- Published: Wednesday, 08 July 2009 00:11
08 July 2009
(Filed from Afghanistan)
The fight in the southern Philippines varies in intensity and technique. Commanders in the AFP (Armed Forces Philippines) will say that the fight consists of about 80% carrot and 20% stick. The relationship between U.S. and AFP forces seems good but there are differences of opinion. Our folks fully understand the 80% part, but on the 20% we often know the whereabouts of the enemy and would like to see faster action. Nevertheless, my gut instinct after having a tour about the place is that progress is being made. A guerrilla commander told me that he had been fighting since 1976, but came out of the jungles with 34 fighters on 20 April this year. Publicly it’s called a “surrender,” but on the ground it seemed more like a mutual agreement to stop fighting and do something constructive.
And so in addition to other tours on Luzon, Sulu, and Mindanao, we flew to this airstrip on Mindanao and were heading to the village where the recent guerrillas lived with their families. U.S. Navy and a couple of Green Berets picked us up. I was escorted most steps of the way by Philippine Army Captain Enrico Ileto, and/or U.S. Air Force Captain John Hutcheson and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Lara Bollinger. All three worked for public affairs. This practically never happens in Iraq or Afghanistan; many folks think that writers are shadowed constantly in the wars, but this might occur 1% of the time with Americans, more so with Brits. I didn’t mind the shadowing in the Philippines and found it helpful as an intro; we got things done quicker (such as flights) and the meetings were nearly continuous. For a short embed, this was fine but for long-term work, it would not work.
During the seven days, I saw no direct signs of fighting other than one small bomb crater and bridge damaged by explosives. The enemy here is not as clever with explosives as were the Iraqis.
We dove over the smaller bridge while repairs were underway on the larger, damaged bridge.
Around the periphery of Mindanao Island are many Christians and plenty of churches. Before leaving the ring-road and heading into the jungle interior, we stopped in a small community to wait for AFP soldiers to take us into enemy territory. Hopefully, it was “former” enemy territory. We had no armor or body armor and wore no helmets, unlike on Sulu where everyone wears “battle rattle” as if they are in Afghanistan or Iraq. The kids in the area were friendly and never asked for candy but they smiled at us a lot. They especially smiled at Lt. Lara Bollinger and brightened up even more whenever she smiled at them. A pretty girl stopped to take photos. Captain Ileto, whom I called by his first name “Enrico,” had lost a number of his men nearby during heavy fighting, and I was told that he was awarded a medal for courage under fire. (I asked for that citation but was told that it’s “classified.”)
While we waited for AFP soldiers, concern seemed to grow on Enrico’s face that we had been there too long, maybe 15 minutes, and he thought we might get hit if we didn’t move out.
So our convoy drove into the interior jungle. Altogether, the trip would take about two hours, much of which was on the unpaved jungle roads. The weather was dry and temperature was pleasant. As we moved further inland, there were more and more mosques in the villages. The kids, men and women were very friendly. Laundry was hanging out in every village, and so lots of the little kids weren’t wearing any pants. Our troops call laundry day “no pants day.”
The ambush country was as good as you’ll see just about anywhere. Decent guerrillas could have taken a heavy toll on us. Luckily, every single village seemed friendly. The sign’s for “Attorney Muamar Andamama Sarip Guyo,” whose name will forthwith be seen in at least a hundred countries.
We finally made it to our destination: The enemy village where the 34 fighters had come with their families. Some of the men here were wearing camouflage and though the people were friendly, there was edge in the air from some of the younger men. I didn’t feel any danger but this wasn’t a beach party, either.
The AFP and our folks helped unload some lumber, cement, and other supplies, and the men expressed much thanks.
At first Enrico was standoffish with the Commander, whom he said might have been involved in killing his own men, but the fact is, we are destined to perpetual war if we drag blood feuds through the decades.
The U.S. and AFP rebuilt the village fishponds, and helped with other agricultural revenue sources.
In closing on the Philippines, it was clear during my approximate ten days in country that progress is being made, albeit at a slow and frustrating pace. Yet even that progress is endangered by potential cuts to the U.S. force structure as more attention is diverted to Afghanistan. We saw what happened when we ignored Afghanistan to focus on Iraq, and we could do well to remember that the war in the Philippines is a matter of high stakes. The AFP is doing all the fighting, but they need our support. Even now, the Armed Forces of the Philippines is running dangerously short on artillery and mortar ammunition, and they may completely run out this summer.