Document:Bloody US-Directed Raid Destabilizes Philippine Politics
How the US plunged Philippine politics into crisis
A raid to "neutralize" an international terrorist that went awry has severely discredited the administration of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, encouraged forces seeking to destabilize it, and underlined the perils of governments that are at the beck and call of Washington.
Very early in the morning of 25 January 2015, thirty seven commandos belonging to the Seaborne Unit of the Philippine National Police's Special Action Force (SAF) entered the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) stronghold of Mamasapano in Maguindanao Province and made straight for a hut where Zulfiki bin hir, aka Marwan, a Malaysian bombmaker at the top of the US FBI's most wanted list, was sleeping. The commandos were able to kill Marwan, but as Moro insurgents woke up and started to fire at the intruders, they had to leave his body behind and be content with cutting off the corpse's index finger to turn over to the FBI.
The Raid Unravels
Then everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong.
As they retreated, nine commandos were killed. Radioing for help from a "Quick Reaction Force" (QRF) that was supposed to cover their withdrawal, the Seaborne Unit was told the group was already pinned down in a flat cornfield with little cover. Over the next few hours, that unit of 36 men was picked off one by one by Moro snipers. Only one of the 36 survived, by running for his life and jumping into a nearby river. All in all, 44 policemen died in the bloody battle that took place 1,680 kilometers from the national capital of Manila. The MILF estimated that 18 of its combatants and about four civilians were killed.
A timely rescue effort was not even mounted since an infantry battalion in the area was not informed till late in the morning that the commandos were under fire. When ceasefire monitors finally reached the cornfield late in the afternoon, long after the battle ended, they found corpses that had been stripped of their weapons and other gear, some exhibiting wounds that indicated they had been shot at point-blank range.
Biggest Casualty: Moro Autonomy
The "Mamasapano Massacre," as it has come to be called, upended Philippine politics. The biggest casualty was the Bangsa Moro Basic Law that was in the last stages of being shepherded through the Philippine Congress. Known as the "BBL," the bill was the product of nearly five years of intensive negotiations between the government and the MILF to put an end to almost 50 years of fighting in the southern Philippines through the creation of an autonomous region for the Muslim Moros, a fiercely independent people that have long resisted integration into the broader Filipino polity. With emotions among the Christian majority running high over what was perceived as "overkill" inflicted on the members of the SAF by the Moro insurgents, congressional approval of the BBL was put in question, threatening an eventual return to hostilities. Some politicians rode on the incident to stoke the latent anti-Muslim prejudices of the dominant culture not just to derail autonomy but advance their presidential ambitions.
Under congressional questioning, the facts were extracted piece by piece from high administration officials who, on national television, could not hide feelings that ran the gamut of guilt, grief, disbelief, and resentment at not being "in the know." The decisive element in the unraveling of the operation, it appears, was the deliberate withholding of information about the SAF operation from key people at the top of the police and armed forces hierarchy. Only the president, the SAF commander, and the PNP chief, Gen Alan Purisima, knew about the mission. Though suspended from office by the Ombudsman pending investigation on corruption charges, Gen Purisima, a trusted aide of the president, was effectively in charge of the operation, bypassing the acting PNP chief and the Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, who knew nothing of the mission until disaster overtook it.
Emerging in the hearings was the following portrait of the tragedy: to nab a notorious terrorist, those who conceived and implemented the operation chose not to inform the top people in the police and military leadership and ignored and subverted the procedures and mechanism for territorial access worked out by the MILF, the government, and third party monitors. The MILF fighters, along with fighters from a die-hard separatist group, the Bangsa Moro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), responded to what they perceived as a large invasion force, and once the battle began, it became very difficult for their leaders to realize the intent of the SAF contingent and get their forces to disengage. It seemed evident, too, that some wounded policemen were finished off, though it was not clear if it was combatants belonging to the MILF that were responsible for these atrocities.
The big puzzle for many was why a government that was in the last stages of negotiating an autonomy agreement that would end 50 years of warfare would endanger this goal--said to be President Aquino's desired legacy--with a large-scale commando intrusion into MILF territory without informing its negotiating partner.
To an increasing number of people, the answer had something to do with Washington. Indeed, Washington's fingerprints were all over the operation: There was a $5 million bounty placed by the Americans on Marwan's head. A US armed forces helicopter appeared in the area after the long firefight, allegedly to help evacuate the wounded. Marwan's finger disappeared after the battle and showed up at an FBI lab in the US a few days later. Why was it not turned over to local authorities, asked the perplexed senators looking into the raid.
Filipino officials have remained tight-lipped on the question of US participation in the raid, invoking "national security" or choosing to make revelations only in executive sessions with the Senate. Thus it has fallen on the media to probe the US role. Perhaps the most reliable of these probes was conducted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Among the findings of the Inquirer's research was that US drones pinpointed Marwan's hiding place, guided the Filipino commandos to it, and provided real-time management by the SAF command away from the battlefield. American advisers, the paper claimed, were the ones who vetoed informing top officials of the PNP, the armed forces, and the MILF of the planned raid on the grounds that news of the action would be leaked to Marwan. Finally, the original plan to have a fused team of the Seaborne Unit and the Quick Reaction Force to seize Marwan was vetoed by the American advisers, who favored the final plan of having just the Seaborne seize the Malaysian, with the QRF covering the extrication of the former. The Seaborne Unit, it emerged, had been trained by "retired" Navy Seals and functioned as the Americans' special unit within the Special Action Force.
The full dimensions of the Americans' involvement remain to be unearthed, but it is now clear to many that taking out Marwan was a U.S., not a Philippine priority, though Filipino officials had been concerned with the Malaysian's bomb-making activities. As one congressman put it, the Mamasapano tragedy was a case of "the Americans fighting to the last Filipino."
Into the Bunker
As the details of the American role emerge, the pressure is on the president to admit complicity in a Washington-directed operation, which he has so far refused to do. Aquino has come under more intense fire from nationalist quarters who earlier criticized him for negotiating a military pact with the United States, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which permits a greater US military presence in the Philippine by allowing the Americans access to and use of Philippine bases to implement President Obama's "Pivot to Asia" strategy designed to contain China.
Already under attack for being reluctant to admit command responsibility for the bungled raid, the charge of laying down Filipino lives for an American scheme appeared to be forcing the president further into his bunker, creating the widespread impression of a drift in leadership that, it was feared, coup plotters and other adventurers - of which there is no shortage in the Philippines - could take advantage of.