Enrile’s ‘friendly fire’
People expected a bombshell blast from Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile at the Jan. 27 Senate hearing on the Mamasapano incident, the probe of which was reopened at his request to present his new information proving President Benigno Aquino III’s culpability for the deaths of the SAF 44. Mainstream media was not impressed; the Inquirer pronounced the bombshell a “dud.”
Enrile presented no new information not already accessed by one or any of the nine bodies that independently investigated the incident. Neither did he raise new questions or accusations that had not earlier surfaced in congressional hearings or in the media.
No one has disputed that P-Noy knew and authorized Oplan Exodus, the last of a series of operations in a decade-long effort to capture Marwan. Or that he permitted the continued involvement of suspended Philippine National Police chief Alan Purisima in the planning and implementation of Exodus, the basis of the criticism that P-Noy broke the chain of command.
P-Noy himself had repeatedly acknowledged that he bore the ultimate responsibility for the Exodus failure. But Enrile wanted to prove that P-Noy directly caused the Exodus disaster and then compounded his guilt by denying assistance to the beleaguered Special Action Force commandos.
Through the aggressive grilling of AFP officers and the tedious, occasionally comical, effort to connect disparate text messages from different parties, Enrile tried to spin a narrative to support his thesis: P-Noy was (or should have been) micromanaging Oplan Exodus from the start of the encounter early in the morning of Jan. 25. Either by inaction or an explicit “stand-down order” that prevented the Armed Forces of the Philippines from supporting the SAF forces, P-Noy was accountable for the SAF deaths.
The text messages instead proved the opposite: Even if he had so desired, P-Noy could not conduct long-distance combat micromanagement whose appropriateness experts would question, because he did not have the data in Zamboanga to make informed decisions. Neither did the PNP officers in Mamasapano responsible for Exodus.
The flurry of text messages precisely sought to obtain or to confirm information. Information was lacking because Purisima and then SAF Director Getulio Napeñas deliberately withheld Exodus from parties with whom it should have been shared, not least, the officer in charge of the PNP and the interior secretary.
Failure to coordinate with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, as required by the ceasefire agreement, delayed efforts to stop the firefight. It was the MILF chair of the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) who alerted his AFP counterpart at 6:38 a.m. to the ongoing encounter and initiated a ceasefire process. The CCCH members from Cotabato could only meet with the MILF area commanders in Mamasapano at 11:30 a.m. Coming under fire, the team could only enter the 55th SAC encounter site at around 1:15 p.m.
Failure to coordinate with the military, as explicitly ordered by P-Noy, delayed timely artillery support. But forces were immediately available to assist the 55th Special Action Company (SAC) among from the rest of the nearly 400 men the PNP had mobilized to capture two terrorists. AFP units rushing to the battle site around 10 a.m. saw them waiting along the road. We still have no clear explanation for what the President and the PNP board of inquiry had also wondered about: the failure of these forces to support the 55th SAC?
Contrary to some media reports, the battle involving the 55th SAC did not last the whole day. By around 1 p.m., all of the 55th SAC commandos in the encounter site were dead and beyond anyone’s help. But at 1:30 p.m., Napeñas still could not confirm that any SAF commando had been killed.
The AFP PowerPoint at the Senate hearings showed a photograph of Napeñas, in civilian clothes and seemingly smiling, which suggested that, at past 4 p.m., he was not yet aware that the 55th SAC had been wiped out. The commentary noted that Napeñas’ demeanor reflected no sense of urgency about the situation and his attire indicated that he had not planned to go to the frontlines to assess the situation personally and to inspire and lead his men.
It was also only after 5 p.m. that the military learned that another SAF unit, the 84th SAC, was on the field and still engaged in combat. Fortunately, the AFP was able to get the data required by its protocol to render supporting artillery fire. Three rounds of phosphorous shells relieved the pressure on the 84th SAC and possibly prevented more casualties.
Although already available in the Mamasapano documentation, the additional Senate session led to the release of materials from executive committee records and their wider dissemination. These were especially damaging to Napeñas and to the commanders of the SAF units that failed to support the 55th SAC. Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV has called for their investigation.
The Enrile bombshell was not really a “dud.” It detonated but backfired, causing “friendly fire” casualties among those he had not intended to hurt.
Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management. Professor Rofel Brion’s Tagalog translation of this column and others earlier published, together with other commentaries, are in http://secondthoughts.ph
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