. They help us have hope. If there were no Americans, we won't feel safe."

But with a recent upsurge of violence in various parts of Mindanao - including the beheadings of 10 Philippine marines in mid-July - others question the strategy's long-term success.

Col. Ramiro Alivio, the former head of local military intelligence and current commander of the Filipino marines in Basilan, says U.S. forces have helped alleviate some of the economic needs of Muslim communities, as well as taught his men how to use sophisticated sniper rifles. But Basilan and Jolo islands continue to harbor a dangerous mix of armed politicians, thugs and insurgents, according to Alivio.

"Peace is fragile," he says. "As long as there are armed groups, it's a powder keg waiting to explode."

With such a tense situation, American troops will probably stay here for the foreseeable future.

Lance Cpl. Brett Ditchen, an Iraq war veteran, says he is not sure why the Philippine government holds peace talks with any of the country's Islamic insurgents.

"In America, we don't negotiate with terrorists. We're not going to give them what they want," says Ditchen. "The government here will see what they have to say and sign peace treaties with what I would consider terrorist organizations."

So far, the only direct threat to U.S. troops in Basilan is dehydration and an occasional bout of jock itch. Yet Ditchen and Lance Cpl. Jeff Bartlett know that Abu Sayyaf and other insurgents maintain guerrilla bases in the jungle less than two hours away, and all U.S. soldiers carry weapons for self-defense, even when they stop to buy crackers at a roadside store.

Although dressed in more than 50 pounds of battle gear every time he steps outside a Philippine military camp, Bartlett always waves to local residents when driving through town.

"Every time people see us they say hello and we say hi back, just to let them know that we're not here to get in their business," says the California native, who will be moving on to Afghanistan soon. "We're here to help out our fellow brother Filipino marines."


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