The Philippines: War on terror's second front
CNN Manila Bureau Chief
(CNN) -- The head of the U.S. forces in the Pacific this week visited American troops in the southern Philippines -- currently the single largest overseas deployment of U.S. troops since Afghanistan.
When Admiral Dennis Blair took over as U.S. Pacific Command chief three years ago, he talked of pervasive seams of lawlessness across the region.
These are now a key focus of the American-led war on terror in the Asia-Pacific area.
"I think September 11 really broadened, brought into vivid relief what we were talking about in pretty theoretical terms three years ago," Blair told CNN in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga.
"Any time you have a part of the world where lawless groups operate, all sorts of bad things happen. Drugs happen, guns happen, ransom happens, piracy happens, and yes, terrorists, terrorism can find a home."
One of those places is the southern Philippines where 160 U.S. Special Forces are taking part in joint military exercises with Philippine soldiers against the al Qaeda-linked kidnap group, the Abu Sayyaf.
The war games, dubbed Balikatan (Shoulder to Shoulder), are aimed at eliminating the Muslim guerilla group based on the island of Basilan.
Lawless area stabilized
The Abu Sayyaf have been holding captive an American couple and a Filipino nurse for more than 10 months.
The group has kidnapped scores of Western and Asian hostages in the past two years, beheading more than a dozen, including an American tourist captured last year.
Because of political sensitivities in America's only former colony, the number of troops was initially kept to a specific number -- a total of 660 -- armed but able to shoot only in self-defense.
Halfway through the mission, the Americans have helped stabilize what was once a lawless area.
Residents now say they want U.S. forces to stay beyond the original 6-month deadline.
"We're evaluating that now. We're looking at what else needs to be done. I think that we'll be here for months, not years," Blair says, adding that the operations were "going very, very well."
Beyond a military solution
Part of the reason for staying is to help rescue American couple Martin and Gracia Burnham who are still held hostage by the group.
Officials in Washington have talked of ransom negotiations, but Blair says his goal is continued military pressure on the Abu Sayyaf.
A further 340 U.S. military engineers will be arriving in the area in coming months to assist the mobility of Philippine forces on Basilan.
Blair says that other U.S. military officials are looking at the U.S. role in the Philippines to see whether it can be used effectively elsewhere.
But ultimately, he says, fighting terrorism means going beyond a purely military solution.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has linked terrorism in her nation with poverty.
To that end, Blair says, U.S. engineers have been working to improve transport conditions in Basilan based on the belief that more roads on the island will lead to less terrorism.
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