One place where the US is welcome

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 February, 2007, 12:00am

Doctors and donations - not battles - have rebels on the run in Jolo

In one tiny, but strategically important, corner of the world, American forces at least look like winners, prompting Washington's official global image builder to cite it as a model for US military missions elsewhere.

Early last year, the remote island of Jolo in the southern Philippines was a no-go zone for Americans, as homegrown militants threatened to abduct or shoot them on sight. But two weeks ago, residents of Jolo city, the capital of Sulu province, demonstrated how far attitudes had shifted.

Smiling schoolchildren waving tiny American flags mobbed Karen Hughes, key presidential adviser on improving America's badly battered image abroad, while she was accompanied by US ambassador Kristie Kelley.

A visibly pleased Ms Hughes, who is the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, gushed to the media afterwards.

'I think it's a wonderful example of the way we should be conducting our operations around the world as we seek to help people have a better life and we also seek together to track down the terrorists who tried to disrupt that peaceful development,' she said.

Sulu governor Benjamin Loong attributed the warming of relations to the American troops' good deeds and fulfilled promises since arriving late last year.

'They served almost 28,000 medical and dental patients, gave away free medicine, built roads, constructed many school buildings, donated school computers with internet access and repaired mosques - at the cost of at least 300 million pesos [HK$50 million],' he said.

'We don't have that kind of money,' said Mr Loong, who governs the nation's poorest province.

And, he added: 'They have kept their word not to engage in any military exercise.'

This civic-medical diplomacy was part of a new anti-terror strategy, said Major John Redfield, public affairs officer for the US Joint Special Operations Taskforce - Philippines.

'In this case, it goes back to the basics of counter-insurgency strategy. We know the [al-Qaeda-linked] Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah are there in Jolo, where they have some basic level of support from some people - not all people. So by doing humanitarian projects, you separate them from their support network.

'Ultimately, we hope the people will say, 'you know, we're not really interested in supporting the terrorists anymore'.'

Major Redfield said they sensed 'a turning point' last month with the killing in separate military operations of Abu Sayyaf chief Khaddafy Janjalani and the group's spokesman, Jainal Antel Sali.

'Is that [counterinsurgency] model exportable to other countries? Maybe,' he said.

Governor Loong attributed the success of the US strategy to close co-ordination between Philippine and American military authorities and local officials.

US forces even assigned a Muslim serviceman who spoke Filipino to liaise with the governor's staff, while several military medics were Filipino-Americans. Because of all this, Governor Loong claimed residents had turned away Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah members seeking refuge in their community, citing their own security fears.

Mr Loong has also sought to thaw a century of simmering anger after American colonisers killed 600 men, women and children who had retreated up Mount Dajo in 1906 after refusing to pay taxes.

'That was a battle, not a massacre,' the governor recently told Muslim civil society groups.

But an official of the Sulu-based rebel group Moro National Liberation Front cautioned America not to take attitudes in the region at face value.

Ustadz Sharif Zain Jali, chairman of the front's lawmaking arm, said deep down, those who were native to Sulu remained wary of America's intentions.

He said the Tausug tribe 'know they are being exploited by Americans, and [in turn] they will exploit the moment temporarily. Why not?' He also said that the Tausug, a warrior tribe, had a strong tradition of sheltering fugitives from justice.

Many Tausugs interpreted recent US civic-medical diplomacy as 'one of the ways Americans have rectified the bad things they did in history', Mr Jali said.