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In Philippines, US fights militancy with new classrooms

US troops in the southern Philippines work to undercut militancy with projects such as better roads, fatter cattle, and a new school, which opened last week.

By Correspondent / January 20, 2010

Kagay, Philippines

Major Scott Malone stood in a sandbagged, open-sided hut on a windswept hill. His voice, amplified by a tinny speaker, carried over his audience of children and mothers toward two new United States-built classrooms by a basketball court.

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Last September, two American soldiers died here in a roadside bombing. The incident, the deadliest in an eight-year US deployment in the southern Philippines, put a temporary stop to infrastructure projects across the war-torn island of Jolo, a key battleground in a US-backed military campaign.

Recalling these setbacks, Malone assured his audience that nothing would sway his forces from their mission. “We will not give up on the children of Kagay. Your children and their future are too important,” he said, before cutting a red ribbon at the school gate.

Kagay’s new school is a window into the perils of counterinsurgency in lawless areas like Jolo, a rugged outpost of Islam in Southeast Asia. A century ago, it was a center of fierce resistance to US occupation. More recently, it has become a byword for terrorism at the hands of the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist group with historic ties to Al Qaeda that drew US Special Forces here in 2002 to advise and equip the Philippine military.

As well as supporting the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf and other terrorist groups, the US has also sent in military experts on how to use aid to bring development and economic opportunity to villages like Kagay, hoping to reverse decades of neglect that have seeded the violence. These projects range from new roads to ordnance clearance to veterinary services that fatten cattle and raise family incomes.

Malone, the US commander on Jolo, says the strategy, known in military parlance as civil-military operations (CMO), is working. “The enemy knows that when we move into an area and bring CMO projects, people start telling on them,” he says.

Philippine officials echo these points and say their troops are putting more resources into humanitarian aid so they can empower civilians. “This is how we want to help the community,” says Brig. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, who commands a joint Philippine taskforce on Jolo.

Building amid violence

But delivering aid to villagers living under the shadow of violence is a long-term commitment, warn US military officials. They point to the nearby island of Basilan, where US troops arrived in 2002 to support Philippine military operations and build infrastructure. Terrorist attacks fell steadily, prompting a drawdown in US troops. But within a few years, the Abu Sayyaf had regrouped and resumed targeting civilians.