Sunday, August 12, 2007

The war is real, the leadership is not

The death of 14 Marines –10 of them beheaded –in an ambush in Basilan last month, and the death of another 26 soldiers in two encounters with Moro rebels in Sulu last week are just too much to be treated simply as the unfortunate result of some tactical errors. Something completely unacceptable and stupid is happening in Mindanao, and our troops are paying with their dear lives. But no one is being held to account for it.

The nation deserves to know why the air cover in Basilan was pulled out; why the planes had to drop their bombs at sea rather than on the intended targets; and why there was no counter-attack. Without claiming any expertise in military affairs, we must reject the statement from the military high command that “persuasion flights” were sufficient in Basilan, and that dropping the bombs at sea rather than on their specific targets was part of the “persuasion flights.”

Some years ago, one famous persuasion flight stopped one daring coup attempt against President Cory Aquino. But it could not have prevented, and it did not prevent, Moro rebels from shooting the Marines and beheading 10 of them in Tipo Tipo. Dropping the bombs at sea could not have been part of the “persuasion flights” at all: the planes had to drop those bombs at sea, to avoid any possible accident upon landing at base.

The government turned tragedy into farce when it gave the Moro Islamic Liberation Front an ultimatum to surrender those who had beheaded the Marines, then allowed the deadline to lapse without waging the action they had threatened to wage; and when President Arroyo “angrily” ordered more troops into the area only after the Sulu carnage, makng it appear that anger, rather than clear thinking, now drives the policy in Mindanao.

Indeed, the nation deserves to know whether the decision to pull out the air cover was military or political. Was it done because bombing targets in Tipo Tipo would enlarge the Mindanao ‘war’ and scuttle the protracted peace negotiations between the government and the MILF? Is there any ground to believe that some peace negotiators were, in fact, in Basilan at the time, and that they had a hand in removing the air cover?

The situation in Mindanao is not pretty nor simple. But neither is it incomprehensible. There is an ongoing MILF rebellion, which the military is trying to contain, while the government is trying to talk peace with its leaders. Both sides had agreed to a ceasefire while the talks are ongoing. This was supposed to suspend hostilities, but it was not supposed to alter the law or the rules on self-defense or physical survival. If one is attacked, he has a right and a duty to counter-attack. And that decision must be made on the ground, not in some desk in Malacanang.

Who prevented the ground commander from ordering a counter-attack? Who was responsible for the ludicrous ultimatum to the MILF to surrender those who had beheaded the Marines, or else face an all-out war ---a threat which ultimately fizzled out upon reaching the deadline?

A counter-attack would have been the most normal response to the ambush. It would have affirmed the law of self-defense, and the authority of the ground commander. A retaliatory action, on the other hand, coming after another incident, had intervened, would now be seen as a political decision that puts at risk the viability of the negotiations. It would put the politicians above the ground commander. We must all appreciate this distinction.

Ultimately, the question must be asked: who is really running the war in Mindanao? The generals or Malacanang?

From Marcos to Arroyo, every President has tried to contribute his or her own errors in Mindanao. Some of them are just more monumental than others. Marcos was the first to use arms and diplomacy, but he was presented with a Tripoli agreement that was a virtual fait accompli, at a time when he was trying to fend off the threat of an oil embargo from OPEC.

Cory Aquino made the monumental mistake of arranging for the royal return of Nur Misuari from the Middle East, where he had exiled himself, after Marcos had succeeded in reducing the Moro National Liberation Front to a mere ghost of its former self. She crowned that error by meeting with Misuari inside his own tent in Jolo, treating him as an equal, and allowing his own security personnel to frisk the President’s aides, including the Secretary of National Defense.

Fidel Ramos contributed to this error when he entered into a new agreement with Misuari, recreating an autonomous region for the MNLF, over the objections of so many Mindanaoans, and without taking into account the emerging problem of the MILF.

Joseph Ejercito Estrada tried to pulverize the MILF by taking over Camp Abubakar, despite the formal appeal of US President Clinton to give the peace process a chance, and not to launch the military offensive.

Mrs. Arroyo returned Camp Abubakar to the MILF and initiated her own negotiations with the rebels. But she also undermined her own effort by splitting the Southern Command into two separate commands: the Western Mindanao Command, based in Zamboanga and in charge of the separatist rebels, and the Eastern Mindanao Command, based in Davao and in charge of the communist rebels.

That formula has not worked. Now Mrs. Arroyo has ordered the Commanding General of the Army to move his base to Mindanao and lead the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf (suddenly it is no longer the MILF, but the Abu Sayyaf). That order has produced one headline, but no one knows if it will produce the necessary leadership. And that above all is what is needed.

The war in Mindanao is real, but the leadership on display is not. From Manila to Mindanao, the whole idea of government has become a mockery.

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