From the Business Mirror (Mar 12): The soft-hand approach: Guns to play second fiddle in fight versus Mindanao terror groups
A host of government and security officials, led by Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana, met and huddled with provincial officials of Sulu in the middle of this week, in an effort to gain the support of local executives in the military’s ongoing campaign to neutralize the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
In Photo: Lorenzana:“The government needs the help of all [in ending terrorism in Mindanao].”
There is a lingering doubt, however, as to whether the dialogue with the representatives of impoverished residents of Sulu directly affected by the conflict—and even with the other upcoming dialogues with other peace stakeholders—will serve as the long-sought antidote to resolve Mindanao’s terrorism problem.
For one, there are about 400 terrorists reportedly operating in Sulu and the adjoining provinces of Basilan and Tawi-Tawi. But for Lorenzana, directly engaging the people of Sulu and the residents of the other provinces, who have been bearing the brunt of the conflict, could be the better part of a holistic approach in ending Mindanao’s security problem.
In holding the dialogue, Lorenzana was laying down what could be the template—and the “missing link”—in the military’s overall strategy in carrying out its antiterrorism war under the bigger internal-security operations (ISO) campaign. He knows this, being a retired dyed-in-the-wool commander of the Army’s Special Operations Command, and having been born and raised in the war-torn province of North Cotabato.
President Duterte, wearing a pilot’s jacket, gestures with Defense Chief Delfin N. Lorenzana (second from right) and Armed Forces Chief Ricardo R. Visaya (left) at the anniversary of the 250th Presidential Airlift Wing on September 13, 2016, at the Philippine Air Force headquarters in Pasay City.
For decades, the military has dealt squarely and heavily with national security threat groups, opting to use the strong-hand approach in dealing with them by utilizing and employing the combination of its air, land and sea power—its full might.
Yet, the Moro rebellion, the communist-inspired insurgency and the terrorism in the South have survived this strategy of the Armed Forces that is focused on heavy and continued operations, or what they called “all-out war”, under changing and succeeding administrations.
Even with the overwhelming might at its disposal, the military did not only struggle against these threats, but the players have even multiplied, where Mindanao now has its Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the Maute Group, an aggrupation of ISIS-inspired group and, before that, Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda fanatics.
Still, the Armed Forces has failed to rethink or recast its strategy, as shown by its previous ISO plans—the Oplan Bantay Laya I and II and the IPSP Bayanihan, which are all unsuccessful—by failing to tap the power of the soft-hand approach, or its combination with heavy operations.
The soft-hand approach basically employs sociodevelopment projects or, in military practice, civil-military operations, where peace engagements are an integral part.
The Armed Forces has its Civil-Military Operations battalions that were formed a couple of years back, but their activities and engagements were not only limited, but were even considered as undercover military operations, rather than an honest-to-goodness development drive.
While the IPSP Bayanihan has made the first attempt toward the use of the soft-hand approach in the implementation of the ISO, as it was crafted as a “whole of nation approach”, it failed in the undertaking, as its implementation has solely rested on the Armed Forces.
The weakness of the IPSP Bayanihan is now what Lorenzana is perfecting by pushing for and initializing the peace engagements of the military, directly with those affected by the conflict on the ground, courting them as partners, while the government aims for development projects.
There were peace negotiations by the government, but these were in the national level and only involved top leaders of threat groups.
During the dialogue with local officials in Sulu, Lorenzana was joined by health and transportation officials from the national government for the softer side of the Duterte administration’s six-year internal security operations DSSP Kapayapaan.
During the same engagement, local chief executives accused of having been involved with the ASG have expressed their readiness to be investigated by the government for their supposed activities.
The dialogue in Sulu on Tuesday followed a summit held three days earlier with the descendants of sultanates and royal clans of Mindanao in Davao City, wherein influential Moro leaders came up with an agreement pledging their “unequivocal and categorical commitment” to the government’s peace initiatives.
The “Davao Declaration”, a product of the three-day “Mindanaw Sultanate Summit on Peace and Security”, was signed by the Moro leaders before Lorenzana in response to his impassionate plea for all Mindanaoans to help in the fight against violent extremism and terrorism in the region.
“The government needs the help of all,” the defense secretary said, adding that the summit was just the start of the military’s engagement with all peace stakeholders.
The influential traditional Moro leaders all agreed that the “struggle against violent extremism and terrorism should not solely be borne by the government but should involve the whole of nation, including the sultanate and traditional institutions and leadership in Mindanao.”
The three-day engagement was attended by around 500 participants, including from the Sultanate of Maguindanao and Sultans, Datus and Bais from the Zamboanga Peninsula, Davao region, Southern Mindanao, Iranun, Biwang, Bagoinged, Lanao, Buayan and Kabuntalan.
Other government agencies, such as the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the National Security Administration, National Anti-Poverty Commission, the military and the Philippine National Police, also attended the summit.
They tackled the plans of the government in bringing its services to the people of Mindanao, which, in turn, solicited inputs from the participants that could help the government in its campaign against terrorism.
While the government knows that the impoverished and hungry people of Mindanao cannot be fed by mere words, or too much talk, it took years for the current administration to realize the urgency to address the factors that drive terrorism and violent extremism.
Prominent of these causes were the lack of basic social services, education and development projects.
While previous administrations knew these reasons, they did not move to plug the problem, or even if they did, the amount of projects that were carried out and implemented were wanting.
In the book The War on Terror, Two American Victims and Letters from Terrorists authored by this writer that is about to be published, veterans of the Mindanao conflict from the military admitted that the security problem in the south can never be addressed by the strong-hand approach.
The book, which covered the more than 10 years that the military has dealt with terrorism and extremism, and partly traced the growth and activities of the ASG, said heavy operations or the strong-hand approach have been tried, tested and implemented since the security problem in Mindanao came into being, and yet, the military is still dealing with a conflict, fighting an even bigger war.
“Instead, the government should build more roads, bridges, hospitals and health centers and send children to school, this is the best way to deal with the Mindanao problem, the soft-hand approach, said a former military commander interviewed for the book.
“This does not fall within the expertise of the military,” he added.
A Moro commander, when asked by a military commander why he had joined his secessionist group, exclaimed: “You know colonel, I did not go to school and so what is my option? Join the rebel group.”
“Because they were not in school, Moro children began by cleaning the guns of their elders until they become fighters themselves and this legacy is passed on the succeeding generations. The tale is not different from the stories of other children,” the retired military commander said.
During the summit in Davao, Lorenzana stressed that violent extremism leads to underdevelopment and poverty.
“Nakikita namin na ang violence dito sa Mindanao ay hindi kaya lang ng sundalo. Kailangan makialam tayo,” he said in the vernacular.
The defense secretary said it is the children who suffered the most in conflict-stricken areas, admitting that their exposure to a cycle of violence makes it easier for extremist groups to recruit them.
“So, what we are going to do is bring in development,” Lorenzana said.
Image Credits: Imparoimparo | Dreamstime.com, Wong Maye-E/AP, AP/Bullit Marquez