Imperial Grunts

With the Army Special Forces in the Philippines and Afghanistan—laboratories of counterinsurgency

America is waging a counterinsurgency campaign not just in Iraq but against Islamic terror groups throughout the world. Counterinsurgency falls into two categories: unconventional war (UW in Special Operations lingo) and direct action (DA). Unconventional war, though it sounds sinister, actually represents the soft, humanitarian side of counterinsurgency: how to win without firing a shot. For example, it may include relief activities that generate good will among indigenous populations, which in turn produces actionable intelligence. Direct action represents more-traditional military operations. In 2003 I spent a summer in the southern Philippines and an autumn in eastern and southern Afghanistan, observing how the U.S. military was conducting these two types of counterinsurgency.

The philippines

The inability of a democratic and Christian Filipino government to rule large areas of its own Muslim south—with al-Qaeda-related activity the result—became a principal concern of the United States in the wake of September 11, 2001. Operation Enduring Freedom, which focused primarily on removing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, also had an important Philippine component. In the aftermath of 9/11 U.S. troops entered the Muslim south of the Philippines for the first time since World War II.

In Afghanistan, Enduring Freedom combined conventional military elements with Special Operations forces and a militarized CIA. In the Philippines the effort was almost exclusively a Special Forces affair. The base of operations was Zamboanga, the center of the Spanish colonial administration in Mindanao and of the American effort against the Moros a century ago.

By the time I arrived in the Philippines, a number of leaders of the radical Islamic group Abu Sayyaf had been killed, and the group had scattered to smaller islands. Yet the American Joint Special Operations Task Force, or jsotf (pronounced Jay-so-tef), was still in place when I got to Zamboanga, and various Special Forces A teams were still training Filipino units nearby and on the main island of Luzon.

One morning soon after my arrival I found myself on a broken chair in a vast iron shed by the ferry dock in Zamboanga, in rotting heat and humidity. The water was a tableau of fishing nets and banca boats with bamboo outrigging. The floor in front of me was crowded with garbage and sleeping street people. Next to me were two new traveling companions from the jsotf: Special Forces Master Sergeant Doug Kealoha, of the Big Island of Hawaii, and Air Force Master Sergeant Carlos Duenas Jr., of San Diego. They would accompany me to the island of Basilan—"Injun Country" in the view of the jsotf, though Abu Sayyaf guerrillas had largely been routed.

I felt the familiar excitement of early-morning sea travel. From here in Zamboanga you could hop cheap and broken-down ferries all the way south along the Sulu chain to Malaysia and Indonesia. Had I been by myself, I might have been tempted to do it. I would certainly have had no qualms about going to Basilan alone. But being embedded with the U.S. military, as I was, meant giving up some freedom in return for access. I rode to the dock in a darkened van with three soldiers in full kit, along with Kealoha and Duenas, who, although they were in civilian clothes, carried Berettas under their loose shirts. Troops of the 103rd Brigade of the Filipino army would meet us at the dock in Isabela, the capital of Basilan.

pacom (the U.S. Pacific Command) had in 2002 decided to focus on Basilan because it was the northernmost and most populous island in the Sulu chain—the link between the southern islands and the larger island of Mindanao. Were Abu Sayyaf and other Muslim guerrilla groups to be ejected from Basilan, they would be instantly marginalized, it was thought. Basilan, with a population of 360,000, was important enough to matter, yet small enough to allow the United States a decisive victory in a short amount of time.

The first thing Special Forces had done about Basilan was conduct a series of population surveys. SF surveys were a bit like those conducted by university academics; indeed, many an SF officer had an advanced degree. But there was a difference. Because the motive behind these surveys was operational rather than intellectual, there was a practical, cut-to-the-chase quality about them that is uncommon in academia. Months were not needed to reach conclusions. Nobody was afraid to generalize in the bluntest terms; thus conclusions did not become entangled in exquisite subtleties. Intellectuals reward complexity and refinement; the military rewards simplicity and bottom-line assessments. For Army Special Forces—also called Green Berets—there was only one important question: What did they need to know about the people of Basilan in order to kill or drive out the guerrillas?

Special Forces officers teamed up with their counterparts in the Filipino army to question the local chiefs and their constituents in the island's forty barangays, or parishes. They conducted demographic studies with the help of satellite imagery. They found that the Christian population was heaviest in the northern part of Basilan, particularly in Isabela. Abu Sayyaf's strongest support was in the south and east of the island, where government services were, not surprisingly, the weakest. The islanders' biggest concerns were clean water, basic security, medical care, education, and good roads—in that order. Democracy or self-rule was not especially critical to the Muslim population. It had already had elections, many of them, which had achieved little for the average person: the government was elected but did not rule the group. Abu Sayyaf activities had shut down the schools and hospitals, and the guerrillas had kidnapped and executed teachers and nurses. The surveys demonstrated that the most basic human right is not freedom in the Western sense but physical security.

Next, under the auspices of Operation Enduring Freedom—Philippines, the Joint Task Force dispatched twelve Green Beret A teams to Basilan, backed up by three administrative B teams. Their mission was to train the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) units, which would then conduct operations against Abu Sayyaf. Doing that meant digging wells for American troops and building roads so that they could move around the countryside. The Americans also built piers and an airstrip for their operations. The Green Berets knew that all this infrastructure would be left behind for the benefit of the civilian population: that was very much to the point.

It was precisely in the Abu Sayyaf strongholds where the Green Beret detachments chose to be located. That in itself encouraged the guerrillas to scatter and leave the island. And by guaranteeing security, the U.S. military was able to lure international relief agencies to Basilan, and also some of the teachers and medical personnel who had previously fled. The American firm Kellogg, Brown & Root built and repaired schools and water systems. SF medics conducted medical and dental civic-action projects (medcaps and dentcaps, in military parlance) at which villagers volunteered information about the guerrillas while their children were being treated for scabies, malaria, and meningitis.

The objective was always to further legitimize the AFP among the islanders. The Americans went nowhere and did nothing without Filipino troops present to take the credit. When ribbons were cut to open new roads or schools, the Americans made sure to stay in the background.

With discretionary funds the Americans also built several small neighborhood mosques. "We hired locally and bought locally," a Green Beret officer told me, referring to the labor and materials for each project. The policy was deliberately carried to the extreme. Repairing roads meant clearing boulders off them; when the Green Berets saw peasants chipping away at these boulders to make smaller rocks, they bought the "aggregate" from the peasants and used it to lay the new roads.

The ostensible mission was to help Filipino troops kill or capture international terrorists. That was accomplished by orchestrating a humanitarian assistance campaign, which severed the link between the terrorists and the rest of the Muslim population: exactly what successful middle-level U.S. commanders had done in the Philippines a hundred years before. "We changed the way we were perceived," a Green Beret told me. "When we arrived in Basilan, Muslim kids made throat-slashing gestures at us. By the time we left, they were our friends. That led them to question everything the guerrillas had told them about Americans."

When I arrived in Basilan, the Americans had been gone for almost a year. Were their accomplishments long-lasting?

Before Enduring Freedom the hospital in Isabela had had twenty-five beds, and the staff had largely deserted to Zamboanga. Now there were 110 beds plus a women's clinic. The facility was being kept clean and orderly, with good water and electricity. The grounds were in the midst of landscaping. "Tell the American people that it is a miracle what took place here in 2002," Nilo Barandino, the hospital's director, told me. "And what was given to us by the American people, we will do our best to maintain and build upon. But there is still a shortage of penicillin. We get little help from Manila." Barandino said that Basilan used to be a "paradise for kidnappers," but since the American intervention kidnapping had stopped and the inhabitants of Isabela had begun going out at night again. A decade earlier he himself had been kidnapped.

From Isabela I headed southwest with Kealoha and Duenas, in a Humvee. Everywhere we saw portable bridges and sections of new road. If one island paradise on earth surpassed all others, I thought, it was here, with rubber-tree plantations and pristine palm jungles adorned with breadfruit, mahogany, mango, and banana trees under a glittering sun.

In Maluso, a predominantly Muslim area on Basilan's southwestern tip, facing the Sulu Sea, I met a water engineer, Salie Francisco. He jumped into the Humvee with us and took us deep into the jungle to follow the trail of a pipeline constructed by Kellogg, Brown & Root. It led to a dam, a water-filtration plant, and a school, all recently built by the United States Agency for International Development. The area used to be an Abu Sayyaf lair. The terrorists were gone. But, as Francisco told me, there were no jobs, no communications facilities, and no tourism, despite expectations raised by the Americans.

I saw poor and remote villages of the kind that I had seen all over the world, liberated from fear, and with a new class of Westernized activists beginning to trickle in. "The Filipino military is less and less doing its job here," Francisco told me. "We are afraid that Abu Sayyaf will return. No one trusts the government to finish building the roads that the Americans started." He went on: "The Americans were sincere. They did nothing wrong. We will always be grateful to their soldiers. But why did they leave? Please tell me. We are very disappointed that they did so."

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Robert D. Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic. This article, part of an Atlantic series, will appear in somewhat different form in Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, to be published this month by Random House.

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