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Troops with the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines wave to Jolo Island residents during a recent convoy.
Troops with the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines wave to Jolo Island residents during a recent convoy. (T.D. Flack / S&S)

MANILA, Philippines — Thousands of miles from Iraq and Afghanistan, far from daily media attention and political debates, the United States quietly is helping another country fight domestic insurgents and international terrorists.

State Department officials in Manila said they’ve been using “diplomacy, development and defense,” since Philippine President Gloria Arroyo first sought their help in early 2002.

Five years later, the United States remains “engaged here in a very comprehensive way to change an environment, to help a key non-NATO ally defeat a very, very serious terrorist threat,” according to a senior State Department official who agreed on the condition of anonymity to brief Stars and Stripes.

The threat

The Armed Forces of the Philippines is actively fighting the Abu Sayyaf Group — a terrorist faction that split from the Moro National Liberation Front in the early 1990s — and the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah.

The groups found a home in the Mindanao area — including the Sulu Archipelago — the poorest area of the Philippines. The overall sense of lawlessness, lack of functional government and low quality of life made it an ideal breeding ground for terror, officials said.

“From our own peace and security view, it’s an important part of the country,” said U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie A. Kenney during an interview in her office in Manila.

“There is a fight going on there,” she said of the southern islands. “It is a battleground where the Armed Forces of the Philippines are fighting an enemy.”

But it’s in both countries’ interests to eliminate the groups — and the conditions that allowed them to operate, several officials interviewed said.

The Philippines is “a theater in the global war on terror,” the State Department official said. If there was any doubt about that, he said, it could be removed when Philippine troops overran the Abu Sayyaf base camp on Jolo on Aug. 3. There, they found explosive devices and a factory to manufacture them.

A U.S. explosive ordnance disposal technician working with the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines said, “Hey, these are devices that I’ve seen in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the official said.

Taking on the task

“I think the strategy is the right strategy,” Kenney said. “We’re fixing the conditions” that allow terrorism to develop.

Kenney said the U.S. understands fighting an insurgency is a long and complicated process: “Our engagement wasn’t focused on making something happen tomorrow.”

“The Philippine government has stood up very strong ... and we’ve had them leading the way,” she said.

The State Department official agreed and said it was a matter of discovering the best way to work in partnership with the Philippine government.

“So the Philippine government has requested our assistance to help with this and how we’re attacking this problem is a way that uses these three Ds: defense, diplomacy, development,” he said.

“On the diplomacy side, it means stepping back and saying, ‘How can we support … a host-nation government [to] deal with a very serious transnational problem it has found itself incapable of dealing with?’”

The diplomacy side is critical, he said.

Kenney is “worth a battalion” of troops, the State Department official said, because she’ll go into an Abu Sayyaf Group safe haven “talking about hope, talking of the future, talking about development and giving these people a sense of an alternative future, a future without terrorism.”

Successes

Both U.S. and Philippine officials point to recent successes — including the killing of several “high-value targets” — in discussing the evolving mission.

Kenney said she believes the work is paying off.

“You suddenly reach a point when the population is not on the side” of the insurgents, she said.

At some point, she said, the people “want their children to grow up in schools, prefer for them to have jobs and … prefer for them not to be spending their time in the hills of Jolo” following terrorists.

“I would be surprised if there aren’t more success in the coming weeks or months,” she said.

“We’ve put a lot of our … development assistance down there, we’ve connected schools to the Internet, we’ve partnered with private companies to donate” everything from solar panels to books to computers.

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