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Why are American troops active in the Philippines?

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Let's play trivia. Outside of Afghanistan and U.S. airports, where is the largest U.S. anti-terror operation currently taking place? Here are some hints: Imelda Marcos, shoes, Asians with Spanish names.

The Philippines! That's right!

The United States has about 1,200 troops in the Philippines right now -- all on a mission to help train the Filipino military to improve the effectiveness of its operations against Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim terrorist/ separatist group. Abu Sayyaf is the ass-end of a movement whose roots date back to 1521. That's when Ferdinand Magellan, on a world shopping spree for his government, claimed the Philippines for Spain. For the next 377 years, Spain controlled the Philippines, introducing the Spanish language and Catholicism (Filipinos, meet Catholicism; Catholicism, meet the Filipinos). That's why the Filipinos have Spanish names and are now 92 percent Christian (83 percent of those Catholic, the other 9 percent Protestant). The Philippines is the only majority Christian nation in south Asia.

Unaware of how Latin superstars like Ricky Martin and Benicio Del Toro would transform Latino culture into the hippest thing going, many Muslims in the Southern Philippines foolishly resisted Hispanicization for centuries. By the 1960s, with more Christian Filipinos settling in areas of the southern Philippines that were formerly majority Muslim, Muslim resistance to outside cultural incursions began to take the form of a separatist movement. Guns were purchased. Bumper stickers with catchy slogans were printed (and affixed to donkeys). Camouflage was donned. Berets were tilted jauntily to the side.

Our troops in the Philippines are there, thus far, as trainers and engineers. The trainers make the Filipino forces do push-ups, sit-ups and sing potty-mouthed call-and-response rhymes when they march. According to the New York Times, our efforts also include fitting up to one-third of the Filipino soldiers we're training with eyeglasses.

Our government likes to describe the mission's goal as destroying terrorist "breeding grounds." That always makes me imagine Green Berets going door-to-door and encouraging Filipinos to make sure their back yards are free of old tires and standing water so that terrorists have no place to lay their eggs.

As I mentioned earlier, the main target of all of this effort is Abu Sayyaf. The name supposedly means sword of god, which is almost enough of a reason by itself to want to destroy them. It was founded in the 1990s by people who saw the other main Muslim separatist groups in the Philippines as too secular. Abu Sayyaf's leaders include Abu Sabaya, Khadaffy Janjalani and (this is not a joke) Commander Robot. Supposedly, they also have ties to al-Qaeda.

The group's "liberation" efforts have included pro-freedom acts like kidnapping and beheading foreigners, and burning cities. Because of the huge ransom payments they've received over the years, Abu Sayyaf is well equipped with guns, rocket launchers, communications gear and even speedboats.

Perhaps taking into account how effective it was in capturing bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the U.S. has offered a $5 million bounty for Abu Sayyaf's leaders.

Clearly, helping the Philippines put down the rebellion is good for them and for us. It's good for Filipinos because they'd be better off without gun-crazed Islamic fascists. It's good for us because it furthers our goal of squashing international terror while potentially putting us back in the good graces of Filipinos who kicked us out of our two large military bases a decade or so ago. We like having military bases in as many places as we can, but we have to be bit subtler about it than Magellan was.

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