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Waging Peace in the Philippines

With innovative tactics, U.S. forces make headway in the "war on terror"

Linder, who first arrived on Jolo in September 2005, says the counterinsurgency he's coordinating is not just a "hearts and minds" campaign to win affection for the United States. Instead, the goal is to cripple Abu Sayyaf and other terrorists by creating a stable civil society where none has existed. If U.S. forces can achieve the same success on Jolo as they did on Basilan, Linder says, "I think we'll have a new model for counterinsurgency to offer the world."

Although the Philippines is Asia's only predominantly Christian country (90 percent of its 89 million people are Christians, most of them Roman Catholic), Islam arrived before Christianity—in the 14th century, along with Arab traders and missionaries. When Ferdinand Magellan claimed the Philippines for Spain in 1521, sultans already ruled the southern islands. For the next 377 years, the Moro people fended off domination by the Catholic conquistadors by fighting under the banner of Islam.

In 1898, when the United States defeated the Spanish fleet, the Philippines became a de facto American colony. Filipinos initially welcomed the Americans, but soon understood that America wasn't offering independence, and took up arms from 1899 to 1903. After the Americans killed tens of thousands of Filipinos, the nation came fully under U.S. control. Despite calm on most of the islands, an Islamic rebellion continued in the south. To quell it, Americans imported commanders from the Civil War and the wars against the American Indians.

Faced with Islamic insurgents called amoks (so named because they went berserk on the battlefield) and suicidal fighters called juramentados ("ones who have taken an oath"), American commanders were left to develop counterinsurgent tactics on their own. By 1913, U.S. troops had subdued the uprisings. Their success was due less to violent encounters like the Battle of the Clouds and more to community-building tactics, similar to those that U.S. forces are now employing on Jolo. "The most crucial tactical lesson of the Philippines war" at the turn of the 20th century, Robert Kaplan notes in his 2005 book, Imperial Grunts, "is that the smaller the unit, and the farther forward it is deployed among the indigenous population, the more it can accomplish."

Tensions rose after the U.S.-backed Philippine government, in 1956, sent thousands of northern Christians to the south, not only to give them farmland but also to counterbalance the Muslim majority. The southern Muslims found themselves kicked off their own land.

Several of the militant groups operating now in the southern Philippines have splintered from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), homegrown insurgents who have fought the government since 1977. Over the years, the MILF has waged bombing campaigns as well as full-scale attacks against the Philippine armed forces in hopes of creating a separate Islamic state in the south. In 2001, the MILF signed a cease-fire with the central government, though sporadic fighting continues. The MILF claims some 12,000 members, and Philippine and U.S. officials say that rogue MILF leaders have sheltered Abu Sayyaf and Indonesia-based terrorists in exchange for, among other things, training in the use of explosives.

Days before i arrived on Mindanao to meet with MILF members, the wife of a powerful MILF field commander was murdered. The woman, Bai Kausal, 38, was married to Pakila Datu, an enemy of the governor of Maguindanao province, Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. ("Datu" is the honorific of a kind of hereditary Islamic lord.) Fighting between Pakila's forces and Governor Ampatuan's troops had previously driven 16,000 people from their homes. It was widely rumored that Pakila's wife, who was shot in her minivan, was killed by thugs working for the governor. The governor has not responded to the rumor. His father-in-law, a judge, issued a warrant for Pakila's arrest and placed a five-million-peso (about $100,000) bounty on his head. Pakila and his soldiers vanished.

I got a message that Pakila wanted to meet me; it seems he'd heard of my interest in his wife's murder. The next morning, following instructions, my guide, a photographer and I drove to a little grocery store on Mindanao. A heavyset shopkeeper wearing a black abaya barked at us to move to the back of the store quickly and to stay out of sight. There, a large door in the storeroom opened unexpectedly onto a river, the Rio Grande de Mindanao. We climbed into a long wooden boat, and five or six veiled women climbed in after us—relatives of the murdered woman. After Kausal's death, her body had been taken by boat to her husband and buried. This would be the first time other relatives could visit her grave. The motor started up, and we pulled out into the open water beyond the red-and-white ferryboats. The riverbank shimmered green with tall grasses under the pewter sky.

We passed small villages: clusters of shacks on stilts. A few children bathed in the river. A bespectacled schoolteacher sitting beside me explained that no government troops would dare come into this area. This was MILF territory and everyone, farmers and fishermen alike, supported the rebel cause. To my surprise, she said she'd recently traveled to the United States as part of a delegation of Muslim teachers trying to convince U.S. officials that the MILF are not terrorists. "We want an Islamic state," she said. I thought it unlikely the United States would help anyone build an Islamic state, but I kept my mouth shut.

We chugged along. An hour passed, then most of another. We rounded a bend, and the bank was crowded with more than 100 rebels wearing camouflage uniforms, smiling and waving. As we grew closer, I could see that they carried assault rifles. A few carried rocket propelled grenade launchers slung over each shoulder. Some were children. As they helped us out of the boat, a man in a gray T-shirt emerged: Pakila Datu. He led us straight to his wife's grave, a simple stone set in a dirt patch at the edge of the compound. "I spoke to her on the phone 20 minutes before she was killed," he said. Behind us, women wept.

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