“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”
-John F. Kennedy
03 June 2009
The southern Philippines has been a festering bed for international terrorists for decades. Direct links with al Qaeda and associated groups, such as Jemaah Islamiya (JI), are conclusively established. These groups are collectively responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people from dozens of countries. JI, for instance, was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people, including my friend Beata Pawlak.
Some folks are asking why greater successes are being achieved in the Philippines with a smaller footprint than we have in Afghanistan, and they are starting to wonder if this model would work in Pakistan. There can be no simple answer; the best approach is simply to attempt to describe the situation here. A comprehensive description likely would require dozens of stories spread over months of research. Today is the third day of eight days for me, so it is important that the reader understand that my ground situation awareness in the Philippines is not of the depth which I developed in Iraq, or am developing in Afghanistan. This writing is based on talking with soldiers over the past few years who have served here, and also after talking with dozens of veterans on the ground who are engaged in the current fight.
The Philippines has a strong cultural affinity with the United States that we do not enjoy in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s easy for Americans to quickly establish good, mutual dialogue with Filipinos, and many Filipinos, for instance, work for American companies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our societies already are intertwined. Americans in general are not foreign to/with the Filipinos in the way that we are with great numbers of Iraqis and the overwhelming majority of Afghans. Most of the Afghans we meet are nearly completely foreign to us, whereas Filipinos are no more foreign than, say, Spanish or Mexicans. Most school textbooks in the Philippines are in English, and even military reports are all written in English. The overwhelming majority of Filipinos speak English. One of the greatest strengths of the U.S. military is that it consists of a hodgepodge of people from around the world. Given the diversity of the U.S. military, and other factors listed above, the cultural gap here is just a hop, skip and a jump, whereas the cultural bridge needed for Afghanistan is more like the Golden Gate – or bigger.
The Philippines also is a functioning democracy with a working Constitution, and the country has a competent military and national police, though both are a work in progress. But like Afghanistan, especially, the Philippines lacks infrastructure in the hinterlands where the insurgencies thrive. Also like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the enemies facing the Philippines are actually an amalgam of groups with goals that sometimes overlap and sometimes diverge. In the Philippines, the Communists Peoples’ Party (CPP) and the communist New Peoples’ Army (NPA) seek to overthrow the government. Meanwhile, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) wishes to establish a caliphate, but apparently has no intention of conducting international terrorism. In fact, the CPP and MILF both are both legal organizations other than in regard to some elements within them which conduct terrorism, and which are targeted by the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces Philippines (AFP). The United States does not participate in this fighting. The MILF has a website, and the Philippine government makes no attempt to shut it down because those who do not fight with guns are free to talk here, though both groups have been involved in terrorism. Fragile dialogue is underway. As in America, you are free to fight with words, but not free to fight with guns. The Philippines is a democracy and freedom of speech is a right, so they enjoy the good and suffer the bad and the ugly that comes along with those freedoms as much as we do.
In contrast to CPP and MILF, Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) are international terrorist organizations that regularly commit mass murder, and their goals extend far beyond the Philippines.
And so, at the invitation of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), the United States is here to assist the people of the Philippines in combating only these two groups – ASG and JI – which benefits not only the Philippines and us, but other nations around the world, such as Australia, who sustained great losses in the JI attacks in Bali. The United States does not, according to our government and the GRP, engage in direct combat operations, though we have lost fifteen in the line of duty, including ten who were lost in a 2002 helicopter crash unrelated to fighting. A Navy SEAL told me yesterday that earlier in the morning someone fired about fifty rounds at one of our helicopters but missed. The danger for our folks is real, but not at the level that many of these veterans have faced elsewhere.
The U.S. force here consists of between roughly 580-620 members from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. Heavy emphasis is placed on community projects such as road building, schools, text book distribution, medical programs and information outreach. Philippine Admiral Alexander Pama told me today that security and governance ends at the end of the paved roads. Literally where the roads end, that’s where bad guy country begins. This is also true in Afghanistan (not so much in Iraq because Iraq has good roads). Our people also provide intelligence, training and logistical support. Members of the AFP regularly attend schools in the United States. USAID, I am told by U.S. and AFP officers, is doing excellent work here with civic projects, which helps dry up the pond where the terrorists can fester.
The approach to eliminating ASG and JI is easy to sum up: dry up the sanctuaries and raison d’être, and kill or capture the hardcore who won’t give up. They are out there even now intimidating the people, running extortion rackets, and kidnapping innocent civilians and often beheading them. They kill people with bombs, guns and knives. Though the goals are easy to explain, execution requires a sophisticated dance between Civil Affairs, MIST or (Military Information Support Teams), Public Affairs, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, EOD, and a host of other important players such as USAID. But by far the most important in this fight are the GRP and the people. Winning the people means winning the war.
There are other actors in this endeavor who also appeared in Iraq and Afghanistan. Private groups in America — often just a couple of people with a will to make a difference — are shipping much needed English textbooks, wheelchairs and other aid to war zones. It is difficult to convey just how helpful these tiny points of light were in Iraq and are in Afghanistan. The contributions to success are immeasurable, but they certainly are significant, and this was in fact pointed out to me today when soldiers talked respectfully about “Books for Barrios,” “Knights Bridge International” and others. Whether the donations are textbooks, wheelchairs, or in the form of doctors and nurses donating time and expertise to mend cleft lips and palates, their generous actions go far to improving lives, building international bridges, and, indeed, even fighting terrorism.
This summarizes what our folks are doing with the GRP and the people here in the Philippines. In subsequent dispatches, we’ll get “down in the weeds.”