On January 25, 2015, 44 members of the 84th and 55th Companies of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force or SAF died in an engagement with Muslim insurgents near Mamasapano on the island of Mindanao.
Perhaps there have been worse days for special forces, but I can’t bring any to mind. The bloodbath is recognized as a tactical and political fiasco, a focus of popular anger and dismay, and a source of considerable political embarrassment for President Aquino. Its anniversary was marked with fresh hearings on the disaster in the Philippine Senate. It’s the Philippines’ Benghazi scandal.
Like Benghazi, Mamasapano also reveals some interesting new things about expansive US security operations overseas…things that are getting covered up and swept aside in a rush to make political hay out of the disaster.
The short story is that the SAF ventured into a stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an insurgency seeking self-determination for the Muslim population of Mindanao, to apprehend a Malaysian miscreant, one Marwan, wanted for making the bombs for the 2001 Bali attacks that claimed 200 lives. Marwan was killed in the operation but an SAF force was attacked during the withdrawal and suffered tremendous casualties before it could be extracted.
Long story is that the SAF troopers were pinned down in a cornfield for 10 hours—which must have felt like a thousand eternities—getting slaughtered by MILF snipers. Only one member of the 55th Company survived. While this massacre dragged on, three SAF companies supporting the operation stayed in their backstop roles instead of advancing to cover the withdrawal. Command bickered about providing supporting artillery fire and sending in evac helicopters. In the aftermath, it transpired that the military—Armed Forces of the Philippines aka AFP—was not able to provide effective support because they were not involved in the planning of the raid. The Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Defense were totally flummoxed because they had no prior knowledge of the operation. President Aquino had personally greenlighted the operation—Oplan Exodus—and passed the order to the SAF commander, Gutelio Napenas, through the former Director-General of the Philippine National Police Alan Purisima. Former, because at the time of the operation Padremas had been suspended from the force for corruption, leaving President Aquino pretty far out on a limb, chain of command wise.
By a suspicious coincidence, President Aquino was lingering in the nearby town of Zamboanga the day the operation went down, well positioned to share in the expected triumph of the neutralization of Marwan, an obsession of the United States who had a US$5 million bounty on his head.
In parallel with Benghazi, there is even a “stand down” narrative.
It is plausibly alleged that President Aquino, instead of ordering the AFP to waste the perimeter with artillery fire & send in the cavalry by helicopter for evacuation, tried to defuse the situation by contacting the MILF through mediators and begging them for hours to back off. The Philippine government itself released a timeline documenting joint attempts with the MILF leadership to effect a ceasefire. Apparently the message only got through to the local MILF commanders at 4:00 pm, because a brownout the night before had prevented them from charging their cellphones.
The MILF, you see, is in negotiations with the government in Manila concerning a law, the Bangsamoro Basic Law or BBL, that would grant Mindanao considerable autonomy and there’s some kind of truce in place. Apparently sending the SAF into Mamasapano unannounced to pick up Marwan (who was sheltering with another group, not the MILF) was a violation of this truce, and perhaps it was felt that killing clutches of MILF fighters during an extraction would sink the Mindanao peace process once and for all.
As it stands, the BBL is dead in the water anyway, thanks to public outrage at the MILF for massacring the 44 SAF troopers.
The fact that President Aquino still has his job after this mega-fracaso is a tribute to something, I suppose. Perhaps a tribute to term limits. President Aquino leaves office for good in early 2016 and will perhaps can look forward to relentless pursuit by his adversaries and the aggrieved families of the victims once he has lost the protection of his office. For the time being, the designated fall guy is the SAF commander, Getulio Napenas.
Napenas, defending himself from accusations of incompetence, overconfidence, and loose-cannon behavior, had an interesting defense: that he was working with the United States.
Asked if the operation was solely a Philippine effort, Napenas replied that the US, through its Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines based in Zamboanga City, provided real time intelligence support, training and equipment during the preparations and, during the execution, humanitarian and medical support and “investigation,” referring to the handover of Marwan’s finger to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for DNA confirmation.
Napenas also confirmed that the units involved in the operation were trained by a combination of US military and JSOTF members.
When Enrile asked whether the CIA participated in Exodus, Napenas said the name of the agency was “never mentioned” but added that because intelligence was involved, it was “likely” that personnel from the spy agency were also involved.
And there’s this:
US military officials were present the whole time at the tactical command post in Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao, while a “tall, blond, blue-eyed Caucasian” was seen among the slain SAF men.
There were also reports that a US drone from a Zamboanga flew overhead a week before the operation.
The PNP review determined that six Americans were involved in the operation.
According to the initial “draft” Senate report from March 2015:
“One of six Americans involved in the Mamasapano assault ordered the Philippine Army’s 6th Infantry Division commander, Major General Edmundo Pangilinan, to fire artillery, but Pangilinan refused and reportedly told the American: “Do not dictate to me what to do. I am the commander here!”
“The testimonies of various resource persons, particularly during the executive hearings, provide indications that the US had significant participation in Oplan Exodus,” the executive summary of the Senate report read.
According to various media reports, Napenas identified one of the US advisors as either “Al Latz” or “Al Katz”. There has been no stampede by Western media outlets to try to track down this interesting individual.
The US was compelled to confirm that it advised the operation, but insists its only direct involvement—documented by an AFP photo—was casualty evacuation.
US military involvement in Philippine operations is a dicey constitutional, legal, diplomatic, and political question. Officially, the United States military is restricted to non-combat roles in the Philippines, although plenty of wriggle room does seem to exist. US military personnel can accompany Philippine forces during operations and defend themselves if fired upon. Direct operational participation by JSOC in dozens of AFP operations is, at least on the left, openly alleged.
The hand-in-glove ally and pivot partner of the US, Alberto Del Rosario’s Department of Foreign Affairs chipped in with its defense:
In a report submitted to the Senate, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs said that based on their discussions with US authorities, they were able to ascertain that Oplan Exodus was 100-percent Filipino planned and implemented.
“The DFA emphasized that ‘the only constitutionally restricted activity in Philippine cooperation with the US under existing agreements is that, they (US) may not and have not, in the case of Mamasapano either, engage in combat operations and which non-participation (of the Americans) in combat was affirmed by PDIR Napeñas,” the report said.
On one level, the Philippines looks like another example where the United States cultivates a loyal and dependable local kinetic asset to enable lethal operations in nations where the US doesn’t have the legal right to operate freely but feels regular forces are too corrupt, compromised, or incompetent to properly execute US objectives. And there’s often hints that US “advisors” tiptoe over the non-combat line at crucial junctures to get things done. I wrote about it here in the context of the US drug war in Mexico and Colombia.
There is another twist, one that comes courtesy of a 2012 AP report on a previous attempt to get Marwan, one of many, many tries, that time involving the Philippine army, not the PNP/SAF, to kill Marwan using GPS-guided smart bombs delivered by turboprop (the same weapon used to assassinate FARC commander Raul Reyes):
(Smart bombs) offer a less manpower-intensive way to combat Abu Sayyaf at a time when both the Philippines and the US militaries want to focus resources on tensions with China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). They also dovetail with a change in recent years from massive offensives to surgical, intelligence-driven strikes that target holdouts of the battered Abu Sayyaf.
So also consider the Mamasapano massacre as blowback from a US/Philippine decision to transition from a military to political/security force joint approach in Mindanao, using a different group of actors—actors that fatally lacked their own coordinated artillery and airlift.
But using the Philippine National Police is a bit hinky legally as well as tactically, since the conventional understanding of sanctioned cooperation is between the US military and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The conventional understanding is that the US and Philippines have military to military cooperation, with the US in advisory/training/non-combat role…to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It should be noted that JSOC in the Philippines—headquartered at Zamboanga, indeed at the airfield where President Aquino lingered on the day of the assault—frames its activities in terms of cooperation with AFP—the Philippine military.
JSOC is not formally partnered with the PNP or SAF, which are civilian forces under the Ministry of Interior. Nevertheless, General Napenas directly identified JSOC Zamboanga as his working partner for the assault. And the idea that US milsec was expanding its cooperation with the Philippines to encompass domestic law enforcement did not sit well with Philippine Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile.
Enrile said he asked about the VFA because the pact “deals only with the military” and “does not cover the enforcement of the criminal laws of the Philippines.”
“This is something that the government must explain,” why it allowed “a police matter to include US participation,” he added.
The US Ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, speaking on February 3 of this year, obligingly lectured the Philippines on what the laws and agreements they had concluded actually meant.
“I also think people should look and be very careful when they talk about the various legal and other issues involved because they’re complicated, they’re complex, they’re not simple,” he added.
The US ambassador cited as an example the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the US that shows what cooperation can do for both countries.
“My understanding, if you read the [VFA], it is a government to government agreement, it’s not between the militaries [of the US and the Philippines], that deals with treatment and conduct of our forces in each other countries and that’s what the essence of what the DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs] is all about, it doesn’t deal with the agenda of what our cooperation will be,” Goldberg said.
“I think it is irresponsible to discuss those things publicly. They should be discussed for accountability sake in closed sessions of our Congresses, not just here, but in the United States,” Goldberg said.
“We have a process for doing that in the United States. I have testified as a U.S. official in private session, in secure areas in the United States Congress. And those are the kinds of things that we should do to both assure accountability and release publicly those areas of policy, and of law, but not of specifics that can only reveal the kind of cooperation that we have that help people whom with very much like to know that information.”
Beyond the obvious “shut up and stop laundering your dirty laundry in public” element, Goldberg is engaging in some ad hoc lawyering to declare that the Visiting Forces Agreement—which governs treatment of US military/contractor activities inside the Philippines—is not mil to mil, it’s gov to gov. So the US can work with Philippine government bureaus other than the military—like the PNP, and in areas other than external defense—like domestic security/counterterrorism.
Let us pause to consider Ambassador Goldberg.
He was expelled from Bolivia in 2008 on suspicion of regime change shenanigans against its president, Evo Morales. More significantly, previously he had served as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research, which, Wikipedia tells us, was originally the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services.
I, for one, was unaware that the US State Department had its own spook program or, for that matter, it had provided a haven to Wild Bill Donovan’s OSS when the CIA won that particular turf war. It’s now a big operation: 20+ offices, at least 300 staffers, and an undoubtedly hefty but classified budget. Anyway, Goldberg ran this thing. Now he’s in the Philippines.
Clearly, there are some ambassadorial postings that can’t be filled by a well-heeled campaign contributor tasked with throwing expensive parties and groping the spouses of the local businessfolk. Shaky spots like Syria (Robert Ford) and Ukraine (Geoffrey Pyatt) call for more of the “proconsul from the dark side” skill set to armtwist proxies and local political assets, deal with paramilitaries, manage US military and covert programs that stray across the bounds of legality, and deal with the execution and blowback from all sorts of wet work. The Philippines appears to be one of those places. So Goldberg’s there to handle the spook stuff.
And there’s a lot to be done in the Philippines. Americans tend to slot the Philippines into the plucky People Power democracy/bulwark against Chicom aggression slot. But the Philippines is also a rickety, insurgency-beset state that the US wants to see secured and stabilized as a vital base and locked in politically as a reliable pro-American ally for US power projection in East Asia.
The Philippines has been in and out of the US counterinsurgency meatgrinder more than Anbar Province, and that’s saying a lot. It started with the Aguinaldo insurgency against the US conquest in 1899-1902, paralleled with the Moro insurgency (fascinating little-know historical fact: the US government prevailed upon the Ottoman Empire to order Mindanao’s Sultan of Sulu to stand down from the Aguinaldo insurgency and he did!; but then the US doublecrossed the Moro and took them on the next year in one of the most brutal campaigns in US history, one that lasted more than a decade); then there was guerrilla warfare against the Japanese; then the Huk rebellion in the 1950s; now we’re back to the Moro on Mindanao.
Today, the U.S. is backing a peace process with the MILF, exercising its honest broker muscle to try to bring peace to Mindanao after an insurgency that has cost 100,000+ lives in the post World War II period alone. This involves US outreach to Malaysia to support the peace process, and even features US envoys clandestinely playing pattycake with the MILF. Though a priority for President Aquino, the MILF initiative provokes understandable ambivalence in nationalist quarters in Manila (and suspicion concerning the leverage Malaysia might have over President Aquino by funneling in money to support reconciliation) since Muslim Malaysia seems a better fit for Mindanao than Roman Catholic Philippines, and it’s thought that business opportunities and political influence in an autonomous, peaceful Mindanao might naturally flow toward Malaysia instead of Manila.
With this context, sending the SAF to barge into MILF territory unannounced and dooming the BBL peace process does not seem to have been some of Ambassador Goldberg’s best work. I am willing to speculate that one of the drivers of this process was the $5 million dollar bounty on Marwan offered under the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program, despite allegations that Marwan was a semi-retired second banana and perhaps not even a real bomb maker.
Apparently, as the AP report cited above indicates, Marwan’s outfit, Abu Sayyaf, was already considered to be flat on its ass in 2012 and not an operational threat. Both US and Philippine militaries want to focus their planning and budgeting on the bigger (and bigger money) and conventionally manageable China threat. Maybe that’s why the Marwan got turned over to the junior varsity: the PNP and the SAF.
The RFJ program is already blamed for skewing Philippine operations toward single-minded pursuit of rich bounties on “HVIs” (High Value Individuals) at the expense of more systematic counterterrorism ops. The SAF itself had contributed an additional 7 million pesos (about US$150,000) to the Marwan bounty pot, perhaps because US RFJ awards aren’t that easy to get and a locally-controlled bounty was perhaps seen as the best way to shake loose an informant. It looks like Marwan was way up on the PNP’s agenda. Oplan Exodus was the SAF’s 10th attempt to nail him. Yes, tenth. And that doesn’t count the AFP bombing raid.
Was apprehension of Marwan pursued as a pretext/opportunity for nurturing sustained cooperation between the US and the PNP, perhaps with a nice payday/reward at the end? Was the assumption that the MILF would stand back and let the operation go on rather than endanger the peace process? The AFP, no friend of the SAF in this matter, released a photo of a relaxed Commander Napenas in civilian clothes smiling in his command center at the height of the crisis, with mocking captions sneering that he expected the operation to be a “walk in the park.”
Deeper in tinfoil hat territory, was the MILF expecting to shop Marwan at the appropriate time & decided to make the Philippine government pay an exceptionally bloody price for snatching him from under their noses? After all, the MILF would seem to have had ample opportunity to ascertain the true identity of the SAF intruders on January 25; but they kept picking them off for hours until almost no one survived. But the SAF did emerge with Marwan’s finger, which was forwarded to the FBI for DNA ID and possibly—kaching!—reward money. (The PNP, by the way, has subsequently declared it will not receive any reward money from the Marwan operation).
It’s not going to be easy to find out the backstory. The Mamasapano massacre appears to be seen mainly as a stick with which to beat President Aquino—and his anointed successor, Interior Minister Roxas—in the runup to the presidential elections. Senator Grace Poe, a well-regarded presidential candidate if she works out some legal difficulties, opened up a fresh set of hearings. But she neglected to table the commission report in the Senate prior to adjournment, which means it will be archived instead of released. Senator Enrile, the 92 year old lion of the Senate (and occasional prisoner based on ongoing corruption charges put forth by the Aquino administration) and fierce partisan of his own presidential candidate, current Vice President Jejomar Binay, promised bombshells at the hearing—but satisfied himself with collecting testimony that President Aquino might bear legal responsibility for the disaster.
Enrile did flay Ambassador Goldberg for telling the Philippines to stop blabbing about US mission creep, while hinting at the corrupting influence of the big rewards the US State Department throws around. He criticized the US for extending its security cooperation beyond the military to the PNP, but also implied the US would be welcome to dispatch its own soldiers to pursue targets in the Philippines:
“What is sensitive about the police operation? I ask the great ambassador of the US. (Why is) he saying enemies of the state may also be watching? We have the host country for him. Why does he talk as if this is the US?” Enrile said in a weekly forum at the Senate.
The minority leader, who called for the reopening of the Mamasapano investigation, said the US should first answer why they put up a US$5-million reward for the capture of Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Bin Hir also known as “Marwan”…
“And why did they not use their elite troops instead of training these officers to become pawns and to be dead meats, to capture dead or alive a quarry of the US?” he said.
And the whole political exercise only took place just after the US-Philippine relationship had navigated a risky shoal. On January 12, 2016, the Philippine Supreme Court by a 10-4 vote confirmed that the “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” with the United States (signed on US behalf by Ambassador Goldberg) did not require any messy ratification by the Philippine Senate. The EDCA dodges some pretty categorical language in the Philippine constitution prohibiting permanent foreign military bases by permitting the Philippine government to give to the US military the right to operate free of charge “Agreed Locations” that can host “rotated” i.e. not permanent US military personnel and stock them with various logistical goodies but not nuclear weapons. Pretty much the only shoe left to drop is a formal return to Subic Bay, which already sees dozens of port calls from the US Navy each year. And I expect that may happen soon enough.
Apparently there was no interest, at least among Philippine elites, in exploring the awkward question of what happens when a bollixed US-advised military operations leads to a massacre of 44 Philippine security personnel, and thereby raising doubts about the merits of the EDCA.
And also zero public convo about any shortcomings of American attention, planning, and advice, or what they might imply for Filipino lives and interests as America’s best and brightest prepare to lead the Philippines into a prolonged struggle with the People’s Republic of China. Can’t undercut the pivot, doncha know.
It appears that after a twenty five-year hiatus, the US has successfully re-embedded itself in the Philippines: not only basing rights but deep penetration into the Philippine security, civilian, and political spheres, as well as military.