Column: Time for SAF to ‘man up’

Published on April 14, 2015.

One highlight of last week’s resumption of the congressional hearings into the Mamasapano incident was the direct challenge posed by an officer of the Philippine National Police’s elite Special Action Force to the commander of the Army’s 1st Mechanized Brigade.

Police Supt. Michael John Mangahis disputed Col. Gener del Rosario’s account of the circumstances behind the Army’s now-controversial refusal to direct artillery fire into the cornfields where the SAF’s 55th Special Action Company was battling Moro Islamic Liberation Front regulars from two base commands. Mangahis said Del Rosario had enough information not only from the SAF but from the Army’s assets in that part of Maguindanao province to know exactly where the artillery should be aimed.

The area was the Army’s “backyard,” he said. (He said the word several times, in part because it took some time for some of the representatives to understand him.)

“Alam po nila yan, sir. May mga tao po sila diyan. Hindi po ako naniniwala na wala po silang assets diyan (They know all that, sir. They have people there. I do not believe that they had no assets there).”

Then: “Yung sinabi po ni Colonel Del Rosario, hindi ko po masasabi kung sino ang kausap niya pero ang sinasabi niya… five feet lang ang distance natin, ‘peace process’ ang nababanggit. So man up, sir. Man up.”

The passage is a little more complicated to translate: “About what Colonel Del Rosario said: I cannot say who he was talking to [on the phone] but what he was saying [and then Mangahis addresses Del Rosario directly] … we were only five feet apart, [and Mangahis could hear the phrase] ‘peace process’ being mentioned. So man up, sir. Man up.”

The SAF officer’s emotional challenge was based on the assumption that the Army colonel was not telling the truth, that in fact Del Rosario and his men had the exact coordinates that would have allowed them to fire rounds of artillery into the MILF formations—and that as a consequence more members of the 55th SAC would have been saved. (Only one survived; according to the MILF, he killed four MILF rebels and one civilian.)

Mangahis’ assumption is shared by other SAF officers, and by not a few representatives and senators; part of its appeal lies in the seeming cogency of the reason why high-ranking military officers have been economical with the truth. It’s the “peace process.” Either because of an order from President Aquino to stand down (no evidence, but that hasn’t stopped someone like Bayan Muna’s Neri Colmenares from presenting an assertion as fact) or because of a consensus among Army and Armed Forces officials to prioritize the peace process (and the nearly four-year-long ceasefire with the MILF) over the lives of the SAF troopers, the SAF was not—at the most crucial stage of Oplan Exodus—able to count on the support of the military.

If we strip the assumption of the emotionalism that SAF officers have wrapped it in, however, we can see more clearly that in fact this SAF view is either deeply flawed or profoundly hypocritical.

Consider:

Despite the knowledge (presumably not limited to Mangahis) that the site of Oplan Exodus was the Army’s very own backyard, SAF still designed the operation without any input from that unit of the military which had “people” in the area. I do not know whether the Army had in fact any real assets, assets of any consequence, in Mamasapano on Sunday, Jan. 25; sheer logic tells us, however, that if SAF officers like Mangahis knew the Army had assets in the area, they should have coordinated with the right Army officers well before “time on target.”

We now know that the SAF did not coordinate with the AFP beforehand because its director at the time, Getulio Napeñas, did not trust the AFP to keep the operation a secret. This is an issue that loops all the way back, like a scorpion’s tail, to the presidency. I realize that President Aquino has said repeatedly that he had ordered Napeñas and the suspended PNP chief at the time, Alan Purisima, to coordinate with the military—but the course of action both police officials followed, plus the fact that the President entrusted the operation to the unit that had no assets in the area, suggests that Mr. Aquino would have had no issue with the lack of coordination if the operation had gone as smoothly as advertised.

This is what gets me, and many others who have followed the Mamasapano saga closely: In the dim light of the SAF 44 debacle, the SAF leadership now wants to believe, or has successfully rationalized to itself, that fewer troopers would have died if only the organization it did not trust had come to its immediate aid. The level of self-deception is astounding.

Even the PNP’s own board of inquiry has found Oplan Exodus to be a badly defective plan and a botched operation; while the BOI has criticized the AFP for not coming to the SAF troopers’ aid sooner, I believe it is hard to fault the Army in particular for doing what it actually ended up doing. We can count the ways: extracting survivors of the 84th SAC; following the protocols agreed upon for the ceasefire; above all, refusing to add to the death toll through friendly fire. That’s manning up.

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