The war on terror takes another tack

It's movie night at the U.S. military enclave on this Filipino military base, and dozens of giggling young boys and girls jostle their way into a free show in a modest wood-frame building that formerly housed a bar named Rusty's Grill.

Each child's price of admission to see the animated film “Robots” – and get a bottle of water and a small bag of popcorn – is to accept a squirt of hand sanitizer – a brief lesson in basic hygiene.

Welcome to America's other war on terror.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks more than seven years ago, President Bush has waged a worldwide assault on Islamic militants from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa that's relied overwhelmingly on U.S. military force, harsh treatment of detainees and tough talk. Winning “hearts and minds,” at least until recently, has been an afterthought.

On a Southeast Asian front that's vital, yet largely unfamiliar to most Americans, some 500 U.S. Special Operations Forces and their Filipino counterparts have been fighting a different, unconventional and seemingly successful war against Islamic terrorist groups with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.

The lessons of this relatively low-budget effort could be invaluable as the next U.S. president assumes the task of fighting Islamic extremism with a federal Treasury drained by the nation's economic woes – and the Army and Marine Corps strained by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

McClatchy was granted permission to cover the activities of the U.S. forces here, the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, for nine days.

Army Maj. Joseph Mouer, the wiry, youthful-looking commander of the small American military contingent here on Jolo island in the southern Philippines, hopes to expand movie night with visits by local police, modeled after the “Officer Friendly” program he remembers growing up in New Orleans.

“I consider myself a diplomat with a gun,” Mouer says, after observing the controlled chaos of movie night.

He and his men dispense lethal violence and the label “terrorist” cautiously. Improving the lives and safety of the populace and, crucially, reversing Filipino Muslims' resentment toward their own Christian-dominated government constitute as much as 85 percent of the effort. That's classic counter-insurgency doctrine, which the U.S. began to implement in Iraq only last year.

The southern Philippines is far from pacified. Mindanao, as the region is known, has been the scene of the worst fighting in five years between the government and the rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is seeking an autonomous Muslim state. The fighters, staking their claim in advance of a hoped-for peace deal, seized a half-dozen villages, prompting a Filipino government counter-offensive. The fighting, which began in August, has displaced an estimated half-million people, and the government suspended peace talks.

The front isn't a terrorist group, hasn't targeted Americans and has no global objectives, seeking only local autonomy. But some of its more militant commanders have provided shelter to a violent movement known as Abu Sayyaf linked to al-Qaida.

The U.S. military mission here is targeted against Abu Sayyaf and other trans-national terrorist groups.

American and Filipino commanders, senior U.S. officials and private counter-terrorism experts all say the operation has been an apparent success. Military and civil operations have destroyed or squeezed out much of Abu Sayyaf, and the group has lost most of its former lifeline to the region's most feared terrorist group, Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, they say.