As U.S. soldiers prepare for six months of anti-terrorism exercises in the southern Philippines, the country's own troops continue to hunt Abu Sayyaf rebels hiding on Basilan Island. Philippine soldiers say poor equipment and intelligence hamper the campaign against the al-Qaida-linked gang-- problems they think the joint exercise may change.
Cabunbata scout ranger camp lies on half a hectare carved out of a rubber plantation about 10 kilometers from Basilan's capital. Huts of bamboo and hard earth serve as barracks for more than 20 soldiers. The shelters barely protect them from rain, much less an enemy attack.
Despite the camp's makeshift appearance, area residents say that until the military arrived, they were regularly threatened by Abu Sayyaf rebels.
Ignoring the razor wire fence, children from the nearby village come and go in the camp as do chickens and pigs. This is where Philippine soldiers on the frontlines of the Philippines' war against terrorism come home at end of battle.
For nearly two years, the country's military has hunted the Abu Sayyaf, a group that claims to fight for a Muslim state in the southern Philippines. It is better known, however, for kidnappings and brutal killings. Among its current hostages are an American couple and a Philippine nurse, kidnapped last year.
The military and the government say the troops are crippled by weak intelligence and antiquated combat equipment. Much of their gear dates back 30 years, to the Vietnam War.
The September 11 attacks on the United States drew world attention to the Philippines' fight against the Abu Sayyaf and other separatist groups. The Abu Sayyaf has been linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network, believed responsible for the U.S. attacks. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo staunchly backed President Bush's war on terrorism, and in return, Mr. Bush pledged more military aid to the Philippines.
The anti-terrorism exercise between U.S. and Philippine troops is part of that pledge. During the exercise, called Balikatan, troops at Cabunbata expect to learn new tactics and gain sophisticated American weaponry to help hunt the elusive group.
This ranger team leader, who asked not be named, has seen comrades fall in fighting the Abu Sayyaf. He has little hope that the Philippine government could modernize the armed forces on its own and says only the United States will be able to supply the needed equipment. "In terms of modernization," he said, "if we cannot get it from our government, it would be very good the other way. People are dying. I'm leading my troops, I don't care how I get my equipment as long as it's for my men."
The U.S. troops will train Philippine soldiers to use new night-vision goggles, global positioning devices and intelligence-gathering systems. After the exercise, the Americans will give some of the equipment to the Philippine military.
Colonel Danilo Servando is the spokesman for the southern command. He said, "The armed forces of the Philippines will definitely see some improvements in terms of our access to the modern equipment of our U.S. counterpart. So the AFP would have modernization as a result of this exercise."
However, political bickering in Manila has delayed the signing of the terms of reference agreement, the ground rules of the exercise. Some politicians and activists oppose the presence of U.S. troops in the Basilan combat zone, saying it violates the Constitution.
Although the Balikatan exercise officially began last week, it cannot get fully under way until the reference agreement is signed. Philippine officials say the document should be signed in the next few days and combat training will commence next week. In the meantime, Philippine soldiers make do with their long-tested ingenuity and what little they have.