Lessons from Mamasapano

12:13 AM February 11, 2015

The staggering number of Special Action Force (SAF) casualties—44 police commandos—in a difficult mission to capture Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, the so-called Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia, has ignited widespread public furor.

Fingers have been pointed at various directions, as to what went wrong, what should have been done to complete the mission successfully, and who was at fault for the perceived end-game flop in saving the lives of the 44 SAF policemen, who bravely took the risk the mission entailed, for love of God and country. However, though the inherent risk of the mission was a given, deafening questions still beg for an answer: Was there really nothing that could have been done to rescue and save the lives of our 44 gallant policemen?


To some extent, this mission—involving a high-profile terrorist target—was the first of its kind in the country; and as such, the absence of a “gold standard” or good model that will serve as basis or reference opened the door to possible endless finger-pointing as to what should have been the best plan to ensure zero or minimal casualty on the SAF side. Failure could potentially lead to discontent, mistrust or animosities, enough to destroy a previously unified and harmonious police force.

Gen. George Patton, well known for his pragmatic astuteness in the battlefield, once said: “Tell the troops ‘where to go’ and not only ‘how to go there.’” The former (“where to go”) is the set goal. The latter (“how to go there”) is the process wherein a long list of alternative actions, with each proponent believing that “my way is the best,” will forever be debatable.


The leader must be on top of the situation at all times, determining which alternative action should be best under an unexpected development that requires prompt decision and action. Whoever is the appointed responsible person must be allowed to make his/her judgment call, especially during crucial times of exigency. And although the mission primarily involved only one law enforcement unit, it would have been a perfect opportunity for the various government forces to act as one whole, even on relatively short notice. After all, they’re all part of the same team, under one head coach.

Let us lament the tragedy but grow wiser after consideration of other possible alternatives that could have led to a better end-result , accepting also that some intricate processes and sensitive operations have no “gold standard” that could really assure a favorable final outcome. But let this tragic mission serve as a reference, from which many lessons can be learned, as if it were a real “gold standard.”

—RAMON F. ABARQUEZ JR., MD, emeritus professor, University of the Philippines College of Medicine, [email protected]

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TAGS: George Patton, Mamasapano, Marwan, Special Action Force, Zulkifli bin Hir
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