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Mamasapano Revisited

Posted by butalidnl on 24 March 2015

It is two months after the 25 January 2015 events in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. The hype and mass hysteria on the ‘SAF44’ is a bit less now. It may now be a good time to take another look at events of that fateful day.

It is now known that the plan and timing of ‘Oplan Exodus’ (the plan to capture Marwan, the Jemaah Islamiya bomb maker), was drafted together with US ‘advisers’ and approved by President Aquino. While people continue to debate about who is responsible for what, it seems that certain basic questions have been overlooked. e.g. : was it a sound plan? and did the SAF violate the GRP-MILF ceasefire?

Mamasapano is a small town in Maguindanao (with population just over 22,000 people), at the edge of the vast Liguasan marsh. During the rainy season, parts of the town become part of the marsh (including the site of the battle). The area is mostly flat, and it is crisscrossed by streams. In order to move 500 meters, one would usually need to cross about 3 streams, either by using makeshift bridges, by small boats, or by wading through them.

The MILF and BIFF have ‘camps’ (communities) near the edge of Mamasapano. While the politics of the two groups were different, there was no real animosity between them – the groups were separate but not mutually hostile. This makes sense: it is best to have a ‘live and let live’ attitude towards a heavily armed neighbor. (similarly, the AFP have an outpost in the area, and they also coexist with the MILF)
The two groups were separated by a couple of kilometers. Given the number of streams people would have to cross to traverse this distance, this would seem farther than it sounds..

Marwan made use of these conditions when he chose where to stay. His house was in this border area(between the MILF and BIFF camps), where neither the MILF, the BIFF, nor the municipal government exercised authority. On the third side was the Liguasan marsh, which was practically impassable. This meant that his house could only be approached from one direction.

SAF84 (PNP Special Action Force 84th Seaborne unit, with 37 men) and SAF55 (PNP Special Action Force 55th Special Action Company, with 36 men) passed through this strip of no-man’s land under cover of darkness. SAF84 proceeded to where Marwan was, in order to arrest him. SAF55 was left in a cornfield some 500 meters behind, as a ‘blocking force’. When SAF84 tried to arrest Marwan (at 4 am), a firefight broke out, with his armed escort. Marwan was killed,  Less than 30 minutes later, SAF55 was in battle with MILF soldiers at the cornfield.

People assume that the MILF fighters crossed numerous streams and fields in darkness, and correctly zeroed in on SAF55 in that fateful cornfield in record time. One explanation why they were so fast, could be that the fighters were praying together at the mosque and immediately went to the spot. But the question that nobody seems to ask is: how did they know where exactly to go? and how did they do it so fast? (the story of running together from the mosque does not explain the story of some MILF widows that their husbands were sleeping in their houses when they were awoken by gunfire.

I read a more plausable explanation in an article The Mourners of Mamasapano , written by Rappler. According to Nadia Kasim (one of the MILF widows):
The last she saw him alive was before dawn, when he left with the other rebels to avoid the fighting. It was what the rebels were ordered to do, what they always did at the sound of gunfire. Ever since the ceasefire, even before it, they were told to run with their guns when battle came to the community.
There was a gathering place, said an MILF leader. They were to remove themselves as targets and avoid involvement. The trouble, he said, was that the police beat them to it.

The men of the two other MILF units in the area had also responded to the gunfire by running to regroup positions outside their communities, giving further credence to the above account.

Thus, the MILF fighters were not running to intercept the SAF, but to regroup and  await further orders. The problem was, the SAF was already at the regroup location. And shot at them as they were running to it.

SAF Fired First
I think the SAF55 were the ones to fire first at the MILF fighters. The MILF fighters were in no position to do so; they were just a group rushing to their regroup point. Those ahead were few, and their orientation was to avoid combat.On the other hand, SAF55 were stationary, with all the time to position themselves to fire, while the MILF fighters were running towards them. The approaching MILF fighters were exposed as they ran, while the SAF men were sitting or crouching, hidden by the corn.

The SAF fired at the MILF because they thought the MILF were out to get them. The fact that there was a ceasefire was not in their minds. They thought that the MILF was in cahoots with Marwan, and were out to defend him. Cooperating with the MILF was not among the possibilities they considered

This brings us back to the plan that was drafted by the Americans and approved by President Aquino. While they realized that there was only one way in and out of Mamasapano if they went to Marwan’s hideout; they apparently assumed they could do this quietly.  Or, they naively assumed that the BIFF and MILF will not move against them. Or, they assumed that they could successfully block any response. The plan was terrible, with an extremely high chance of failure. To make matters worse, the SAF had no intention of respecting the ceasefire, and assumed that the MILF forces were hostile.
President Aquino is responsible for approving a mission with such a high chance of failure, at the time when the Bangsamoro Basic Law was being considered in Congress. The whole mess he finds himself in today is all his doing. Just telling Napenas to ‘coordinate’ would never have been enough; the AFP’s participation in the mission would not have helped. What would have helped would have been if Aquino himself coordinated with the MILF ceasefire committee (through the AFP) to restrain their forces during the operation.

Given the relatively narrow corridor between the MILF and BIFF areas, successfully avoiding both groups after they were alerted by the sounds of gunfire would have been difficult, to say the least. It didn’t help that SAF55 started the firefight with the MILF at such a terrible location. It is logical to expect the BIFF to approach them from the opposite direction, cutting off their retreat. SAF55 was trapped in an unintended ‘kill zone’ which they had chosen. (To be fair to them, I don’t think there was much of a choice – most positions there would have been as bad.).

The plan was terrible because it could only have succeeded if no shots were fired when they tried to arrest Marwan. It was bad because it assumed that the MILF was hostile, and the plan did not properly consider the ongoing ceasefire with the MILF.

Wouldn’t it have been risky to notify the MILF? Perhaps. But doing that would have been a lot less risky than not notifying them. With the ceasefire in place, the biggest risk in informing the MILF would have been that they would inform Marwan about the plan. But this is much less of a loss than that of losing so many men. The ‘time on target’ approach could have applied here – the MILF local commanders could have been notified by the MILF ceasefire committee just before the SAF operation.  That way, the SAF could simply have exited safely through the MILF community. Or, if they didn’t like to do that, they could have gone back the way they came in, but only fight the BIFF.

Now to go back to the two questions we posed in the beginning:
Was the plan for Oplan Exodus sound?
No. The plan had an extremely low likelihood of success. If by ‘success’ we mean killing Marwan, then it had a 50% chance of success. If success included doing so with minimal casualties, then its success was minimal.
It was wrong for President Aquino to approve a plan that would most likely result in unacceptable casualties.

The participation of Purisima is irrelevant to this question; what is much more relevant is that President Aquino approved a fatally flawed plan. He could have chosen to order changes that would have ensured success. Simply ordering Napenas to coordinate with the AFP was not enough; the correct thing for him was to inform the MILF himself.

Did SAF violate the ceasefire?
Yes. They fired first at elements of the MILF who were merely running to their regroup position. The excuse that the PNP is not a military organization does not hold water. They were fully armed government personnel who shot at a unit which was initially not hostile to them. Besides, the ceasefire was between the Philippine government (which included the PNP) and the MILF.
Calling the incident a ‘misencounter’ is being kind to the SAF. What SAF55 actually did was to ambush the MILF fighters.

It is the Philippine government which needs to demonstrate its reliability and good faith to the MILF. The Mamasapano attack was a grave violation of the ceasefire agreement; especially since it was sanctioned by President Aquino himself.

Those who continue to believe the anti-Moro hype that ‘SAF44’ was massacred by the MILF would probably regject the points I raised in this blog. Hopefully, at least some people would be objective enough take another look at the events in the light of the additional points brought up here.

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