First of two parts
LIKE the proverbial angel that held the hand of Abraham as he was about to strike his son Isaac with his sword, somebody up there held the hand of the AFP that prevented it to use its might to crush insurgent forces who were overwhelming the small detachment of PNP special forces. They were roaming freely, shouting “Allah Akbar” ISIS style, in the cornfield battleground of Mamasapano, as they executed one by one the SAF members lying critically wounded on the ground. This scene made grizzled PNP brass weep unashamedly before a congressional investigating committee.
Operations plan discarded
Verily, a word or SMS message or a phone call from the Commander-in-Chief could have prevented the slaughter. Perhaps a call to the MILF leadership or a word to the Chief-of-Staff who accompanied him to Zamboanga for the deployment of armed forces asset and hardware – howitzers, mortars and helicopter gunships would have scared the wits out of the enemy and saved lives. But this never occurred. What is curious is the fact that Oplan Exodus, which adopted the time-on-target mode or TOT–a military buzzword referring to the coordination of artillery fire by many weaponry from land, sea and air at the same time at a specific target identified by the ground commander–was never followed despite frantic messages from Gen. Napeñas to Chief-of-Staff Gen. Catapang who simply and cavalierly dismissed the message for, in his own words, “lacking a sense of urgency and posing a threat of disrupting the peace process.”
To us this amounts to a serious dereliction of duty made even more grave by the fact that it caused the lives of no less than 44 SAF members who were just doing their job.
On the part of the other commanders, specifically Gen. Pangilinan, who decided on his own, by his own admission, not to lob artillery shells on enemy positions with the excuse that he was not furnished coordinates and this may have caused collateral damage clearly departed from the time-on target plan apparently approved earlier by the President himself and again on January 9.
Pangilinan’s assertion that even if ordered by the Commander–in-Chief, he would not have obeyed the order to use artillery — would appear to us as tantamount to gross insubordination worthy of court martial proceedings. The same penalty could be meted to the other dramatis personae in Zamboanga who failed to inform the Commander-in-Chief of the on-going massacre in Mamasapano until much later. Assuming this to be the case, we say this because we are morally convinced that the Commander-in-Chief was immediately informed about the take-out of the terrorist and the massacre that closely followed after “bingo” – the codeword used to indicate the success of the mission–very early in the morning of Sunday.
The President himself in a speech or two admitted having keen interest and knowledge of the operation. It defies human logic that Aquino and the country’s topmost security officials who were with him–the Defense secretary, the DILG secretary and the AFP chief of staff– did not care enough to discuss how they could change the fate of the surrounded PNP-SAF men and came to talk about the subject only in the evening!
Given the facts above, the Commander-in-Chief can therefore be faulted for not ordering the robust intervention of the forces under his command to carry out the protocol of the time-on-target operations such as the immediate use of artillery fire and an aerial assault on enemy positions when the firefight broke out. Indeed at that time it was his call to order the attack. Alternatively he could have ordered his subalterns to do so. Either way he must take responsibility for the fiasco.
As the operation played out, it appears that the President had become like Nero, who played his lyre as Rome burned. This is reminiscent of the botched Luneta hostage-taking tragedy. Aquino and his assistants were enjoying a hearty Chinese lauriat as the Hong Kong tourists were massacred in their bus at the grandstand.
Why the stand-down order?
The big wonder of it all as discussed above is why the President who admitted that he had been informed of the debacle very early in the day did not lift a finger to stop the slaughter until very late in the day when he ordered his seemingly reluctant field commanders to use their best efforts to extricate the remaining beleaguered SAF forces.
Why were the commanders so reluctant to deploy their assets at such a critical time? Their excuses were lame to say the least. Chief-of -Staff Gen. Catapang (who showed little “katapangan”) rationalized that the deployment of superior force might be construed by the MILF as an act of war which could have broken the peace process. Really now!
The other commander General Pangilinan reasoned that to lob shells into the battlefront without exact knowledge of the position of both camps could have caused friendly fire and cause civilian casualties. Wow! I would have believed him more if he was talking about lobbing bombs inside a boxing ring. Moreover he was already given the coordinates by the PNP-SAF commander.
My take given the above data is that these were not judgement calls by field commanders. Rather that these were instructions from above. The net result was to sacrifice the lives of 44 brave SAF members on the altar of an ephemeral and illusory peace process – a figment of the imagination of the peace panelists.
For truly the peace process given all the incidents since it was conceived years ago has never really held if one considers all the kidnappings, sporadic bombings and incidents like the Al Barqa ambush by MILF warriors which caused the lives of some twenty marines, some of whom were beheaded.
Former Ambassador Jose Romero is a founding member of PAFI and the president of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations
Part 2 “The Historical Context” will appear in the PAFI Ambassadors’ Corner column next Saturday, March 7.