AFP chief: 'Illogical' to go back to war with MILF

MANILA, Philippines – Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr shot down calls for an all-out-war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), underscoring a non-military approach in achieving peace in war-torn Mindanao communities.

"We don't want to repeat history. Going back to war with the MILF is quite absurd. It's illogical. It's unlawful, maybe," Catapang told Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa on Rappler Talk on Thursday, March 5. (WATCH the entire interview: Rappler Talk: Moving on after Mamasapano)

He added:  "Here are people asking for peace and then all of a sudden you tell them, 'No, let's just go to war to finish all these things.' Maybe it's unconstitutional that we do not want to give the peace that these people are asking from us." 

The MILF agreed to talk peace in favor of wider autonomy for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – a product of the 1996 peace deal between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

The MILF broke away from the MNLF in 1976 as it opposed peace negotiations with the government and wanted an independent Bangsamoro Islamic state at the time. It has now become the dominant Muslim rebel group.

Peace negotiations with the MILF gained traction with the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro on March 27, 2014; Malacañang submitted the draft Bangsamo Basic Law to Congress 6 months later.

The incident in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, on January 25, where 44 elite cops were killed in clashes with Moro rebel forces, along with 18 MILF fighters and 3 civilians, has led to widespread distrust in the MILF.

It happened at a crucial phase of the peace process when Malacañang was hoping that Congress would pass the Bangsamoro law before Congress adjourns on March 21.

The new target is June 30, although tough opposition is expected from lawmakers, who are seeking substantial amendments in the proposed measure.

'We have to pass BBL'

It's a race against time. Malacañang and the MILF are hoping to enact the law before President Benigno Aquino III steps down on June 30, 2016, and elect the new Bangsamoro entity that will replace the ARMM during the 2016 national elections. 

Catapang said the government cannot abandon the BBL and remained  hopeful that it will pass in the current 16th Congress. In the worst-case-scenario that it is thumbed down, Catapang said the next administration should pursue it. 

"We just have to ask for the extension of the ceasefire agreement and then pass another law. Revise the law or improve the law. We cannot go on saying this will not pass. We have to pass it no matter how difficult the [process] it will have to go through," Catapang said.

ISIS or peace process?

In a forum on Wednesday, March 5, former AFP chief retired General Emmanuel Bautista also warned of the dangers of a collapsed peace process.

Bautista said it could make Mindanao the destination for ISIS terrorists the same way Zulkifli bin Hir or Marwan and others had taken refuge there. The MILF maintained it was the MILF breakaway group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) that coddled Marwan. 

The BIFF broke off from the MILF as it is opposed to the peace process. Military officers recognize the new splinter group cannot be allowed to grow the way the MILF did after it split from the MNLF. (READ: Real peace means the guns will have to go away)

The military, which was engaged in a decade-long war with the MILF until a ceasefire agreement was reached during the Arroyo administration,  is the biggest supporter of the peace process.

Catapang laments what he called "emotional" calls for the military to swoop in on the MILF to avenge the death of the SAF commandos. 

"It's easy to call for war. I hope they'll be the first one to be willing to be called into active duty. If they want war, they should be the first ones to volunteer to be in the front lines. Maybe they'll know what kind of war they're talking about," he said.

The military maintained the SAF operation involved strategic, operational, and tactical lapses. The cops killed top Marwan but 44 of the 78 who joined the operation were killed when MILF fighters and other armed groups in the area engaged the "intruders" pintakasi (free-for-all) style.

The MILF maintained that it was a "misencounter," and blamed the failure of the SAF to coordinate the operation and use the ceasefire mechanism that should have required the MILF to order its men to stand down while security forces conduct law enforcement operations.

The SAF, however, prioritized "operational security" and kept the operation a secret even from the military over fears that Marwan will be tipped off and would be able to escape like he did in past operations.

Sacked SAF commander Director Getulio Napeñas openly blamed the military for its failure to fire artillery support that he believed could have saved his men. The military said it cannot blindly fire its cannons because civilians could be hit.

Forbidden area

What turned out be the bloodiest one-day security operation in the country's recent history brought public attention to the brutality of war that security forces have long been fighting in Mindanao.

"These things have been happening for the longest time, even during the 70s. People have difficulty understanding this kind of war," said Catapang.

Mamasapano is considered an area of the military because of the presence of various armed groups. Aside from least 3 MILF base commands, there are also the BIFF and other private armed groups maintained by politicians. It is a "forbidden area" that the military only previously entered with overwhelming force. 

"In Mamasapano, the situation is quite difficult because their relatives, their friends are part of the MILF and they're part of BIFF. There's a new strategy that we have to look into to address the situation in Mamasapano," Catapang said. 

It is located Maguindanao, the same province where one of the world's worst cases of election-related violence happened – the ambush of 58 people, many of them journalists, in a plot by the then ruling Ampatuan clan to derail the gubernatorial candidacy of rival Esmael Mangudadatu for the 2010 May elections.

After the January 25 tragedy, the military sought the cooperation of the MILF in its all-out offensive against the BIFF in Mamasapano and neighboring towns. – Rappler.com