“WINNING THE PEACE” IN WESTERN MINDANAO
Byline: Gordon Arthur / Mindanao
Asia’s ‘second front’ in the US-led Global War on Terror has not been grabbing news headlines in recent months, especially in light of continued high-profile operations in Afghanistan and Pakistani border areas. This second front is in Southeast Asia, concentrated specifically in the southern Philippines. Yet even within the Philippines, the south has been taking a backseat to high-profile territorial disputes with China centred on Scarborough Shoal, west of Palawan. However, the southern parts of the country remain a terrorist hotspot and the US continues to heavily support military operations by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Mindanao.
While the communist New People’s Army (NPA) is regarded as the largest national threat, there are numerous Islamic terrorist and criminal groups in the southern Philippines that pose serious security problems. Defence Review Asia recently travelled to the area to interview commanders of the Western Mindanao Command (WESTMINCOM), a unified command established in 2006, to ascertain how operations are proceeding.
It is beyond the remit of this article to examine the causes of insecurity in the southern Philippines, but by way of a précis, the secessionist movement is rooted in centuries of resistance to Spanish colonisation. The introduction of Catholicism, a rapid influx of immigrants who dispossessed traditional inhabitants of ancestral lands, economic underdevelopment, rampant poverty, and the destruction of traditional patterns of authority and community autonomy have all fuelled Muslim ill-feeling. The desire of groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is to secede from the Philippine republic and create a separate Bangsamoro state. Another layer adding to this complex situation is the Mindanao tradition of warlordism and blood feuds.
Abu Sayyaf Group
Chief among the terrorist groups lurking in Mindanao is the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), its name meaning “Bearer of the Sword”. This organisation is seeking to establish fundamentalist Islam in Mindanao via violent jihad. It maintains close links with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), international terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda, and larger groups like the MILF and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). JI contributes to insecurity by transferring terrorist knowledge (e.g. improvised explosive device [IED] manufacture).
The AFP gained a major success on 2 February when two OV-10A Bronco aircraft of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) conducted a bombing raid on an ASG hideout on the island of Jolo. The attack killed 15 ASG and JI terrorists, including Umbra Jumdail (alias Doc Abu Pula), Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan, Southeast Asia’s most-wanted terrorist) and Abdullah Ali (alias Mauwiyah). There is some dispute over the death of Jumdail as no positive identification of his remains was ever made. However, the AFP insists the burden of proof regarding his survival rests on the ASG, but that so far no evidence has been forthcoming.
Major General Noel A. Coballes – who assumed command of WESTMINCOM on 21 January 2012 – told Defence Review Asia: “We’re conducting focused operations against focused targets…Indications are that the ASG is conducting less violent activities.” He highlighted a couple of causes for this as being the neutralisation of high-ranking leaders, as well as economic development in traditional safe havens of the ASG and other criminal groups. MG Coballes stated: “In the past three months we haven’t received any glaring information about ASG operations. We’re conducting continued operations so they can’t plan or think of new attacks. We’re keeping them off-balance.” Recent estimates put ASG membership at around 400, although its freedom of movement is constantly being restricted. Most adherents are confined to Basilan and Jolo, the two most dangerous areas in the Philippines. MG Coballes went so far as to say that the ASG had “dwindling influence”. The commander has intimate knowledge of counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Mindanao as he was previously commander of the 1st Infantry Division, plus he has extensive experience with the elite First Scout Ranger Regiment.
A spokesman from the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines (JSOTF-P), an American unit formed after the 9/11 attacks, affirmed MG Coballes’ assessment. “With the loss of leadership and foreign financial support, the ASG is in disarray and has devolved into a criminal organisation.” This point is important as there has been a clear shift in focus for the ASG. Because of funding constrictions and military pressure, the group has become reliant on extortion and kidnap for ransom to sustain operations. There is an observable trend from fundamentalist terrorism towards organised crime. One Philippine Army officer told the author that the group now seemed more interested in earthly profit than in spiritual ideals. Similar success has been noted against JI. JSOFTF-P told the author, “The death and detention of JI senior leaders has reduced its ability to operate in the southern Philippines.” Its presence was described as “very small and incoherent”.
In a major policy change, President Benigno Aquino III adopted the Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) Bayanihan on 1 January 2011. This document serves as a national counterinsurgency roadmap, and American officials at JSOTF-P described it as a “paradigm shift in the focus and roles of both the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP).” The key point of the six-year strategy is that it gives “equal emphasis to combat and non-combat dimensions of military operations,” and appoints the PNP to take the internal-security lead. The military already heavily supports the police and this will continue – one example being the training of police Special Action Groups. The expanded police role will free up the AFP to perform its state protection role, something that has gained much publicity given current maritime disputes with China. In essence, the IPSP Bayanihan advocates moving away from a predominantly militaristic approach to a people-centred strategy involving government and civilian stakeholders. Four pillars outlined in the plan are: governance; delivery of basic services; economic reconstruction and sustainable development; and security sector reform.
The IPSP also proposes nuanced operations tailored to particular security threats – “winning the peace” rather than defeating the enemy. However, when it comes to terrorist groups, no quarter is being given. Efforts shall be “unequivocal in defeating terrorist groups” announces the IPSP. Key will be separating terrorist groups from foreign support, influence and technical capabilities. Regional economic and security development should reduce ASG/JI safe havens and lessen the risk of locals being radicalised. Unfortunately, as part of the symbiotic relationship of local armed groups that offer terrorists sanctuary, this is easier said than done. Integral kinship ties exist between militants and an often sympathetic local populace. Nevertheless, once isolation is achieved, the government hopes to apply precise military force through intelligence-driven operations. This is crucial, since the military has been regularly accused of heavy-handedness and atrocities in the past.
Internal security operations (ISO) hinge on the triad of combat, intelligence and civil-military operations (CMO). The latter is not new to the AFP, and commanders have stressed its importance to the author on a number of occasions. “I firmly believe economic progress will affect ASG recruitment,” MG Coballes shared. He has intensified IPSP efforts, and cited the success of medical and engineering civic-action programmes such as a circumferential road around Basilan. “We hope the ASG will be eliminated and that we can make economic development occur faster,”he concluded. An American officer claimed: “The AFP has been notably successful in finding local political solutions to what previously might have become violent exchanges.” Psychological warfare is extremely important to the AFP and JSOTF-P through such means as radio advertisements and pamphlets.
Colonel Buenaventura C. Pascual is the commander of Task Force Zamboanga (TFZ), a unit charged with providing security in Zamboanga City and its 807,000 residents. He outlined his overall concept consisting of defensive and offensive operations to shield Zamboanga from terrorists and criminals. Troops conduct checkpoints on roads, provide security at shopping centres and airport, as well as operating as bus and ferry marshals. VIP protection and IED prevention are also important roles. TFZ contains some 450 soldiers, 850 paramilitaries and 170 special paramilitary forces. Interestingly, some 70% of Colonel Pascual’s headquarters staff is Muslim.
He described an operation against the criminal gang led by Commander Camsa Asdanal, which had terrorised the populace with kidnappings, murder, piracy, extortion and theft. For instance, if fishermen refused to pay the Camsa Group protection ‘tax’, their boats would be sunk or their lives threatened. In March 2011, the leader (ranked fourth on the province’s most-wanted list) was located in a house in Barangay Kaliantana and an operation was conducted to apprehend him. In the end, Asdanal and eight supporters were killed in a shootout and ensuing fire that engulfed the home.
Colonel Pascual described the need for coordination with local police and the mayor. The military has limited legal jurisdiction (it has no powers of arrest, for example) so it aims to support the police and to provide firepower in the case of shootouts. He said integrated community defence systems in barangays (districts) were important. “Lawlessness is based on money,” said the TFZ commander. “There is a history and culture of it here, and they are looking for ways to make easy money.” Colonel Pascual said the greatest danger in Zamboanga City is kidnappers arriving from the nearby island of Basilan to grab victims. Previously the threat came from the highlands, but now the most dangerous groups arrive and depart by boat, making it imperative for the authorities to control the sea. During the author’s visit, the mayor of Zamboanga Del Norte was kidnapped by abductors wearing police uniforms, sparking a major operation by TFZ and the police.
Mindanao order of battle
Principal WESTMINCOM units are the army’s 1st Infantry Division (with four infantry brigades and one mechanised brigade), the 55th Engineer Brigade, Task Force Zamboanga, Task Force Sulu, two Philippine Marine Corps battalions operating in the archipelago, two special operations joint task forces (JTF Basilan and JTF Sulu), naval assets from Naval Forces Western Mindanao (NAVFORWEST), and approximately 25 aircraft from the 3rd Air Division. Included in the Special Forces order of battle is the Joint Special Operations Group (JSOG), which possesses elite soldiers from the army’s Light Reaction Battalion. These rapidly deployable soldiers are on standby for high-value target interdictions. In total, MG Coballes has some 15,000 troops under his command.
Major General Jose Tony Villarete, commander of the PAF’s 3rd Division, revealed the Philippines is also installing improved air defence radar systems for territorial defence. The first site is on Palawan and a second is to be in Mindanao. However, ISO is still the priority for the 3rd Air Division. The commander praised the skill level of his pilots. Under American tutelage, they have become proficient in night-time missions that employ night vision devices, thus allowing helicopters to medevac, insert and extract troops in darkness. MG Villarete commands some 170 officers and 1,300 enlisted men, although the disposition of his forces is “very dynamic’ depending on requirements. Capabilities have been enhanced with delivery of upgraded Super Huey UH-1HII helicopters. He is also looking forward to the much-needed delivery of a long-range maritime patrol aircraft within a couple of years. Another PAF mission is humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), with a high incidence of natural disasters in the region.
National Coast Watch System
A linchpin in Philippine strategic security is the National Coast Watch System (NCWS), which helps monitor the 7,107 islands belonging to this archipelagic nation. Indeed, the Philippines accounts for 10.2% of the world’s coastline! Previously called Coast Watch South (CWS) when it was established on 28 November 2008, the name change reflects the growing national importance of this integrated network of 21 coastal radar installations. President Aquino signed Executive Order 57 into law on 6 September 2011 to expand the system’s remit, and its main use is search and rescue, and countering human trafficking, illegal fishing, pollution, smuggling (e.g. fuel, food, arms), criminality, piracy and terrorism. In fact, as if to underscore its versatility, during the time of the author’s visit the NCWS played an important role in locating the Azamara Quest cruise ship after it lost power in Philippine waters.
WESTMINCOM administers an area of 77,300 square nautical miles, and eight radar installations are located within its jurisdiction to monitor main sea lines of communication (SLOC) and choke points. MG Coballes said the stations were “fully functioning”. Rear Admiral Armando Guzman, commander of NFWM, stated: “The National Coast Watch System gives us much clearer maritime domain awareness.” RADL Guzman has just 21 naval vessels and one BN-2A Islander aircraft to perform various missions within his command. With NFWM having to practise selective deployment simply because assets are so thinly stretched, the NCWS serves as a force multiplier. “The system saves manpower. It economises on floating assets as they can be deployed to more urgent areas,” explained the commander.
Camp Navarro hosts one of four Coast Watch Centres, where real-time data is collated and disseminated to the centralised Maritime Research Information Centre (MRIC) in Manila. The other three centres are located in Palawan, Luzon and Davao. The growing database provides a picture of maritime traffic flow that can highlight trends and abnormalities for end-users. The USA funded four radar stations in Western Mindanao and these employ American radar systems, while the remainder of stations use British radar. Australia also provided technical assistance. As well as radar and automated information systems, some stations have infrared and colour camera systems. Each installation is guarded around the clock by detachments of Marines. There are admitted blind spots in NCWS coverage so the military desires further stations to erase gaps. Perhaps the greatest threat to the NCWS is the government’s ability to maintain necessary funding levels, especially as equipment starts aging.
Because it has the most appropriate resources for interdiction and patrol, the Philippine Navy (PN) is the lead agency in operationalising the NCWS. However, RADL Guzman explained the navy is working to make the NCWS less naval-centric by persuading stakeholders such as the PNP, PNP Maritime Group, Philippine Coast Guard, government agencies (Departments of Transportation and Communications, Justice, Energy, Environment and Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Customs, Immigration and Fisheries Bureaus) to get involved. “They’re slowly realising it makes their operations easier too. More involvement will help the navy because a smaller burden will be placed on our shoulders,” said RADL Guzman. The navy is already beginning to see progress as these agencies recognise the growing value of the NCWS. Commercial fishing companies, for instance, are getting on board. The system should also lead to greater tri-border cooperation with Malaysia and Indonesia. The AFP struggles with perennial underfunding and a shortage of assets, so the NCWS is a cost-effective means of maintaining maritime domain awareness.
Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines (JSOTF-P) is composed of some 600 American servicemen and women, and the contingent recently marked its tenth anniversary in the southern Philippines. Its main base is Camp Navarro in Zamboanga, within a stone’s throw of the WESTMINCOM HQ. Such a location results in tight information sharing and partnership at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. The US is helping develop sustainable intelligence collection, mobility, communication, and command-and-control (C2) capabilities thanks to its superior technology. JSOTF-P is always at pains to point out it “does not engage in combat operations” in the Philippines, and one embassy spokesman stated even the perception of combat involvement would constitute mission failure.
MG Coballes described the benefits of American assistance: “The US is very helpful in our operations. Aside from training, we trade information. They have technology and we have good human intelligence on the ground, so we have a good picture of where, when and how the enemy will strike.” He explained that the American contribution was “very helpful” to WESTMINCOM, although the presence of JSOTF-P was not a permanent thing. The WESTMINCOM commander said, “The time will come when we can say thank you and goodbye to the Americans.” The Americans were quick to agree with such a sentiment – “We’re here to advise and assist our partners for as long as they require and desire our assistance.”
JSOTF-P comprises a mix of army, air force, marine and navy personnel. It has three subordinate units – Task Forces Mindanao, Sulu and Archipelago. TF Mindanao is based at Camp Siongco in Cotabato (central Mindanao), while TF Sulu is located at Camp Bautista on Jolo. TF Archipelago is the only group equipped with maritime assets, including Mk.V Special Operations Craft and 11m Naval Special Warfare Rigid-hull Inflatable Boats. Air logistical support is provided by U-28A and C-12 Huron aircraft plus Bell 214 helicopters. These helicopters owned by Evergreen, as well as several unmarked intelligence aircraft, are based at Edwin Andrews Air Base adjoining Zamboanga International Airport.
The Philippines is implementing a new approach with its IPSP Bayanihan but the future is not all peachy. Governments tend to introduce new policies that are subsequently replaced by successive administrations when they do not bear fruit. Significant challenges remain for government and security agencies in the southern Philippines, with historical injustices and deep-seated mistrust needing to be overcome. Nor can a thick web of tribal and familial ties be easily penetrated. The region has been underfunded for centuries, and lifting it out of the mire of poverty cannot be done in a matter of months or years. Military solutions to insurgency bring only short-term success, so instead the government has to address underlying causes through a holistic approach and sustained economic development.
Yet another challenge is the makeup of groups like the ASG, which revolve around a loose network of various commanders and devotees. This makes militant groups resilient and difficult to root out. Another difficulty for WESTMINCOM is coordinating with external government agencies, and the ability to clearly define the roles of military and civilian agency stakeholders. For example, local politics are extremely messy, and fractious politicians and community leaders may not be easy to work with. To complicate things further, at the same time as it is combating regional and nationwide insurgencies, the AFP is seeking to transition from ISO to territorial defence!