Photo: Reuters/  Lean Daval Jr
Photo: Reuters/ Lean Daval Jr

If your response is “Mamawhat?”, chances are you have not been following the parallel track of US-Philippine relations, the counterinsurgency cooperation that clearly interests President Duterte more than the international commentariat’s abiding preoccupation with the South China Sea.

With the United States expressing regret and concern and issuing oblique threats (well, expressing anxiety that “foreign investors” will shy away from the Philippines as a result of Duterte’s announced pro-China tilt) that invite Duterte’s domestic opponents to mobilize against him, Duterte has threatened the nuclear option: reopening the investigation of the botched operation to apprehend a terrorist in Duterte’s bailiwick of Mindanao in 2014.

Mamasapano is the most recent item in President Duterte’s lengthy catalog of grievances against joint US-Manila intrusions into Mindanao, that includes the horrors and hundreds of thousands dead in the century-long Moro insurrection and the possible covert role by US and Philippine central government forces in a terrorist bombing campaign that killed dozens in Duterte’s home city of Davao fifteen years ago.

Mamasapano is the Philippines’ Benghazi scandal.

In fact, it appears to be way worse than Benghazi. Accounts of the operation present a picture of incompetence and recklessness that go directly to the president of the Philippines at the time, Beningo Aquino, and implicate the United States.

44 members of special forces of the Philippine National Police died while on a mission to apprehend an alleged Abu Sayyaf bombmaker, Marwan.

An account of the missteps makes for astounding reading:

First, the troopers were not killed by Abu Sayyaf. They were killed by armed forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or the MILF. which was in the midst of peace negotiations with Manila, but not informed of the operation.

Second, apparently in order to keep the peace process on track, President Aquino engaged in hours of abortive attempts to communicate with the MILF instead of ordering immediate supporting artillery fire and helicopter evacuation to the beleaguered battalions.

The MILF claimed it could not communicate with its commanders on the scene because a brownout the day before had prevented them from recharging their cellphones. Only 16 of 60 commandos in the spearhead survived after being pinned down for ten hours in a cornfield.

Third, President Aquino had structured the operation as an independent operation by the Philippine National Police without informing the Minister of Defense or the Army, so they were unprepared to provide support.

Fourth, President Aquino did not order the operation through regular police channels, nor did he inform his own Minister of Interior. He greenlit the operation via former Director-General of the Philippine National Police Alan Purisima. Former, because astoundingly, Pursima had been suspended from the force at the time of the operation on corruption allegations. Purisma, an Aquino intimate, has now been arrested on graft charges.

Unsurprisingly, now that President Aquino is ex-President Aquino and shorn of the immunities of his office, a case for “multiple homicide” has been filed against him, and further legal difficulties are likely, especially if Duterte revives the investigation.

But wait, there’s more.

In defending himself from accusations of gross incompetence, the commander of the operation, Getulio Napenas, employed what could be called the alphabet defense: he had been working with the USA, the CIA, the DoD, and JSOTF.

Asked if the operation was solely a Philippine effort, Napenas replied that the US, through its Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines based in Zamboanga City, provided real time intelligence support, training and equipment during the preparations and, during the execution, humanitarian and medical support and “investigation,” referring to the handover of Marwan’s finger to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for DNA confirmation.

Napenas also confirmed that the units involved in the operation were trained by a combination of US military and JSOTF members.

When Enrile asked whether the CIA participated in Exodus, Napenas said the name of the agency was “never mentioned” but added that because intelligence was involved, it was “likely” that personnel from the spy agency were also involved.

After a photo of US personnel emerged from the operation, the US insisted it was only involved in evacuation of casualties.
But then there’s the allegation that one of the dead was actually a “tall, blond, blue-eyed Caucasian.”

The whole situation is rather sticky because the understanding of many in the Philippines was that the job of the US military is to partner with the Philippine military, the AFP, not the Philippine National Police—the PNP, and only as “advisors” not “combatants.” Indeed, on its own website the JSOTF rather categorically defines its role as:

SOTF-P works together with the Armed Forces of the Philippines to fight terrorism and deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Mindanao.

U.S. forces are temporarily deployed to the Philippines in a strictly non-combat role to advise and assist the AFP, share information, and to conduct joint civil military operations.

Nothing there about the US military working with Philippine National Police special forces, in other words, something that was pointed out in government hearings on the fiasco.

It was up to US ambassador Philip Goldberg to grit his teeth and declare to critics in the Philippine legislature 1) they didn’t know what they were talking about and 2) this kind of dirty linen shouldn’t be aired in public:

I also think people should look and be very careful when they talk about the various legal and other issues involved because they’re complicated, they’re complex, they’re not simple…My understanding, if you read the [Visiting Forces Agreement between the US and the Philippines], it is a government to government agreement, it’s not between the militaries [of the US and the Philippines]… I think it is irresponsible to discuss those things publicly.

To spare a thought for Ambassador Goldberg, he has not been dis-invited from the Philippines because of President Duterte’s homophobia.

Duterte’s suspicions probably have more to do with the fact that Goldberg was previously declared persona non grata in Bolivia because of the anti-American central government’s conviction that he was cultivating ties with right wing secessionists in the prosperous Media Luna region; that he had been intimately involved in the US effort to separate Kosovo from Serbia as an independent state as Chief of Mission in Pristina; and he had served as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research, the SIR being the State Department’s bespoke spook outfit built on the foundations of the OSS.

The US has been playing its own hand in negotiation/facilitation of the peace process in Mindanao for at least a decade, and Duterte may have decided he wanted to run his Mindanao policy himself and without the distraction of jostling for control with America’s point man for cultivating and exploiting secessionist movements.

And there’s more.

There’s a strong inference that Aquino cooked up the Mamasapano mission not just with US assistance but in deference to and coordination with US priorities.

Marwan, after all, was not wanted for his crimes in the Philippines. He was the target of relentless US “vengeance is mine” pursuit because of his alleged role in the Bali bombings of 2002 which had claimed over 200 lives, including 115 fatalities from core ally countries Australia and the UK. The US had put a bounty of US$5 million on his head and the Philippines had been correspondingly fanatical in pursuing him.

The notorious OpPlan Exodus that went down in flames at Mamasapano was the tenth attempt by the Philippine National Police alone to apprehend Marwan; and that doesn’t count attempts by the Army, including a bombing raid using sophisticated US-supplied JDAM munitions on his suspected lair.

US rewards are blamed in some quarters for skewing security priorities in the Philippines, but it looks like the distortions are political as well as financial.

President Aquino was ostentatiously lingering at the Zamboanga airfield (home base for JSOTF and the site from which several days’ drone flights were reportedly conducted against Marwan’s hideout) on the day of the Mamasapano raid, inviting speculation that he was there hoping to soak up some personal GWOT glory when the operation went down.

Following the disaster, Aquino discretely faded away and the Philippine police, for its part, disavowed any reward in order to neutralize accusations that the operation had been executed for financial motives.

Not good enough, perhaps, now that Duterte is threatened with organized push-back by pro-US forces in the military, bureaucracy, legislature, and the Manila establishment.

The outlines of Duterte’s counterattack are clear: that Aquino squandered Philippine lives at the behest of the United States in an idiotic escapade.

While in Beijing, Duterte laid out a preliminary bill of indictment, in particular asking what’s with the US$5 million reward? Which is still “being processed,” but maybe Duterte wants to make the point that it should be diverted to the survivors of the commandos who fell at Mamasapano instead of gifted to whatever murky and perhaps connected individual who helped set up the bloodbath.

“Fingergate”–asking whether Marwan’s finger (the only concrete achievement of the raid, since he was killed in the operation to apprehend him) had been sent to the Philippine forensics unit at Camp Crame, as would befit an operation that served and respected Philippine sovereignty, or directly handed over to the FBI (which got the digit and compared it to DNA from Marwan’s brother, who was in US custody, for a positive ID)–also received an airing.

“Filipinos, if you want to go to war, go. As long as it is really the desire of the nation, to protect itself. Forty-four Mamasapano soldiers, they went inside, they died.”

“Who got the five million (US dollars reward money for the capture of Marwan)? Whether the tip of the finger of Marwan, was gotten by the Special Forces of United States or was it really brought to the forensic division diyan sa Crame?”

“These are the lies that are imposed upon the people which is not good. Let us go for the truth. Let it out.”

It appears Duterte is putting his opponents on notice that he is not without recourse and ex-President Aquino might want to temper the anti-Duterte activities of his partisans and allies lest the very thin and rotten limb he’s out on gets sawed off.

Peter Lee

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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