MANILA, Philippines - Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino faced a difficult dilemma last week after the deaths of 19 soldiers in Al-Barka, Basilan. Despite the public outcry and mourning, he resisted numerous calls to declare war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and break a ceasefire that’s been in place since 2008. Mr. Aquino had to hold the military accountable. At the same time, he couldn’t tell the public about the numerous mistakes that led to the tragic deaths.
Results of a classified military investigation paint a picture of incompetence that seems hard to believe. There are conflicting statements from military officers regarding the purpose of the mission: a high-ranking officer said the troops were supposed to serve a warrant of arrest against the Abu Sayyaf’s Long Malat Solaiman. Army spokesmen, however, have publicly stated their goal was to serve a warrant of arrest against the MILF’s Commander Dan Laksaw Asnawi, who was involved in the beheadings of soldiers in 2007. However, these statements do not explain why combat troops are involved in a police task.
According to a classified report, details of which were confirmed by military officers familiar with the investigation, the battle between the military and the Abu Sayyaf began less than 2 km away from a designated safe zone called the Area of Temporary Stay (ATS) of the MILF’s 114th Base Command. The battle lasted ten hours and moved 4.3 km away from the ATS, disproving the MILF’s claims that soldiers violated the ceasefire rules.
In the first two hours, the report said the troops “were in control of the situation” until reinforcements from “the MILF ATS, MNLF community and ASG stronghold” arrived on motorcycles.
It deteriorated rapidly from that point on because of several fatal mistakes:
• The operations were “planned unilaterally” by Lt. Col. Leo Pena, commander of the 4th Special Forces Batallion. According to another classified document, there was “little coordination” with the 13th Special Forces Command as well as the students of Scuba Class Nr 42. This is important because it meant troops who may have helped in the battle were unprepared. Sources say Pena is a bright, ambitious young officer.
• This is the first time many of these soldiers fought in Basilan. Many of them had no combat experience. It was positioned as a training exercise for the students of Scuba Class Nr 42. This is also the first time the 4th Special Forces Batallion fought as a territorial unit.
This partly explains why the troops underestimated their enemy. They were unaware of two common practices Basilan veterans would have anticipated. The first is “Pasa Bilis” – the area’s quick information dissemination. As soldiers move, members of the community sympathetic to the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF text their location and other information. The second is known as “Pintakasi” – when civilians join the fight against a common enemy - the military. One intelligence source said, “this is our version of Black Hawk Down.”
• After “more than 8 hours of continuous fighting,” 4 of the 6 officers were killed. Most of the remaining soldiers were young and inexperienced, with the rank of Private First Class (PFC).
• The 9th Field Artillery Battalion “responded late and failed to hit the target” while air support “arrived almost six hours late.”
• The soldiers had no help. There were no reinforcements. During the planning phase, members of the 13th Special Forces Command asked for more troops, but that was denied “because of the nature of the operation that is Special Reconnaissance Direct Action (SRDA) Exercise through water infiltration.”
The classified report concluded that “SRDA type of operation is not suitable” for Basilan’s terrain and enemy conditions, and that “the exercises should have been done in a controlled situation.”
This is the 6th battle between the military and the Abu Sayyaf/MILF since January 2011.
The report concludes “there is strong indication that Al-Barka residents are peripheral members of the rebels, as seen from the quick reinforcements of rebel support at the encounter sites.”
So who is to blame?
Lt. Col. Leo Pena, the young officer who pushed and planned the operation, was relieved of his command, but senior military officers say he couldn’t have acted on his own.
The head of Special Operations Task Force-Basilan (SOTF-B), Col. Alexander Macario claims he was bypassed in the planning although he was “informed of the operations after troops were already prepositioned in the rear.” He said Pena “was under pressure by some officers more senior than me.”
Macario is a highly decorated combat officer, who planned and headed 22 successful operations in Basilan in the past 7 months. Under his watch, he centralized mission planning and carried them all out successfully – except this last one. Reports said Macario was relieved of his command last Friday, but he said “hindi ko matanggap na operational lapses” (I couldn’t accept I had operational lapses). Macario told me he took full responsibility for the deaths of 19 soldiers (as the officer in charge) and volunteered for court martial proceedings so he could defend himself.
Macario is certainly aware of the dangers in Basilan. In an interview last March, he admitted “may collusion iyong tatlong grupo [ASG, MNLF, MILF]. Iyong ASG pupunta sa MILF. Tutulong. (tr. There’s collusion between the three groups [ASG, MNLF, MILF]. The ASG runs to the MILF, who helps them.)
The military claims that of the 19 soldiers killed in Al-Barka, six were captured alive and later shot and hacked to death by the MILF, which the MILF denies.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front claims the soldiers were battle casualties after the military attacked them in the designated safe zone. The classified military report debunked that. Officers said it was the MILF who violated the rules by helping lawless elements like the Abu Sayyaf.
“We are bent on running after these lawless elements,” said Maj. Gen. Francisco Cruz, Deputy AFP Chief of Staff for Intelligence. “If the MILF were to obstruct this, then we would consider that a criminal offense.”
On Monday, Mr. Aquino maintained a delicate balance: he said he would continue the ceasefire and talks with the MILF, but arrest criminals, including those from the MILF.
“It is so easy, out of frustration, to close the door on negotiations at this time,” he said. “If we go down this path, more innocent civilians will be put in harm’s way. We will not pursue all-out war. We will instead pursue all-out justice.”
Partly to assuage the military, Mr. Aquino authorized air strikes in areas where the Abu Sayyaf and other “lawless elements” operate and warned the MILF against protecting them.
Sources close to Mr. Aquino said he was deeply disappointed by the military’s shortcomings. He said the calls for war come “from those who do not have a full awareness of all the factors at play.”