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."
As I continued around the island over the next few days, especially in the Muslim region of Tipo-Tipo, to the southeast, local Muslim officials were openly grateful toward the U.S. military for the wells, schools, and clinics that had been built, but critical of their own government in Manila for corruption and for not providing funds for development. True or not, this was the perception.