Southcom ceases to exist

Armed Forces Chief  of Staff Hermogenes Esperon carried out Executive Order no. 1035 signed by President Arroyo last August  28, splitting the Armed Forces Southern Command (Southcom)  into two, the Eastern Mindanao Command and the Western Mindanao Command.

Eastern Mindanao Command will be based at the Philippine Air force station at the old airport in Sasa, Davao City while Western Mindanao Command will take over the facilities of  Southcom in Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City.

Esperon said the Eastern Mindanao Command’s primary task is to crush the communist insurgency while the Western Mindanao Command will focus on the security of the island provinces and the borders with Indonesia and Malaysia to prevent the entry of “terror groups” into Mindanao. The island provinces in the west of Mindanao are Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi.

The split came more than two months after President Arroyo ordered the Armed Forces to crush the communist insurgency.

“The splitting of the Southern Command into two is for easier command and control of our forces in Mindanao,” Esperon told MindaNews in a press conference held at the Eastern Mindanao Command headquarters this morning.

But not everybody approves of the breaking up of the Armed Forces’ biggest command.

Military officers, speaking privately, fear the formation of two separate commands will result to more soldiers assigned to headquarter desk jobs rather than on the field where they are needed most.

The break up, the military officers told MindaNews, was a sharp departure from past policies of the Armed Forces of the Philippines formulated by former Chief Of Staff Clemente Mariano who ordered  the stripping of headquarter personnel and assigning them to combat duties in the 1990s.

The officers pointed out an army brigade deployed in Mindanao where it has only one battalion instead of the three as a result of the break up.

The officers are also concerned that President Arroyo’s order for the Philippine National Police to resume combat duties against the communist rebels will only lead to more human rights abuses that could fan the insurgency.

Aside from these observations, some quarters expressed dismay that the formation of two separate commands will add another bureaucratic layer to the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) table of organization and command structure.

Still, Esperon insists the decision to break up Southcom is correct and timely.

“You might think we are top heavy. On the contrary, this will lead to more troops on the ground,” Esperon said brushing aside the fears.

The division of Southcom, which his predecessor, Gen. Generoso Senga recommended, has been the subject of conferences and plans and has local support, Esperon earlier said.

Southcom, a legacy from the Marcos era, has had 28 chiefs since 1972, with Maj. Gen. Gabriel Habacon as the 28th and the last.

Esperon said staff requirement for the two new commands are minimum since their primary functions are very specific.

 He said it was for easier control and administration of the soldiers on the field rather than budgetary reasons that the decision was made.

“In the past, Southcom commanders had to fly all over Mindanao to visit the troops. Try flying on a bad weather to see my point,” Esperon said.

“Now, the commanders no longer have an excuse if something happens in their areas,” he added.

Esperon also cited history to defend the decision.

He told reporters that in the 1960s, the entire island of Mindanao had only one   command, the Fourth Military Area based in Cagayan de Oro  City. Later on, he said many more commands were organized to answer  the peace and order requirements.

“We are just marching with the time. We will respond according to these needs,” Esperon said.  (Froilan Gallardo/MindaNews)