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Philippines: Some Notes, Thoughts, and Observations

At the invitation of the Philippine government, the U.S. maintains about 600 troops, including Army Green Berets, Civil Affairs, and Military Information Support teams, Navy SEALS and Seabees, along with Air Force personnel and Marines.  Our military forces are deployed in six locations: Zamboanga, Mindanao, Jolo, Basilan, Tawi Tawi, and a small number of liaison staff on Luzon. Their mission is to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines eliminate terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group and to prevent them from establishing safe havens from which to train other terrorists, both internal and external.

The small airport at Jolo is being expanded to accommodate civilian traffic.  The U.S. contingent uses contracted aircraft to island hop.

The importance of the Philippines to American Pacific interests in defense and trade becomes clear when you spin a globe and note its location: The Philippine Archipelago is a geographic bottleneck that allows the holder a significant political and military advantage throughout the area and far beyond.

In the last century, the dominant insurgencies that jousted with the Philippine governments—and us—were linked to communism. The Chinese and the Soviets were happy to instigate rebellion in impoverished places such as Luzon and Mindanao, and to back the indigenous New People’s Army against the U.S.-backed Philippine government.  Russian and Chinese interest in limiting American hegemony in the Philippines (a former U.S. colony), and surrounding areas, has been a constant.

Mindanao: Fighters from this village surrendered on 20 April 2009.  Instead of incarceration, the villagers are being welcomed back by aid projects from the Philippine and U.S. governments.  This is causing defections among the enemy.  The guerrilla leader told me he had been fighting since 1976.

After the Soviet Union fizzled and the Chinese communists became interested in wealth, the armed insurgencies of the Philippines gained new vitality from association with rising Islamic fundamentalist ideology and organizations.  There are direct links between Philippine domestic insurgents and Indonesian and Malaysian terrorists.  Foreign Islamic terrorists also have been captured in the Philippines.  The U.S. Government regards this as a key front in the global war on terror.

With the large, poor Muslim population (called Moros) on Mindanao and other islands, it is no surprise that Islamic nationalist movements have found a home among the Moros.  The Moros have been fighting nearly all comers for centuries.  That said, this does appear to be a war that “we” are winning.  “We” means that probably 98% of the hard work is being done by the Philippines, but the 2% the United States brings to the table is crucial.

The term Moros was coined by the Spanish who described any of the Muslim peoples as “Moros” (Moors), but in the context of the Philippines, the term itself is as ethnologically vague as calling modern Europeans “Christians.”  While Islamic nationalism is a force in Mindanao, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter what jersey it wears, much of the Philippine fighting is not religiously grounded.  For example, the relatively isolated people have a long memory for past political feuds and are mired in a revenge culture.  The population is fragmented into clans and other affinity groups.  The very idea of a Moro is politically subjective, as the “Moros” themselves are an amalgam of peoples forming anthropological sediment that predates Christianity itself, while Islam reached Mindanao approximately 600 years ago.  Jihadists and Crusaders collided here centuries ago.

Mindanao: We drove two hours, often through ambush country rivaling any I’ve seen in Afghanistan, to get to this remote village.  The jungle and terrain favor the enemy.  This Moro fighter had a permanent scowl until our troops (Philippine, and U.S. Navy and Army) greeted him, and then he brightened up.

Politically, the southern Philippines is an “over-determined” mess.  Many potent indicators of instability are present. It’s poor. The national government is weak and has a history of atrocities. Political corruption is rampant at all levels of government. The education system is weak. There are overlapping claims of national, tribal, and Sharia law. The culture is deeply fractured.  The borders—in this case beaches—are vast and porous.

The two “M’s” of Mindanao: Malaria and Moros.

These cultural, historical and political dynamics have proven to be a breeding ground for insurgency, lawlessness and terrorism. In terms of the insurgent and terrorist groups operating in Mindanao, it can be instructive to think of the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) as analogous to the Philippine Taliban, and JI/ASG (Jemaah Islamiyah/Abu Sayyaf Group) as the Southeast Asian al Qaeda.  Though the MILF is more culturally advanced than the Taliban, JI/ASG are typical AQ-type scavengers.  Many of the Taliban are more like cavemen with RPGs, while the MILF are more like Filipino Muslims with gripes, grudges and claims.  AQ is always AQ. All of these groups want some form of independent Islamic state. The U.S. military is in the southern Philippines to help the AFP (Armed Forces Philippines) defeat JI and ASG, but they are also concerned about lawless or “rogue” elements of the MILF who collaborate and provide safe haven to JI and ASG.

Central Mindanao and the MILF

I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Central Mindanao where the U.S. military is concerned about the presence of JI and whether or not the rogue elements of the MILF are providing them safe haven. Unlike al Qaeda, which is a non-state organization committed to terror in the name of ideology whose guerillas usually function in small, unidentified groups, MILF fighters—even the grunts—, actually wear uniforms in an attempt to gain international recognition and to gain protections under international law. Their primary struggle is local, and nationalistic.  The MILF is not per se an enemy of the United States, or even the Philippines, other than that it wants sovereignty, and this conflicts with Filipino desires.

Numerous Filipino officers have described the combat prowess of the MILF, noting that they are not good fighters, but that they are smart, very tough, show great heart and their courage is unquestionable.  And they have home field advantage.

Faces of the enemy: Moro children turned out to be just like other kids.  The kids were well-mannered, never asked for candy, and loved the camera.  (Mindanao)

The Moro fight in the Philippines is largely about ancestral domain which, in that light, could be claimed by someone before them.  The people who happen to be Muslims want land and independence.  Sharia law is the law of the land in some places.  Pitched battles are unfolding on a daily basis.  Up to 300,000 people have been displaced by fighting between the MILF and the AFP.  Journalists, aid workers, missionaries and locals often have been kidnapped, causing the AFP to expend great energy in search and rescue operations. Some officers—U.S. and Filipino—believe at times the KFRs (Kidnappings for Ransom) are about money, but at other times the KFRs are simply strategic diversions; the enemy knows the AFP and the PNP (Philippine National Police) will divert great resources to the hostage crisis.  U.S. officers agree.

While in central Mindanao, I spoke with Philippine Army Colonel Rey Ardo, who explained some dynamics of his area of operations (AO)—which includes a large MILF camp near his AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) camp, across Lake Lanao.  The colonel, who is Commander of the 103rd Brigade, said his fight is less with MILF as an organization and more with lawless elements, a sentiment that various commanders expressed.  We saw this in Iraq and lawless bandits are a great problem in Afghanistan.

We spoke while walking around his gigantic sand-table (a sort of handmade relief map showing terrain features in 3D), where it occurred to me that, using his 105mm guns, he could easily shoot over the lake and destroy the Moro camp.  I asked why he doesn’t unleash on those guys.  Colonel Ardo noted that the MILF lives there with women and children and the AFP doesn’t want to clobber the children. The Philippine Army has not always exercised that kind of restraint in the past, but there is recognition now within the AFP that roads, wells and schools and good governance are going to ultimately end the conflict, not bullets and bombs.

Mindanao: Evil Moros.  Muslims one and all.  Everything looks different up close.  I felt at home in this 'enemy' village. This photo, and many others, was taken by Navy Lt. Lara Bollinger using my camera.  The Moro woman, using stuttering English, asked Lt. Bollinger if she has a wife.

As a result of fighting smarter and combining their combat operations with aggressive civil military operations, the AFP is making slow but tangible progress in its struggle to bring the MILF into the fold.  Philippine Army Colonel Rey Ardo echoed the emerging view that some in the MILF are tired of fighting and can be wooed away with sincere promises of prosperity.  In fact, in the month prior to my arrival, more than 100 MILF fighters had surrendered to the AFP, tired of being on the run and hoping for a better life for their families. They are now being provided security and livelihood assistance by the AFP and the government. Identifying fissures and fault-lines in Iraq, and exploiting them, was paramount to the incredible turn of events in 2006-2007.  Each enemy group that agrees to end the fighting brings crucial information, and fighters who will join us, while allowing the good guys to concentrate on the remaining violent actors.

Laundry day; every village we passed through had the laundry on the line. Our troops call laundry day 'no pants day' because the little kids all run around wearing shirts but no pants.  The bigger kid saw us and ran over to lift the baby’s arm to wave.  In Iraq he would have ran to us for candy because too many troops make brats out of the kids by playing Santa Claus.  It’s dangerous to throw candy to kids, too.  They run out and sometimes get run over.

A Potent Mix of Conflicts

If the MILF insurgency were the only thing standing in the way of peace, security and development in Mindanao, then prospects for Mindanao might be rosier. But there is a subtlety here that Filipino commanders are quick to point out:  there are two major layers of violence.  The first layer, which the Philippine military must address in the short term, is the organized violence against the government that has killed thousands over the years and displaced hundreds of thousands.

If the Filipino commanders that I spoke with get their choice—there are other camps within AFP who, I am told, are more prone to use force—the violence will mostly be resolved with civic action, not guns.  They say that 80% of their actual fight is on the civil affairs side, and only 20% is gun-related.  That’s great news and in itself demonstrates much promise.

Filipino officers were open about their combat operations, but in each case tried to put the fighting into an 80-20 context, lest the public lose track that this war is better resolved with patience and thinking rather than bullets.  But make no mistake; fighting happens every day, and if you check the news, there are more war stories coming from here than any person can follow.  This is a no-kidding war.

Sulu Island: Local legend has it that Alexander the Great made it this far, and that some islanders are his descendents.  One hears similar stories in Afghanistan.  It seems quite odd that Afghanistan and the Philippines would have so many real or imagined connections.  Whatever the case, there were many old signs of yesteryear’s initiatives, and an Italian hostage from the International Red Cross is known to be near this area.

Underneath this first layer of anti-government violence, however, is a whole other layer of inter-clan, tribal violence, known in the Philippines as “rido.”  Standing over the sand-table, Col. Ardo talked about the hundreds of these “rido,” or clan feuds, in his area.  As with other Filipino officers, Islam is not his big concern.  Islam is an overlay.  The local culture is the plumbing.  The clans and their infighting cause persistent bloodletting.  The similarities in Afghanistan are remarkable, where the equivalent Dari term for rido is “gangi qabilaui” (for tribal fights within one ethnicity), and “gangi meliaty” (for fights between ethnicities).

Rido sometimes persist for generations, perpetuating a cycle of violence that is not easily broken. Combine that dynamic with one million loose firearms in the Philippines, and you can see how this might create a volatile climate.

Another peculiarity in the southern Philippines fighting is something called pintakasi, which I first heard about from an American Navy SEAL just before a mission was to launch that evening.  He was concerned that a small group of AFP forces, who were going on the mission, might get killed in a pintakasi.  A pintakasi (cockfight) occurs when fighting erupts, and all the fighting-aged males flood out of villages with any weapons they can find (M-16s are plentiful), and try to overwhelm the invader.  One day, ten AFP Marines were beheaded, for example.  Sounds similar to the events that occurred in Mogadishu as depicted in “Blackhawk Down” where our own people were nearly overwhelmed.

Mindanao: Philippine troops see much combat down here.

I asked Colonel Ardo about rido dynamics and he said there were too many feuds even to count.  “Dozens?” I asked.  He shook his head.  “Hundreds?” I asked.  I was aiming too low.  “What causes them?”  It had been a long day out in enemy country (I saw no fighting; we were talking with MILF members and their families who had surrendered) and I didn’t take notes.  But his answer was, effectively, “There are countless rido caused by anything you can imagine.”

Interestingly, Colonel Ardo explained that he sees rido violence between Muslim clans, and between Muslim and Christian clans, but not between Christian and Christian clans.

Both U.S. and Filipino commanders will say that rido and tribal rivalries—over the long haul—are more problematic than religious grievances and cause more violence than anything else. Many of the inhabitants of Mindanao and other islands hail from cultures which have been persistently violent—with or without outside influence—for centuries.  And so the Filipino commanders know that even when they end the major warfare, the basic culture of violence will persist, which, again, sounds like Afghanistan.

Indeed, Colonel Ardo said, almost in passing, that he is not fighting “people”; he’s fighting a culture.  Afghanistan.

Americans think of Filipinos as pleasant, likable and good workers—as indeed they often are. But at home, Filipino culture is, of course, messier.  The nation’s approximately 7,100 islands are home to over 100 tribal groups, which speak at least 70 languages.  One of the most unhelpful internal cultural dynamics is an expression of the tribal rivalries, which takes the form of something widely known in the U.S. and the Philippines as “crab mentality.”

When a fisherman has one crab in a bucket, the crab can escape and so the bucket needs a lid.  But if there are two or more crabs, every time a crab starts to escape, the others—so they say—will pull it back down.

Mindanao.  Most of these Moro women were happy to have their photos taken, and only a few were shy, but even when they were shy they laughed.  The men of this village had fought for decades and only surrendered with dignity on 20 April 2009. Mindanao: The villagers served us lunch.  I felt no danger in the village and would have been happy to spend the night, but that might be a hard sell to the U.S. and Philippine forces.  Philippine forces are guarding this village because other MILF who have not surrendered are threatening them with death.  Other fighters, I am told by villagers, wish to surrender too, but they are waiting to see what happens.

A vigorous, economically powerful drug culture is part of the political problem.  In the United States, despite the serious drug problem, cartels do not run our government.  But in places like Afghanistan, or Mexico—and over in Mindanao—drugs are a T-Rex.  If Afghanistan is a poppy farm, Mindanao is a meth-lab, according to the U.S. and Filipino officials.  Methamphetamines serve as an oxidizer for civil chaos and a revenue source for terrorists.  And, predictably, drugs corrupt and de-legitimatize the government.  We see this in Afghanistan where top leaders are implicated in the drug business.  Stories are similarly rife in the Philippines.

Weak, corrupt governance is a sort of civil AIDS.  AIDS is not the direct killer, but it unlocks the doors for all the killers, such as drug dealers, and ideological or religious insurgents, to crawl in and grow.

Besides government law, Sharia “law,” and tribal/clan “laws,” there is Jungle Law.  Jungle Law lurks in the global shadows even in the spotless marbled halls of Europe and the United States, but in most parts of the world Jungle Law is on the surface for all to see.  An American officer said that in the Philippines, if you want to stay poor, go into business.  If you want to get rich, go into government.  In Mindanao the people complain that the “government” is just an extortion racket and not part of any solution.  Sounds like Afghanistan, and to a lesser but cripplingly real extent, Iraq.

AFP and U.S. civil affairs brought wood and other building supplies to this village.

Powerless National Government

Philippine commanders explain that government authority ends with the paved roads.  Vice Admiral Alexander Pama showed me maps of his safe areas versus enemy-controlled areas.  Sure enough, the arteries were paved roads.  Where arteries ended, necrosis began.  We see a similar dynamic in Afghanistan.  Paved road ends: Enemy country begins.  But this is not always so.  In some areas there are no paved roads yet I have driven for mile upon mile with no issues, though central government is completely absent in most of Afghanistan and much of the Philippines.  Politics abhors a vacuum. Terror thrives in ungoverned regions, as Donald Rumsfeld used to say, though more accurately he might have said “can” thrive; I frequently travel in ungoverned areas where there is no terror.

Saudi Troublemaking

Whatever its natural shelf-life, the Islamic aspects of rebellion are being supported by inveterate meddlers and fomenters of Islamic fanaticism and terror.  Saudi money is pouring into the southern Philippines just as it did in Afghanistan and Pakistan two decades ago; mosques and madrassas are being built. Some money has been used for projects such as road-building.  The nature of Saudi money inflows is unclear to the various U.S. and AFP officers I’ve spoken with, but concerns about a Pacific Wahhabist haven would seem justified, given what’s happened elsewhere in the last quarter century.  Unfortunately, even if the money were coming straight from hardcore Wahhabist troublemakers in Saudi Arabia, the Republic of the Philippines would be in a weak position to shut it down.  The Philippines is relatively poor, and dependent on the economic largesse of Arab states.  Lack of economic opportunity at home has forced Filipinos abroad as guest workers. The country needs the remittances from the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia.

The Sulu Sea.

Chinese Ambitions

Some officers believe that Chinese proximity, maritime, and territorial ambitions bring the Chinese into the dispute.  The Chinese have vested interests in keeping the U.S. out of the Philippines, while keeping the Philippine government preoccupied. Meanwhile, China continues to hit the economic and military gym in preparation for political and possible military struggles ahead.  Chinese global ambitions are clear.  They have been launching people into space and all over the world.  China is evolving into a considerable force, and to fuel its economy it needs resources.  On the strategic level, the resource-rich area of the Philippines is glinting off China’s hungry eye.  Some Americans believe that at least a portion of anti-American rhetoric in Filipino press is instigated by the Chinese.

Long term approach: As with Afghanistan, solutions will require generations of work.

Some Differences

In Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines, motivations and fighting styles swing widely.  Disgruntlement flows from many wells.  The fight in the Philippines is constructed with all the care and organization as a plate of spaghetti.  The wise use of money can be a great antidote for some of the Philippine ills, but not all.  Between money and justice, the perception of justice is always King.

Thinking about what is possible to actually accomplish in the Philippines requires a long time frame, as in Afghanistan. It will take decades, perhaps a century, to guide and nudge these insurgencies and tendencies to civility, by means of subtle cultural persuasion, and ensuring that groups with grievances share in the benefits of economic prosperity.  Just as the violent cultures of headhunting Iban on nearby Borneo are no longer headhunting, the primitive (yet cell phone-toting) feudal clans of the southern Philippines are clashing between themselves and others.

Insofar as our folks go, morale of American troops appears to be high.  I’ve talked with dozens of them on three islands—Luzon, Mindanao and Sulu.   The soldiers are well cared for, and in some areas they have freedom of movement even on Mindanao.  Attacks on our people are very uncommon compared to Afghanistan.

The U.S. team in the Philippines is in the experienced hands of Colonel Bill Coultrup, who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, including being in the middle of the “Blackhawk Down” fight in Mogadishu.  He was involved in the hunt for bin Laden, and it was actually Coultrup’s folks who captured Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  Admiral Timothy Keating recently told me in Singapore that Colonel Coultrup is a national treasure.

Lt. Lara Bollinger waved at hundreds of people that day.  These women waved back, but the camera missed the moment. Moros on Mindanao. Mindanao: No pants day: These kids were in a town near the sea, and apparently were from Christian families.  Inland were many mosques, but along the coast were churches.

A hundred years for an American is like an eternity.  Our society dramatically changes in just a few decades. But a century to more stagnant peoples is a mere blink of an eye.  Colonel Bill Coultrup, commander of JSOTF-P (Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines), told me that “The Bud Dajo Massacre,” in which U.S. forces killed hundreds in a volcano crater back in 1906, is still often portrayed daily in local media as “The recent American slaughter.”  Take these interesting words from Sulu Island, where I visited with U.S. and Philippine forces before landing back in Afghanistan:

“My great-grand-father on my mother’s side was massacred. So it is in the blood of the Tausug people to take revenge. And I know even in the hinterlands, they are preparing for the arrival of the Americans,” Samny Adjuh said. “We see it all the time with troops arriving every day and the construction of airfields and harbors for military craft.”

Samny Adjuh said the island’s native Tausug were getting ready to certainly take revenge if Americans come again. Insi Tubjil, from a village known for its rebel activity, had this unwelcoming message.

“Anybody who will come here, any foreigner that will come to invade us… my advice to them is that if there are three Tausug killed, 300 of them will be killed,” he said. “Even if it is to work on these so-called internation[al] development projects that in the end only serve to make the oligarchic families in Manila richer.”

To most people, “The Recent American Massacre” might seem like flagrant propaganda, keeping in mind that since the Moro-American war the United States and much of the world have been radically transformed several times.  We fought World War I; watched the Soviet Union rise; suffered a Great Depression; fought World War II, Korea, Vietnam; put a dozen men on the Moon; then watched the Soviet Union dissolve.  Meanwhile, some Tausugs are singing those same old songs, often apparently in the same old huts without running water.  Like the Afghans, they are waiting for people to build roads for them, and they are their own worst enemies.

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