WITH his impending retirement today, Army chief Lt. Gen. Noel Coballes reflected on his military career as he defended his past and current efforts with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from foe to friend.
Coballes played a role in carrying out the all-out war declared by former President Joseph Estrada in 2000 against the MILF. He was then the commander of the Army’s 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion, an elite unit.
The all-out war resulted in the capture of dozens of MILF camps in Central Mindanao, including the group’s main headquarters Camp Abubakar. Hundreds of MILF men and soldiers died in the fighting.
The administration of President Aquino has been all out in negotiating a peace accord with the MILF. A final peace agreement is in the offing with the signing of normalization annex last month.
Coballes said that if the peace negotiations went on in 2000, “we could have finished or completed the peace process now. We would have lesser problems in Mindanao.”
“But I would rather not say that what we did then was wrong,” he said, referring to the 2000 all-out war. “There must be some wisdom why we did it before, why we did it (peace process) now,” he said.
He said the military looked at the MILF as a “threat to the peace of the country” in 2000. But as he rose in the military ladder, Coballes said his outlook changed especially when the peace process progressed.
Coballes, a member of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1980, is set to relinquish his post today when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 56.
There was still no official word as to who will succeed him but talks are that his successor will either be Northern Luzon Command chief Lt. Gen. Gregorio Catapang or 7th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Hernando Iriberri.
President Aquino will preside over the turnover ceremony at the Army headquarters in Fort Bonifacio.
Coballes recalled how he gained “strategically important” assignments, including the command of the First Scout Ranger Regiment and Western Mindanao Command.
“In my entire career, I’ve spent more than 50 percent in the battlefront, or we call in the field,” he said. In those assignments, he fought against groups like the New People’s Army, MILF, Moro National Liberation Front and the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.
Coballes said when he joined the military, his expectation was to attain the rank of captain only, “then I’ll be out of the service.”