PANAMAO, PHILIPPINES — It's the kind of item that doesn't show up in defense budget audits: A $200 tin-roofed communal outhouse, or "comfort room," tucked behind the village market. To US Army Capt. Steve Battle, who split the construction cost with his Philippine counterparts, it's money well spent.
Gaining the trust of residents in Panamao, a stricken village on the edge of a combat zone, is why US and Philippine troops are dug in here. In counterterrorism jargon, this Muslim community is a "center of gravity" that can be swayed with targeted projects – a new well, a school classroom, or a toilet. "It's not the amount of people that you affect. It's who you affect," says Captain Battle, a civil-affairs officer.
At a time when success stories in the US-led war on terror have been all but eclipsed by failures in Iraq, recent developments in the southern Philippines offer a degree of hope to Pentagon planners. But they also show the complexity of waging war in a contested, chaotic area, as well as the long slog needed to stand up a national army equal to sure-footed militants.
Five years after Philippine troops, supplied and advised by US soldiers, drove Islamic militants from the island of Basilan, a major offensive is under way on Jolo Island, where the militants regrouped. The goal is to deny sanctuary to the remaining members of Abu Sayyaf, one of several insurgent groups who have been fighting for a separate Islamist state. Since August, elite Philippine units have killed or captured as many as half of an estimated 400 Abu Sayyaf on Jolo Island, including their slain leader Khadaffy Janjalani and several other senior operatives.
Philippine commanders on Jolo say they are confident their 7,000-strong troops can finish the job. "They lack ammunition, they're on the run, and we're continually pressuring them. They are in a position to be neutralized," says Army Gen. Ruperto Pabustan of the local militia.
If so, the Philippine military would end a reign of terror by a group that was founded by Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law in the early 1990s. Abu Sayyaf later morphed into a kidnapping racket that became almost indistinguishable from the criminal gangs that plague the Philippines' remote regions. While that makes Abu Sayyaf something of a footnote to the global war on terror, it is no less a spoiler in the Philippine government's efforts to build a lasting peace on troubled Mindanao.
Shortly after 9/11, the southern Philippines was widely considered to be the global war on terror's "second front" after Afghanistan. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, a staunch US ally, invited American troops to assist in the fight against Abu Sayyaf, but ruled out any combat role for them. A joint US military taskforce was created to equip and train Philippine troops deploying on Basilan Island, where Abu Sayyaf then held sway.
At the same time, US and Philippine Army engineers fanned out across Basilan to build roads and bridges, trying to drive a wedge between Abu Sayyaf and local sympathizers. It largely worked, but tactical blunders allowed militant leaders to escape and regroup.
Today, the US military is using the same formula on Jolo, a kidney-shaped island convulsed by decades of Muslim rebellion against the Christian-dominated Philippine government. Advised by US Special Forces, Philippine troops have closed in on Abu Sayyaf, while naval patrols have cut off escape routes to other islands.
Even after five years of substantial military aid, US officers are quick to give credit to their allies for the victories.
"It's a Philippines success story. They're the one doing the heavy lifting and doing the fighting and helping the people and we're providing support," says Col. David Maxwell, commander of the joint taskforce, who led the 2002 Basilan operation.
Frontline troops have also won plaudits from their political masters in Manila, as well as pledges of more money and equipment. But similar promises have in the past failed to reach soldiers in the field, fuelling complaints of embezzlement by top brass. In 2003, junior officers serving in Mindanao staged a brief mutiny in Manila to protest such graft. Troops have also been accused of selling weapons and colluding with kidnappers and rebels, undermining trust among local residents.
Perhaps most acute is the need to channel funds into poor communities like Panamao, where schoolteachers say they haven't been paid for over a year. Analysts argue that without a strong focus on social development and civic leadership, any military victory on Jolo could be short-lived.
"Once the money and the Americans go, how far will the Philippines be able to keep up the community development?" says Scott Harrison, a security consultant and a former CIA officer.
"You can wipe out the entire leadership of Abu Sayyaf and [Jemaah Islamiyah], but unless you solve the underlying root problems like poverty and corruption, you've still got a witch's brew to create another generation of fanatics," he says.