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Mamasapano: The Fallen 44

By today, the 10th of February 2015, much has already been said and written about the tragic event that occurred in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on January 25, 2015 involving the massacre of 44 elite policemen from the PNP Special Action Force by combined forces from the MILF, BIFF, and reportedly even individuals from ‘private armies’. In fact, the ‘fallen 64’ is probably more accurate an identification as twenty other non-policemen (guides, informants) also died from that encounter.

I will no longer repeat here the facts of the case as they are already well-known to most of us who have been following the case. I will, however, use these facts as far as they are made known publicly to support my analysis of the case which is the intent of this article.

There have been many more questions than answers. What really happened? Why? Who did what? Where? When? How? The classic investigative questions! In my attempt to answer these questions, I raise the following points and I will progress my analysis regressively from the tactical to the strategic:

One, although secrecy and the element of surprise were key to mission success the haste with which the operation was planned and executed led to reckless assumptions which furthermore increased the odds to an already high-risk venture. Assumption 1: 392 is already a sizable force and was enough to get the job done; which led to Assumption 2: Therefore, there is no need to coordinate support from the Philippine Army (6ID was closest to the area of operation) or other nearby friendly forces; because Assumption 3: Either these friendly forces cannot be trusted not to leak out internal communication and thereby compromise operational success (relieved SAF commander Getulio Napeñas said Mamasapano or Oplan Wolverine was already the 8th operation they launched to apprehend Marwan since December 2010) or the SAF wanted credit if the operation succeeded all to itself; Assumption 4: SAF thought it could get in and get out before daybreak which did not happen as the exiting assault force of 41 men (84th SAC) and blocking force of 36 commandos (55th SAC) at the break of dawn became visible to the enemy and fired upon from concealed positions on high ground at the nearby cornfields and from across the river on the other side. Assumption 5: Too much focus was given to ‘neutralizing’ Marwan and Usman, which was really the objective, but not enough estimate of the situation was given to extricating from long unfamiliar terrain on foot. Assumption 6: The MILF would not attack due to a ceasefire agreement with the GRP relative to the ongoing negotiations toward a Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). What about the BIFF? As it turned out, even the MILF attacked SAF, claiming misencounter due to lack of coordination.

Two, SAF commander Napeñas initially claimed that they were not reinforced by nearby friendly forces. But now we know that this is not entirely accurate. First, if there were 392 commandos involved in ‘Wolverine’ where were the other 315 commandos as only 77 from 84 SAC and 55 SAC were engaged? Troops from the Army’s 6ID said they saw SAF elements equivalent to two companies in mid-morning merely standing by along the highway who were not able to reinforce their hapless comrades only a few kilometers inland. Second, 6ID did reinforce the SAF but could not do much as the lack of prior coordination prevented any significant benefit to SAF at that point. For instance, the radio frequencies of SAF and 6ID were different. SAF could not pinpoint the grid coordinates of its beleaguered troops on the map. No white phosphorus smoke to mark the area where friendly forces were was ignited rendering artillery fire support inutile. SAF did not avail of 6ID’s assets who knew the terrain well. Third, Napeñas would have had a point in crying lack of reinforcement if he was referring to a more robust kind of reinforcement that only the president could provide. But here is where the plot thickens because Napeñas and PNoy were at odds at this point. Napenas was relieved of his command by PNoy for allegedly not following his order to coordinate with the AFP. But Napeñas did not follow PNoy, if indeed he gave that order, because Napeñas followed suspended PNP chief Alan Purisima instead who gave another order for Napeñas to inform PNP OIC Espina only once they have already taken Marwan into their custody (or had him neutralized). PNoy already contradicted his decision not to authorize all-out reinforcement for fear of violating the BBL’s prospects when he said that he instructed Napeñas to coordinate with the AFP.

Three, even if it was indeed Marwan who was killed by the SAF (reportedly confirmed by the FBI through DNA testing) the price came too high in terms of loss of lives since it was an operation that could have been done better to prevent the slaughter which now goes down in SAF’s history as its worst thus far. It is only so unfortunate that it is the SAF troopers on the ground, who got sacrificed due to strategic lapses by their bosses. Some observers go as far as saying that the bosses betrayed their people on the ground. What are these observed lapses?

First, the chain of command was bypassed. DILG secretary Mar Roxas and PNP OIC Leonardo Espina were clueless about the operation however significant it was. And it appears the president himself allowed the bypass because it was him (out of Zamboanga) and suspended PNP chief Purisima (remotely from Camp Crame) who called the shots of the operation while Napeñas merely executed their orders and instructions. Even DND secretary Voltaire Gazmin and AFP chief Gen Gregorio Catapang seemed out of the loop until after the fact. This violation of the chain of command effectively sealed the lack of tangible support from both the PNP and the AFP. It was as if PNoy and Purisima wanted all the credit just for themselves (if it succeeded) but, as we later saw, none of the responsibility and accountability once it did not. We have seen all these: the lack of presence to welcome the bodies of the fallen at Villamor Air Base, the lack of empathy at the wake, and the all too obvious absence of Purisima from it all up to this writing.

Second, if the BBL is all too important why did the president risk its success by authorizing a surgical operation to get a high-profile terrorist deep into MILF and BIFF territories? Couldn’t he wait? What actually happened raises two points.

One, the owners of the operation assumed that the MILF would not mind the operation, respect the ongoing ceasefire, and even control the BIFF due to their desire to have the BBL enacted. If they assumed these, they really played with the lives of the SAF troopers because it betrays total ignorance of the realities on the ground and their selfishness to accomplish a delicate mission at all costs including unnecessary loss of lives and endangering ongoing talks for a lasting peace.

Two, the owners of the operation only had a Plan A but not a Plan B because, seen against the backdrop of the BBL, there was none. Which could mean that the SAF was made to believe that there was a Plan B (reinforcement); otherwise, not even SAF would go in knowing that it was a suicide mission. Not even Napeñas would approve of such a suicide mission if it was one. His frantic calls for reinforcement from whoever would listen in the early until late morning of January 25th betray this. In fact, even the 315 reserve commandos on the highway did not want to enter the marshes if only to reinforce their beleaguered comrades-in-arms. They were not ready for it. They expected reinforcements. In fact, they probably knew deep in their hearts that reinforcements would come. That they were not the reinforcements! How could they be? They did not have the armor assets to penetrate enemy-infested territory whose terrain they knew not well! They did not have the air assets which would rain fire on enemy forces surrounding their hapless comrades! They did not have the mortar and artillery fire support that would disperse the enemy from far away even before the infantry would close in to finish them off! But the AFP did! And it would only take PNoy to give the order and all hell would break loose upon the enemy! And their comrades would be saved and not run out of bullets!

After all, PNoy had been with them calling the shots from nearby Zamboanga and had in fact been ready to receive them – his victorious troops who will have captured or killed the Osama bin Laden of Asia on his orders and orchestrated by his favorite general who now would have to be reinstated due to his enormous feat! And wait! There is the matter of the USD 5 million reward money that would have been the icing on the cake! Wait, there’s more! Since PNoy not only single-handedly dealt the Asian Osama bin Laden a mortal blow but also orchestrated a BBL that would solve the Moro problem in Mindanao once and for all, nominating PNoy for the Nobel Peace Prize only sounds logical, isn’t it? Who knows, he may even beat the Pope to it! But, all was not meant to be. Because all were written with the blood of the innocent!

The martyrs have resurrected the image of the PNP toward a new beginning. They have also confirmed a people’s disdain for a leader who by his words and actions betrayed where his true color lies by the way he treated those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for him. So, hopefully for the nation too! The Fallen 44 (or 64) have won.