The military is embarking this year on what it calls a “realistic objective” of crippling all terrorist organizations in Mindanao, including the New People’s Army (NPA), which has been categorized by President Duterte as a terror group, by capitalizing on the gains of its internal security operations in the region last year.
In fact, for most of the battle-scarred senior military commanders, “cripple” is a mild term to describe the projected after-effect of operations against all of Mindanao’s threat groups. The fitting word is “defeat,” which, ironically, has been a byword of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) against enemies of the state in past years
Members of the New People’s Army march in their guerrilla encampment tucked in the Sierra Madre Mountains southeast of Manila on November 23, 2016.
Still, for a slight change, the military top brass has reissued the overly rehashed marching orders to its troops, but this time, with confidence and with certainty of results: End the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) group, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), with focus on its two breakaway factions aligned with the IS; and the NPA.
Against the ASG, the mission is clear and doable, according to Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the Joint Task Force Sulu, who is leading the campaign against terrorists in the southern area with wit and grit, and with brilliant operations, which the ASG may have never encountered before.
The objective, not only against the ASG, but even against all the other threat groups, becomes even clearer under the shadow and operational footsteps of martial law.
“We want it done as soon as possible, we are doing our best effort. We are trying to get their leadership,” Sobejana said as he emphasized his tested strategy of neutralizing the key leaders of the ASG that resulted in the successive surrender of terrorist fighters.
According to Sobejana, the killing of top terrorist leaders has created a domino effect down to the ranks of the ASG, which prompted a considerable number to yield after they became “headless”.
“That is our priority for now, getting their leaders, neutralizing the leaders to really fast-track the defeat of the ASG,” he said.
“We strongly believe that [defeating the ASG], especially now that we are not alone in this fight. Government officials from the governor down to the barangay captains are with us, so to us, this is very doable, very doable,” Sobejana also said.
Sobejana belongs to the crème dela crème of warriors in the AFP, as he is a Medal of Valor awardee, along with Brig. Gen. Custodio Parcon, who is heading the campaign against the ASG in Tawi-Tawi, being the head of Joint Task Force Tawi-Tawi.
Armed Forces Western Mindanao Command commander Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr. said he will push his men not only to defeat the ASG, but even the BIFF and the NPA in Central Mindanao and neutralize any remaining member of the IS.
He added, though, that the NPA, with its “insignificant” number, is being held at bay in his operational jurisdiction.
“That is our goal for the year, we will do it, it can be done,” said Galvez, who joined other senior military commanders for the traditional New Year’s call on Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana early this week.
While there had been reports of foreign fighters sauntering into Mindanao in support of their local IS colleagues, Galvez and Lorenzana said the military is yet to catch one, although the reports of such foreign presence are being continuously validated.
Just before he embarked on his trip from Mindanao to Manila for the New Year’s call to the defense secretary at Camp Aguinaldo, Galvez has redeployed 11 battalions to Sulu to hasten the operations there against the ASG, which is headed by Radullan Sahiron, considered the emir of the terrorist group.
The battalions were pulled out from Marawi City, where they have been deployed last year at the height of the operations against the IS and its affiliate, the Maute Group.
Galvez said the ASG in Sulu was already on the verge of collapse last year as a result of the successive operations by Joint Task Force Sulu, which killed a number of the group’s key leaders, although the trend was somewhat aborted by the pullout of soldiers.
He said the redeployment of the 11 battalions should send the ASG into its demise, especially with the objective of neutralizing its remaining leaders within the year.
300+ ASG ’neutralized’
A report released by Galvez’s command, through its spokesman, Capt. Jo-ann Petinglay, said that a total of 352 ASG members were neutralized last year, as the Joint Task Forces Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga under Sobejana, Parcon, Brig. Gen. Juvymax Uy and Col. Leonel Nicolas, respectively, intensified their operations against the ASG.
Of the number, 144 have yielded to government forces, which represented 41 percent of the neutralized bandits.
The report also said that a total of 223 firearms were “recovered, seized and surrendered to the joint task forces.”
The four task forces also logged a total of 53 encounters with the ASG.
In Central Mindanao, the Joint Task Force Central under Maj. Gen. Arnel dela Vega also neutralized 243 members of the BIFF last year.
A total of 38 firearms were recovered and seized by the task force, which recorded a total of 44 firefights with the terrorist group.
The Western Mindanao Command has six task forces.
Cutting NPA force by half
While the military commanders in Mindanao are eyeing to end all terror groups in the region within the year, AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero has drawn a “modest” goal against the NPA around the country by aiming to cut its forces by at least half of its present number.
Guerrero said that currently, the guerrillas number to about 3,700.
The chief of staff ordered all area commands whose operational jurisdictions list the presence of rebels to sustain and intensify their operations against the group.
The head of the Armed Forces Eastern Mindanao Command, Lt. Gen. Benjamin Madrigal, has already ordered his troops to resume operations against the NPA as soon as the cease-fire with the rebels ended on January 2.
The area command reported earlier that around 45 percent, or 2,000, of the total armed members of the NPA, operate within its areas.
Lorenzana said that since martial law has been extended in Mindanao, there’s a good chance that the military could lick the communist rebels operating in the region, a belief that Guerrero shares.
The defense secretary said that since Duterte has tagged the NPA as a terrorist group, it is included in martial law’s order of battle.
Guerrero added that if the measure is not extended, as he noted the petition against it before the Supreme Court, it will significantly affect their operation.
Specifically, it will affect the conduct of checkpoints, visibility patrols and the “intensified military operations,” according to him.
In Sultan Kudarat, Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, commander of the Army’s 33rd Infantry Battalion, said nearly all of the rebels operating in the province are members of local tribes.
“About 90 percent of the members of the Guerrilla Front 73 of the communist terrorist organization here in Sultan Kudarat are indigenous people. This is reflected by the fact that 100 percent of the surrenders in 2017 belong to the Dulangan Manobo and T’boli tribes,” he said.
Cabunoc and his men are dealing with the rebels through a combination of “soft and strong hand” approaches, or a mixture of combat operations and community support operations.
“The decisive terrain in an insurgency is the human terrain. We need to dominate in the battle of opinion, in touching the hearts of the populace, and in getting the support of the people. To achieve this, the civil government and the military establishment must synergize their efforts toward a common goal,” he said.
Image Credits: Ace Morandante/Presidential Photographers Division, Malacañang Palace via AP, AP Photo/Aaron Favila