Pursuing terrorists and pursuing peace

Two state functions were at play in the Jan. 25 Mamasapano incident: the pursuit of terrorists and the pursuit of peace. The first is a strictly police function, governed by its own operational code. The other is political, involving the pursuit of a delicate government policy.

These two functions collided with one another at Mamasapano, resulting in a double fiasco for the government.

The lightning raid led by the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force triggered a clash with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels and other armed groups in the area, leading to the loss of many lives, including those of 44 police officers, 18 MILF combatants, and a couple of civilians. The gun battle, which ran for about 11 hours, could have escalated into a full-blown war had the soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, who were stationed nearby, joined the fray. The restraint they showed is now being portrayed as a refusal to respond to their uniformed comrades’ urgent plea for help.

At once, we get an idea of what might have happened here. Since President Aquino knew of the operation to get targets Marwan and Usman, we may assume that he was fully aware not only of the risks to the SAF commandos, but also of the possible complications it could pose to the peace process. In approving the operation, he must have laid down the general parameters under which it was to be carried out.

Understandably, after authorizing the operation, the President would have left the tactical details to the SAF commander and his men. He has since expressed his great disappointment over the outcome. “I’ll carry this tragedy to the end of my days,” he told the nation the other night. The President alluded to three instances in which “situational changes” on the ground could have prompted altering the original plan, or aborting it altogether. “How and why did it happen that there was no coordination?  Why did the mission continue, when it had deviated so far from the original plan, and our troops were already in grave danger?”

It is interesting to hear this from the President. It suggests that he knew that fatal blunders had been committed, and—if he was being informed about what was happening on the ground, as he seemed to be—he had no desire to compound them. His foremost concern was to safely extricate the SAF commandos who were trapped. And so, rather than deploy more troops into the area to engage the rebels, he might have ordered the reinforcements to stand down—in order to save the peace process. This meant activating the ceasefire mechanism and asking the MILF to restrain its men.  Unfortunately, it took many hours before the MILF rebels would stop firing. During those crucial moments, the horrible impression that was conveyed was that the government had abandoned its men.

In societies like ours where civilian authority is supreme, political leaders make the key decisions that shape the use of the armed forces, leaving the actual execution of the military and police function to the commanders. Sometimes, police and military operations have to be carried out under delicate political circumstances.  This imposes extraordinary constraints on those assigned to conduct them. The operation to get Marwan and Usman is one example.

It bears close similarities to the CIA-led “Operation Neptune Spear” that targeted Osama bin Laden. In a lightning raid conducted on
May 2, 2011, inside a mountain resort in Pakistan, US Navy SEALs entered the compound where Bin Laden was staying and killed him, carting off his corpse with them. US President Barack Obama and members of his Cabinet monitored the operation by remote video in real time. They were aware that US forces had entered the territory of Pakistan, a sovereign nation, without permission. They had not coordinated with the Pakistani military, suspecting that some of its leaders were coddling Bin Laden.  In authorizing the raid, Obama took a calculated risk. Had things gone wrong, the United States would have found itself in an embarrassing diplomatic situation, and the Navy SEALs would have been left on their own. Instead, it was Pakistan that found itself on the defensive.

If Marwan and Usman had been captured or killed without further loss of lives, the same celebratory mood would have greeted the returning SAF commandos. The MILF would not have been able to complain about unannounced police intrusion into its communities. The then suspended PNP chief, Alan Purisima, would have been hailed a genius and a patriot, and quietly restored to his post. P-Noy would have been praised for his wisdom and audacity.  And, with this added boost, he would have been able to smoothly steer the Bangsamoro Basic Law to its passage.

But, things went the other way. The Mamasapano operation was hemmed in by so many political constraints that it would have been impossible to carry it out at all without overstepping these conditions. Not the least of these was the fact that the government was locked in an agreement to maintain the peace with the MILF rebels. And so, when they got stuck in a rebel stronghold after carrying out their mission, the SAF assault and blocking teams were basically on their own. The decision to use the military to reinforce them would have required the approval of the country’s political leaders, and this would have meant enlarging the scope of the operation.

Those who think they can draw a clear line between the state’s law enforcement duties from its peacemaking initiatives in Mindanao ignore the complex intertwining of these two functions. The tragic outcome of the Jan. 25 SAF operation shows how costly this could be.

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