IN the fog of war in Marawi, I thought it prudent to hold back on any conclusions while our military commanders and political leaders are contradicting each other and confusing the situation with their statements.
First, I was transfixed by a statement attributed to AFP officials and released on June 27 that said time is running out for the remaining Islamic State (IS)-inspired terrorists holding out in Marawi and that victory for the government forces is now irreversible, the military is now making a final push against the terrorists’ remaining pockets of resistance.
Then I was discombobulated by a statement from Malacañang and Camp Aguinaldo that said the war could go on up to the delivery of the President’s second state of the nation address (SONA) on July 24.
Situation desperate for Maute
Western Mindanao Command chief, Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, Jr., provided the most arresting description of the situation of the Maute rebels. He said: “Some of the terrorists do not want to fight any more, as is made apparent by a leadership vacuum and the use of human shields.
“The situation has become so desperate for the IS sympathizers that those who quit the fight are being executed by hardcore terrorists, according to reports reaching the military.”
AFP public affairs chief Col. Edgar Arevalo joined him with a statement saying: “With the focusing of the military’s combat power, more and more defense positions of the Islamist group are being neutralized as fighting in Marawi City reaches its sixth week.”
From this, I said to myself, we are witnessing now the endgame of the Battle of Marawi. I got so carried away by the allusion to chess, I started thinking of writing a column entitled, “Maute checkmate” (the half-rhyme between the two words is beguiling), but then what followed discombobulated me.
Maute still strong
AT a conference in Malacañang on June 27 attended by top government leaders and military officials, President Duterte issued an open-ended assessment of the battle in Marawi.
He said he knew that the government was in for a long fight when he declared martial law in Mindanao. “I knew how long it would take for us. I knew their deployment of snipers and where they had hidden their firearms. I already had a complete picture and I knew it would be a long fight.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana chimed in with an even more elastic assessment of the situation by expressing the hope that the fighting in Marawi will end before the President delivers his second SONA on July 24.
Said he: “There is somehow pressure, because if [the conflict in Marawi is still ongoing and everyone is killing each other, it will not be good for the President’s SONA.”
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, Jr. said the war could last longer while other officials said it was nearing its end.
“These Maute members, as we observed them, they are willing to fight to the death but we always tell them since we have a bullhorn there, to go down and surrender, you cannot win, but they still continue to fight,” Padilla said.
Lorenzana punctuated the flood of words with a statement saying that the Maute group remains strong despite more than a month of fierce fighting.
I thought at first that this was a case of civilian leaders being confused about conditions on the ground and the balance of forces. But the most confusing words were emanating from men in uniform and the defense secretary himself.
There is no difference in perspective. There is unanimity in the confusion.
Government forces are winning
That said, I will venture to write here that we are now witnessing the endgame in the battle of Marawi. And I will go farther to assert that government forces are winning the war.
In the game of chess, the endgame is the closing stage of a game, in which only a few pieces are left on the board.
The contest can still go on fiercely at this stage. But normally, this is the point where the winner and the loser go their separate ways. This comes when the position becomes untenable for one player, and the forces of the other have become so overwhelming that further resistance is futile. The losing player’s king is under direct attack from which it cannot escape.
In formal chess, most players resign an inevitably lost game before being checkmated. It is usually considered bad etiquette to continue playing a completely hopeless position.
The situation of the Maute Group in Marawi is analogous to a losing player’s position in chess. It has lost 300 of its fighters in battle, many of them foreign fighters. Defeat is now inevitable. Some can hide in the ground like Saddam Hussein did. The question is, will Maute for the sake of etiquette surrender?
This I strongly doubt. For this is the point where the ultimacy of faith and ideology comes in. The serious radical Islamist will not hesitate a moment in giving up his life to meet his Maker. Etiquette be damned.
Thorny questions await
There are many questions that government policymakers and military strategists must face in the resolution of the crisis in Marawi.
Government officials have tried to finesse the thorny questions by turning the discussion quickly to the rehabilitation of Marawi. They have talked about the possible establishment of a rehabilitation commission to handle the task.
They cannot get off that easy. There are serious questions to address and answer, among which are the extent of foreign involvement in the war, the stake of the world in the outcome, and the war’s impact on the peace process in Mindanao and the proposed Bangsamoro autonomous government.
There is a saying that wars are always clarifying. Government no less than the citizenry must set about now to understand what this costly Maute rebellion has clarified for the Filipino nation.
I shall discuss these questions and issues in my next column.