The Magazine

Treading Softly in the Philippines

Why a low-intensity counterinsurgency strategy seems to be working there.

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By MAX BOOT and RICHARD BENNET
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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."