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US-Funded Water, Roads, Schools Helping Philippines in War on Terror

Winning without fighting is not a term you often hear in the war on terror. But U.S. soldiers, along with their Philippine counterparts, are putting this philosophy to work on the remote island of Jolo in the southern Philippines. Transportation, education and health projects supported by the United States are making dramatic changes in areas where armed conflict with Islamic militants not long ago raged. Douglas Bakshian visited Jolo for a first-hand look.

Waging peace is a major undertaking on Jolo, where gaining the goodwill of the people is as important as military victories.

This impoverished island, long neglected by national and local governments with limited means, is getting an overhaul from the U.S. military working with aid agencies and the Philippine armed forces.

In Patikul, once an area of bloody fighting with guerrillas of the Abu Sayyaf group, a large orange water tank appears in the jungle. It is part of a water distribution network built by U.S. and Philippine troops. Now, about 5,000 residents have fresh water within about 50 meters of their homes, instead of having to carry supplies up to 500 meters.

Teacher Jenny Jumlani, at Patikul national high school, says the projects have changed people's lives.

"It helps a lot because they don't need to go to a place where they are getting water, they just get it here," she said. "This is the help of our vice governor and also the American people like you. They also gave us one classroom."

Not only is Jolo one of the poorest areas of the Philippines, it has been a central battleground in the country's three-decade fight against Islamic separatists.

In the past decade, the Manila government has achieved a degree of peace in the south through negotiations with two main rebel organizations, but a group known as the Abu Sayyaf remains a threat on Jolo and islands nearby.

The group says it is fighting to create a homeland for the Muslim minority in the mostly Christian nation, but it is most famous for several brutal kidnappings for ransom and deadly bombings.

U.S. troops arrived here in 2002 to train Philippine soldiers fighting the Abu Sayyaf and to provide them intelligence. The American's job has expanded to include development projects - a tactic that helped bring peace to nearby Basilan island a few years ago.

The programs go beyond building schools and water systems. Jolo residents are also getting a taste of high technology, with computers provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development. At the Panamao national high school, 15-year-old Mersatra Abdulbeser is learning to use the computers.

She says computers are important because they make it easy to communicate with other people and to educate them. She wants to be a nurse and work in Saudi Arabia because it pays well.

Even critics of the U.S. military presence on Jolo offer grudging respect for the projects. Abdel Khan, a 24-year-old graduate of the school of Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines, says he would like to see all Philippine and U.S. troops leave Jolo. However, he says the Americans have helped the island.

"It's good. Materially we benefited from such projects. It's good for Jolo," he said.

Providing services is not just a hit and run affair. Those familiar with such U.S. aid projects say they can tend to run down over time if local authorities do not maintain them.

To avoid that problem, there is a monitoring system to assure that services are sustained. U.S. Army Major Jose Melgarego keeps watch over more than 150 U.S-sponsored projects.

"I just want to make sure that they are on track, that they have been completed and that all the necessary steps are taken to make sure that these projects come to fruition," he said.

The U.S. military also operates mobile medical and dental clinics, providing basic care and medications that most of Jolo's poor cannot afford to buy.

The Philippine military works side by side with the U.S. troops in these projects. Philippine Marine General Juancho Sabban says military action alone is not enough in the war on terror.

"It is addressing the underlying conditions of terrorism. If you show people that you have concern for them, they will listen to you and they will also react towards the direction that you want them to go to," he said. "And you are offering a better life than the offer that the terrorists are trying to give them…. So this is actually winning without fighting."

The use of low-cost, high-impact projects is making a difference on Jolo. Island officials say violent crime has dropped as much as 80 percent in the past few years.

Captain Ian Berg, of the U.S. Army Special Forces, says the relationship between development and peace is clear.

"I think the people just want stability," he said. "The economy is a huge thing. You'll notice one thing about this island. That the places that have the most development are the places that are the least violent."

Residents say that as aid projects have been completed, in some parts of Jolo, water faucets have replaced the barrel of a gun in bringing peace.