TURNING POINT: A Debacle Waiting to Happen

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NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews/02 February) — Oplan Wolverine was a debacle waiting to happen.

It was supposed to be a covert surgical operation to nab an international terrorist and a local one embedded in the heart of an enemy stronghold. Thus coordination with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with whom the Philippine government has signed a ceasefire agreement in consonance with the peace process, and with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) for any emergency measures, was not secured   to maintain absolute secrecy. The overriding goal was to extract the high-value targets, dead or alive from the enemy lair; a mission leak might spoil everything.

The operation was hatched by the high command of the Philippine National Police. The PNP Special Action Force (SAF), an elite US-trained law-enforcement team, was to carry it out.

The execution, however, of the covert operation was not that covert as it should. For how could a secret incognito surgical raid be accomplished in mobilizing a battalion (392) of uniformed, fully armed commandos into an enemy enclave? The size of the operatives was big enough for an invasion of an enemy camp to escape visibility. In fact, it was much bigger than the 235 Tausog militants of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III that invaded Sabah on February 11, 2013.

Even if under cover of darkness, it was too huge a number not to attract attention by anybody in the area. And the cover was not for long for it was executed late at dawn, just about an hour or so before daybreak.

It was apparent that with their number the SAF commandos were prepared for battle. Thus when the terrorist, Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, and his guards detected, accordingly, the presence of the SAF extraction group, all hell broke out. The SAF had their battle.

Naturally, the exchange of gunfire alerted the MILF guerrillas in the vicinity. By daybreak the guerrillas of the MILF 105th base camp found the commandos in their exit maneuver in an open field. Not being notified of the SAF operation in their domain, they began firing at the withdrawing policemen. The guerrillas could not be faulted for thinking that the armed incursion was meant to attack their camp. Thus a fierce battle raged for 12 hours.

Trapped like sitting ducks in an indefensible position and most probably outnumbered and outgunned after a while, the SAF commandos fell miserably one by one. The encounter turned into a bloodbath for the hapless elite cops.

For not also informing the AFP command in the area on the clandestine operation, the SAF request for reinforcement in that critical time was not acted upon. For, indeed, it would be suicidal for the Philippine army to just jump into the fray with no strategic knowledge of the incident and the circumstances surrounding it. To give in to the request without sufficient information might lead to some regretful predicament later on. Would anyone know, for instance, if an ambush was already set up by the enemies for the potential reinforcement? Moreover, the army has standing order to observe the GPH-MILF ceasefire.

The misfortune of the SAF commandos was aggravated when in their retreat they drifted into the stronghold of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). The BIFF joined the deadly fracas resulting to more losses to the terrorist hunters.

The nightmare, by official count, claimed the lives of 44 elite cops and injured 12 others. The MILF, on the other hand, offered a different figure: 64 dead of the intruding government force, which, accordingly, included local informers and other friendly elements in the team, and 18 dead and over a dozen injured from their side. A couple of civilians were also reported killed in the operation.

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A very serious plan, such as Oplan Wolverine, ought to go through rigorous and exhaustive potential problem analysis if only to avert or preclude unnecessary, unintended, costly and disastrous consequences of its execution. It would be the height of irresponsibility to bypass this exercise. We can presume almost beyond doubt that the PNP SAF leadership and planners went through the process and were aware of what could potentially happen but threw, nonetheless, caution to the wind in making the plunge.

Beyond the capture of the terrorists, what could be the motivation strong enough to abandon prudence in the dogged and single-minded pursuit of Oplan Wolverine?

Can anyone blame those who are entertaining the thought that the driving force was either the greed for honor, glory and recognition, or the $6-million bounty on the terrorists, or both, which would be appropriated accordingly among the top leadership and planners?

The SAF operation plan looked, therefore, myopic as a result. It came out focused only on the tactical side of attaining the objective, itself very much wanting, of neutralizing or bagging the terrorists to quarters. It did not consider looking at the big picture –the possible impact of the operation, if bungled, on the national interest.

Needless to say, those who authored and executed the plan were foolhardy and insensitive to the possible plight of the SAF operatives and that of the entire nation. Their greed, incompetence and mediocrity led the elite cops to their grisly slaughter. And the trumpets of war are now insanely blowing everywhere as a consequence.

Meanwhile, it is claimed that the commando operation succeeded in killing the long wanted Jamaah Islamiyah terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir. Assuming this is true, it is not something to gloat about. The success was pyrrhic and may not, in the final analysis, be of any worth. The misadventure has unnecessarily caused so much loss in lives, has brought to tatters the peace effort and pushed the nation to the brink of war.

On back thought, the loss of precious lives would have been avoided and the peace process secured if a different strategy was adopted to capture the notorious terrorists. For instance, it could have been delegated to the MILF within a reasonable timeframe. This would test their sincerity and their true commitment to peace. Surrendering the most wanted terrorists to the government would have earned for the MILF the trust and confidence of the entire nation. And it would secure them not only the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law but the very establishment of the government contemplated in the proposed statute.

The ball should have been in the MILF court. Their reluctance or their rejection of the task would convey a loud message to the future of the peace effort.

Unfortunately, trust was and is wanting from all sides. Trust is something that all should invest in the peace effort if we want to succeed.

Not everything is lost though at the moment despite the recent bloody missteps of the government and the MILF. Let us give peace another chance. Let the process continue. The beating of the drum of war should stop. Nobody wins in war. And often those who are shouting for war do not actually join the carnage and suffer for it. The real victims of war are the innocent civilians in the war zone, particularly the children, the women and the elderly who do not want it and are not guilty of anything to deserve its gory punishment.

Let us not compound our current grief by succumbing to the siren call of pointless retribution and by falling into the vicious trap of war. (William R. Adan, Ph.D., was a research and extension worker, professor and the first chancellor of the Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental.  He was a British Council fellow and trained in 1994 at Sheffield University, United Kingdom, on Participatory Planning and Environmentally Responsible Development.  Upon retirement, he served as national consultant to the ADB-DENR project on integrated coastal resource management. He is the immediate past president of the MSU Alumni Association.)

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