In times of war (or even in internal conflicts), fighting men die. Sometimes their deaths are without reason or stupidest reasons. Whether this outcome is due to bad military tactics of their commanders or by poor decision calls by the individual soldiers on the field, the buck stops there. That is just war – a FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition) situation.
In 1944, a total of 8000 American soldiers died in the disastrous Operation Market Garden. Some war historians attribute this terrible disaster on logistical and intelligence blunders. Other observers simply point to the mad race by Allied commanders Eisenhower and Montgomery in reaching Berlin by Christmas of 1944. Despite the staggering loss of men, nobody went to blame the leaders of the Allies. Neither Churchill or Roosevelt was crucified for the bloody fiasco.
In recent history, we also heard about costly bungled military operations. There is the infamous “Blackhawk down” incident (Official code name: Operation Gothic Serpent) in Somalia during 1993. It was even immortalised by a Hollywood blockbuster movie that illustrated how bad luck can be so bad. The American military that sent its best fighters – the US Special Forces and Army Rangers to capture a Somali rebel leader, belittled the adversary. As a result, it lost two Blackhawk helicopters and a total of 19 US servicemen. General William Garrison, commander of the US special forces in Somalia, took full responsibility and only retired from the military a day after the Somali rebel leader was killed. However, President Bill Clinton was never blamed for disaster.
Another military disaster featured in a Hollywood film is Operation Red Wings against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Packaged for the general audience as the blockbuster movie,”Lone Survivor” it highlighted bad-decision making by men on the ground that cost the military a Chinook helicopter and deaths of 19 Special Operation personnel including 8 elite Navy Seals. Again nobody raised hell on the Bush Administration for this incident.
Now, why do Filipinos blame President Benigno Aquino for the operational lapses of the unsuccessful police operation at Mamasapano, Maguindanao?
Based on reports from the media and the on-going Senate investigation on the incident, 392 fully armed Special Action Force (SAF) members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) were tapped for the operation. These are the best of the best of the Philippine police force that trained intensely on combat tactics and equipped with the latest weapons. Out of this total number, only two companies penetrated the target area: one was designated as the strike team and another a “Blocking Force.” Those who did not join the group, remained on the highway as back-up. With this set-up, any President is confident that the job will be accomplished.
However, it was not what was envisioned. What supposed to be a simple police operation of arresting or killing an international terrorist became a mother of all police operation disasters – 44 SAF commandos mercilessly slaughtered. Here are probable reasons why the operation turned into a massacre:
First, the PNP-SAF did not consult the military forces that are familiar with the area. It is puzzling that a military base sits just 5 kilometres away from the killzone but nobody bothered to ask them about what to expect in the field. At the very least the military commanders who are familiar with the terrain, could have advise where to situate the blocking force.
Second, the PNP-SAF did not have good intelligence on the security force of their primary target, Malaysian born Marwan .Instead of mastering the perimeter defense of Marwan’s hideout, they just barrelled into it like blind mice. As a result, booby-traps supposedly placed by Marwan around his perimeter warned him of the approaching SAF.
Third, the PNP-SAF should have known where to situate its “blocking force.” The location of the blocking force at the cornfield (with its back to the river) is a poor choice as MILF and BIFF snipers have a bird’s eye view of the area. As such, they had a field day shooting the SAF commandos one by one (even inflicting head shots on 29 of them).
Fourth, the PNP field commanders (including General Getulio Napenas) did not use sophisticated communication device. Instead they used text messages (through commercial lines) to reach their men, comrades in the military and superiors in Manila. Now how, effective are text messages in rural areas where signal is bad or commercial lines are easily compromised? If only, the beleaguered SAF forces have state-of-the art communication device like satellite phones and GPS, they could have easily relayed their position for reinforcement, extract and fire support.
Fifth, the SAF strike force were not reinforced by their own comrades at the point of the encounter when they can still be pulled out from the area. What happened to the 300 plus remaining PNP SAF personnel at the highway? If reports are true that they refused to go with the military forces in reinforcing their beleaguered comrades, the PNP has a serious problem.
With this scenario, the disaster at Mamasapano could have been avoided at the level of General Napenas. He could have tailor-made the attack plans to protect his men. Even if there are “higher-ups” playing armchair general in this operation, Napenas could have acted better by insisting on an over-kill operation (meaning involving the veteran Philippine Army). And after the smoke cleared, Napenas like General Garrison of the US military should have accepted full responsibility and resign his command. Not owning up to the responsibility only disheartens the ranks.
President Aquino, although given the title “Commander-in-Chief” should never be entrusted with the attack strategy to be used in the field. This the work of his generals like Napenas. Just like not being blamed for every flat tire government vehicles encounter or every stupidity government employees do, President Aquino (in fairness to him) should be free of blame for the blunders of his men over which he has no control.