KAGAY PHILIPPINES — Major Scott Malone stood in a sandbagged, open-sided hut on a windswept hill. His voice, amplified by a tinny speaker, carried over his audience of children and mothers toward two new United States-built classrooms by a basketball court.
Last September, two American soldiers died here in a roadside bombing. The incident, the deadliest in an eight-year US deployment in the southern Philippines, put a temporary stop to infrastructure projects across the war-torn island of Jolo, a key battleground in a US-backed military campaign.
Recalling these setbacks, Malone assured his audience that nothing would sway his forces from their mission. “We will not give up on the children of Kagay. Your children and their future are too important,” he said, before cutting a red ribbon at the school gate.
Kagay’s new school is a window into the perils of counterinsurgency in lawless areas like Jolo, a rugged outpost of Islam in Southeast Asia. A century ago, it was a center of fierce resistance to US occupation. More recently, it has become a byword for terrorism at the hands of the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist group with historic ties to Al Qaeda that drew US Special Forces here in 2002 to advise and equip the Philippine military.
As well as supporting the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf and other terrorist groups, the US has also sent in military experts on how to use aid to bring development and economic opportunity to villages like Kagay, hoping to reverse decades of neglect that have seeded the violence. These projects range from new roads to ordnance clearance to veterinary services that fatten cattle and raise family incomes.
Malone, the US commander on Jolo, says the strategy, known in military parlance as civil-military operations (CMO), is working. “The enemy knows that when we move into an area and bring CMO projects, people start telling on them,” he says.
Philippine officials echo these points and say their troops are putting more resources into humanitarian aid so they can empower civilians. “This is how we want to help the community,” says Brig. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, who commands a joint Philippine taskforce on Jolo.
But delivering aid to villagers living under the shadow of violence is a long-term commitment, warn US military officials. They point to the nearby island of Basilan, where US troops arrived in 2002 to support Philippine military operations and build infrastructure. Terrorist attacks fell steadily, prompting a drawdown in US troops. But within a few years, the Abu Sayyaf had regrouped and resumed targeting civilians.
“If you go and build a school and walk away, it’s just going to be a madrasa,” or religious school, says a US officer who also served in Afghanistan.
A virtual no-go zone
A year ago, Kagay was a virtual no-go zone, under the watch of insurgents. Elementary school students crammed into two rundown buildings; teachers taught two grades in the same room. The school, like the rest of the village, had no electricity or piped water.
The Philippine Marines moved in first, eventually bunking down in the old school buildings, while US Navy Seabees began work on the new facilities. The dirt road to the coast was improved. Security got better, and the village head asked the troops to do more for his community.
Then, in September, acting on intelligence reports, the Philippines conducted a successful artillery and aerial strike on a nearby Abu Sayyaf camp. Villagers began to flee as fighting intensified in the area. But US soldiers continued to work on the school.
On Sept. 29, a US Humvee in a convoy bringing supplies to Kagay hit a roadside bomb. The explosion killed Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Shaw, Staff Sgt. Jack Martin, and Philippine Pfc. Jewin Estrada, who were in the vehicle. Two other Philippine soldiers were injured.
US troops were grounded and aid projects suspended as security was reassessed. Within weeks, though, work restarted in Kagay, even as insurgents continued to blow up infrastructure in the area.
In a sign of local complexities, Philippine and US officials blame the Moro National Liberation Front, another rebel group, for the bombing. The MNLF has a base in the area where Abu Sayyaf had sought sanctuary, but which Philippine troops are not allowed to search without consent under a peace deal with the government.
A threat to militants?
The school was finally completed in December. While Abu Sayyaf has razed schools and abducted teachers in other districts, residents play down fears of similar attacks. “They won’t burn this school,” says Hasan Annuari, an engineer who worked on the project, citing local respect for the village head.
Last week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony didn’t signal the start of classes. These won’t resume until July, says a teacher. Some villagers are wary of moving back after the recent fighting. And there is still no electricity, though the school will have a generator.
US commanders say a planned extension of the road to the island’s capital, Jolo, will benefit the area as more government services are restored. They argue that Abu Sayyaf attacks on infrastructure show that the group feels threatened by economic development that undercuts its reign of terror.
But that seems to offer only limited comfort to the residents of Kagay, who wave as the commanders’ convoy grinds down the hillside, past coconut groves and banana trees, back to the relative safety of Jolo’s tropical coastline.