Editorial & Opinion

Reckless leadership leads to massacre

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In the aftermath of one of the worst massacres in Philippine history, questions were raised on who was responsible for the bungled police operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, which is within Muslim Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) territory.

And as the story had evolved, the massacre of 44 commandos of the elite Special Action Force (SAF) was the result of a poorly executed operation to capture Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, alias “Marwan,” a member of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah, and his Filipino henchman Abdul Basit Usman, a bomb-maker for the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

What makes the situation confusing is that the MILF and BIFF have overlapping territories, or a camp within a camp. Surmise it to say, the MILF and BIFF manage to co-exist peacefully; after all, a lot of their members are inter-related. The only difference is that BIFF wants total independence while MILF was willing to settle for autonomy. But what obfuscates the whole thing is that MILF is at peace with the government while BIFF is at war with the government. Government forces should therefore take extreme caution when entering MILF/BIFF territory. In fact, the peace accord that was signed by the Philippine government and the MILF a year ago stipulated that any military or police operation into MILF territories has to be coordinated with the MILF to avoid accidental shootouts.

It did not then come as a surprise that when 392 SAF commandos were sent last January 25 to Mamasapano to serve warrants of arrest against Marwan and Usman, all hell broke loose! According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), which has jurisdiction over the SAF, the commandos had a firefight with Marwan’s group and claimed that Marwan was killed. However, in their haste to withdraw from the scene after Marwan was terminated, they left his body behind but not before someone took a photo of him. But some people are questioning the authenticity of the photograph, which makes one wonder if the Philippine government would claim the $5 million bounty that the U.S. has posted for the capture of Marwan? But would Uncle Sam give the reward without producing Marwan’s body?


Reinforcement denied

According to the PNP, a large group of combined MILF/BIFF forces pursued the withdrawing SAF troops and a gun battle ensued. Pinned down and surrounded by the Muslim rebels, the beleaguered commandos requested for reinforcement from a nearby military base. However, the military was unable to respond because there was no order from the chain of command. And this was where the debacle began to unravel.

According to media reports, the military was waiting for an order from the commander-in-chief, President Benigno Aquino III, who was then in Zamboanga monitoring the SAF operation. But the order never came.

And this was where weird stories began to circulate. A story goes that no sooner had Aquino approved the operation than he flew to Zamboanga where he waited in the wings ready to go to Maguindanao when the operation had succeeded. And the spectacle of Aquino receiving his laurels for the capture of the suspected terrorists would certainly add a feather to his cap, not to mention a great photo-op material for his memoirs.


Chain of command

But what was really strange in this potential “movie production” — a la “Zero Dark Thirty” — had the operation succeeded, are the two “players” Aquino hand-picked to play key roles in the hunt for Marwan and Usman. Media reports said that the two whom Aquino put in the chain of command were Executive Secretary Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa and suspended PNP Chief Alan Purisima, which begs the question: Why were they included in the chain of command of this operation?

And this is where the weird got weirder. Rumor has it that the operation was hatched by no less than Ochoa who heads the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC) to “neutralize” terrorist forces. As the head of PAOCC, Ochoa is known as the “Anti-terrorism Czar,” a position that gives him near-absolute power in fighting crime. Yet, the country today has never been as crime-ridden as it was before, which makes one wonder why Aquino would entrust Ochoa, a lawyer with no law enforcement or military background, with such a very – very - important authority?

And the weirdest thing was that Aquino appointed the disgraced and suspended PNP Chief, Gen. Alan Purisima, to run the SAF operation to get Marwan. And not only did he run the botched operation, he controlled its implementation directly under Aquino and Ochoa. Indeed, one might say that Aquino, Ochoa, and Purisima were the triumvirs who conceived, planned, and executed the failed operation to capture Marwan and Usman… at the price of the lives of the 44 fallen heroes.

What is appalling is that the people who should really be running the show were taken out of the loop and totally kept in the dark during the execution of the operation. Had the established line of authority been followed, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Mar Roxas, PNP officer-in-charge Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina, and SAF Commander Director Getulio Napeñas should have been the ones running the show. Ochoa in his role as Anti-terrorism Czar should only have an oversight role while Aquino could just have stayed in Malacanang to monitor the operation.

But as it turned out the whole situation was a fiasco!


Out of control

Some media reports were critical of Aquino who played the role of a “Field Marshal,” directing the battle from a vantage point. He delegated the operational control to Purisima who received detailed reports from the field totally bypassing the PNP hierarchy.

When the operation went out of control and the MILF/BIFF joint forces ambushed the SAF commandos, Aquino was reported to have panicked. He reportedly instructed Teresita Deles, the Presidential Adviser on Peace Process, to call for a ceasefire on the ground. However, it was reported that the MILF/BIFF rebels did not stop firing at the SAF troops.

And this was where the situation became very political. When the SAF forces asked for reinforcement, they were told not to do so because Aquino didn’t want to jeopardize the peace process with the MILF. Pinned down for more than 10 hours, the SAF forces were easy targets to rebel snipers. It was a massacre… a slaughter!

When the gunfight was over, the government reported 44 commandos killed. However, in addition to the 44 SAF commandos, an MILF spokesman reported that eight members of the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU), two members of the Civilian Volunteer Organization (CVO), and six informants were killed. The MILF/BIFF forces suffered 18 deaths.


Blame game

But who would blame President Aquino or Ochoa or Purisima? They’re untouchable! But somebody has to take the fall for the slain commandos. In a situation like this, the low man on the totem pole usually becomes the scapegoat. And who else could the scapegoat be other than the SAF Commander, Director Getulio Napeñas, the “low man” in the chain of command? With the removal of Napeñas, the bloodhounds found somebody to blame for the deaths of the 44 commandos.

But at the end of the day, one can say that it’s not a scapegoat that got them killed, it’s reckless leadership that led to the massacre of the Fallen 44.



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