MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 17 August) – In the heyday of national liberation movements that sprang after World War II, repressive Third World regimes turned to the US for military assistance or were forced to receive such assistance. The Philippines, which hosted American military bases until 1991, was one of these client governments. Apart from getting hand-me-down weaponry and base rental, the country sent officers to Fort Bragg to train in counterinsurgency tactics focusing on jungle warfare.
Such tactics may have worked in the war against the rural-based New People’s Army as well as the Moro rebel groups. The siege in Marawi City, however, which enters its ninetieth day on August 20, suggests the need for the Armed Forces of the Philippines to rethink its strategy and get serious in modernization. As the conflict drags on with the Islamic State-inspired militants defying the military’s deadlines it has become clear that the AFP is ill-prepared to meet the challenge of urban warfare posed by adversaries who are unburdened by questions of law, ethics and morality.
It seems strange but an obscure city tucked in the country’s poorest province has become a trump card of geopolitics in this part of Asia.
That the AFP has deployed several battalions, armor and air assets against at most 1,000 militants yet failed to suppress them within a short span of time underscores the inadequacy of its existing strategy to quell the threat of terrorism. On the other hand, the militants, enjoying greater familiarity with Marawi’s layout, are putting to good use such guerrilla tactics as ambushes, improvised explosive devices and sniper operations.
Crude but effective, these tactics have inflicted over 100 fatalities and at least 1,000 wounded combatants on government side. And the longer the conflict lasts, the more it will create doubts on the AFP’s capacity and encourage more Moro youth – children included – to don the black shirt and wave the black flag of “extremism”.
Complicating matters is bad governance, dire poverty and other social conditions that drive the underprivileged to the fold of the militants. For sure, the militants are exploiting the devastation of Marawi and the displacement of its residents to add to the general disillusionment with how government has responded to the crisis. It is easy to imagine a Maute Group leader agitating would-be recruits with words like “look what they have done to your city, look what they have done to your fellow Muslims, to your families.”
Friends like these
Back to the question of enhancing the capability of the AFP in urban warfare, whom will the Philippines turn to? Will it be the US, a traditional ally, or China, which is flexing its muscle in the global arena? Or will it make a new friend but keep the old?
Whatever its response would be, the Philippines needs to play its cards with more circumspection. The US is trying to reassert its dominance in the region which has since waned after it pulled out from Clark and Subic, while China, a new superpower, has a territorial dispute with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea. It is even possible that aside from trying to outdo each other in terms of providing support [to the Philippine military] the two world powers would extend their geopolitical game to the rehabilitation of Marawi once the city is fully recaptured from the militants.
Offhand, one may surmise that President Rodrigo Duterte will lean towards China considering his rants against US foreign policy and the criticisms on his violent war on illegal drugs, and his administration’s growing economic ties with Beijing. In fact, Chinese firms have bagged several big-ticket infrastructure projects under Duterte, including a monorail project in Mindanao with Davao City as its nerve center. Of late, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano hinted of a joint exploration with China in the West Philippine Sea.
In addition, Duterte has not ceased taking potshots at the US. Nor is he keen on continuing with the Balikatan war games much less seeing American troops on Philippine soil. It seems that the only thing working for the US is the pro-American orientation of the AFP, as the President himself admitted in a press conference last June 11 in Cagayan de Oro City where he awarded medals and cash assistance to soldiers who were wounded in action in Marawi.
Offers from both sides
It was American drones that first flew over the conflict zone in Marawi, a move that the US Embassy in Manila said was just to provide “technical assistance” to Philippine troops. The deployment of the drones happened after a “friendly fire” from a Philippine Air Force plane that killed 11 soldiers on the ground, an incident that highlighted the AFP’s outdated ways of carrying out aerial bombardments. The US followed up with a handover of two Cessna aircraft.
Both moves signaled Washington’s eagerness to patch up diplomatic relations and military partnership with its former colony. It has no choice but to court the Philippines back into its embrace if it doesn’t want to be upstaged by Beijing in the region.
China, meanwhile, has refused to be outplayed. It has given weapons and offered advice on counterterrorism tactics to troops fighting in Marawi. One may frown at Beijing’s relative inexperience in counterterrorism and arguably inferior technology compared to the US which has dealt with all sorts of armed groups across the globe. But Duterte, a maverick in every sense of the word, may yet decide contrary to expectations.
How Duterte would play the Marawi card with the US and China is worth watching. After all, the stake [for the Philippines] in this three-cornered game is not just rolling back the threat of terror but also the future of its claim of sovereignty on the West Philippine Sea.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)