From InterAksyon (Feb 17): War in Mindanao: How did Estrada's all-out war against the MILF fare? Part 1 of 3 (by Jose Antonio A. Custodio)
Camp Darapanan of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. FILE PHOTO BY EREL CABATBAT
[Editor's note: Jose Antonio A. Custodio is a security and defense consultant and was a technical adviser for a US defense company working for the US Pacific Command. He also specializes in military history and has post-graduate studies in history from the University of the Philippines. He also teaches history and political science at several universities in Metro Manila.
After the Mamasapano tragedy, calls for all-out war against the MILF have been made. Did Estrada’s all-out war campaign succeed? This is the question that Custodio is going to answer here. In his succeeding pieces, he will answer the questions: Is the military prepared to go on an all-out war? What would be the MILF response? What are the internal and external repercussions of returning to a war footing with the Moros? The next two parts will come out February 18 and 19.]
Following the Battle of Mamasapano, there has been a very loud clamor by many individuals and some sectors for more decisive action to be taken against the secessionists. The manner in which the proposed action to be taken ranges from either limited punitive operations to an outright and more ambitious all out total war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The question that should be asked is if the Armed Forces of the Philippines is really up to the task of browbeating the MILF into submission or more ambitiously, eliminating it in an all-out total war effort. How effective is the government’s war-making tool?
A bit of a historical reminder is when the 2000 Abubakar Campaign concluded, it was proclaimed by the Estrada administration that it was a great victory. True enough, the MILF camps had been captured and the losses were high among the rebels.
However, the bulk of the MILF survived the government onslaught as it reverted to guerrilla warfare and a short time later began rebuilding its forces and ironically establishing new camps.
The Philippine military on the other hand was in possession of former MILF territory but it came at a price. With the AFP heavily concentrated at Mindanao and having stripped Luzon and the Visayas for deployment to Southern Command, the NPA took advantage by undertaking ambushes and operations further overstretching the military.
On Rizal Day of the year 2000, Al Qaeda-linked operatives carried out multiple bomb attacks against targets in Metro Manila causing numerous civilian casualties.
The operational levels of aircraft, vehicles, and equipment of the AFP plummeted to alarmingly low levels and the AFP Modernization Plan was eventually reprioritized to internal security operations just to rebuild the numbers of the depleted and worn out equipment of the military.
This would eventually lead to the total abandonment of external security in the years to come to the delight of the Chinese who were increasing their operations at the West Philippine Sea.
Of equally serious concern, the capture of the camps and the battles with the MILF did not leave the military unscathed and it sustained the highest level of casualties since the 1980s and as it turned out, operations against the MILF continued because the rebels did survive everything including the kitchen sink that the AFP threw at them.
The AFP then experienced something that everyone thought had gone away. It experienced the return of dissent - dissent that would lead to open rebellion against President Joseph Estrada in 2001 and mutinies against the Arroyo administration in 2003 and 2006.
The AFP strength
Can the AFP, 15 years after the inconclusive campaign against the MILF in 2000, do any better this time around should there be a resort to military means to deal with the secessionism?
From a manpower standpoint, the AFP today numbers a little over 120,000 men of which 85,000 are in the Philippine Army and 8,500 in the Philippine Marine Corps.
However, such numbers are misleading as there is a cardinal rule that in order to get the combat effectives of any army or ground force, one must divide by at least a third the total number of personnel.
So in the case of the Philippine Army the total number of men serving in the field in an actual combat capacity numbers at a little less than 30,000 scattered all over the Philippines. The rest are in various administrative capacities and frequently are too old to do anything else but stay in the camps and do office work. Now the same goes for the Philippine Marines and less than 50 percent of that force is in the front. So at most, the Philippine military has approximately 35,000 or so men with very few women serving in an actual frontline capacity.
The 148,000-strong Philippine National Police, which is projected to take over the primary responsibility of counterinsurgency should the internal security situation get any better, oftentimes attaches small units of the Special Action Force to the military. The majority of the police force is ill-equipped and not trained to take on rebels especially the heavily armed secessionists and the regular police already have their hands full tackling criminality in the country.
As a force multiplier, there is the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units or CAFGU which numbers 60,000, again scattered throughout the country, and whose reliability is spotty to say the least but useful in establishing a presence in areas threatened by rebels. Being indifferently trained and paid makes the reliability of this force suspect and when used in combat or in operations they may cause problems especially in areas concerning human rights. Furthermore, given the convoluted nature of the situation in many rural areas, there is always that clear possibility that there are CAFGU units that have been compromised by rebel infiltration. Worse, there are cases that these CAFGU units are not under the supervision of the military but are the private armies of provincial warlords who themselves are the main causes of rebellion in the provinces due to their feudal ways that cause great socio-economic disparities and injustices.