August 2nd, 2011, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Editorial, A baffling story,
LET'S GO over the story again. According to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, some 30 Marines, deep in pursuit of Abu Sayyaf members in the forests of Patikul, Sulu, stumbled on a major encampment of the bandit group late last week and engaged about 70 gunmen in a fierce firefight that lasted about four to five hours, resulting in seven Marines dead and 21 wounded. Five of the casualties were reportedly beheaded, although that number has been officially lowered to two decapitated soldiers and two others "severely hacked."
And the enemy? "Intelligence reports indicated that the Marines killed 20 Abu Sayyaf," said Col. Eugenio Mislang, chief of Camp Navarro Hospital where some of the wounded soldiers were treated. "We got 13 names but no body count, because the bandits carried their dead and wounded away."
Twenty Abu Sayyaf dead, complete with names for 13 of them, but no body count. Was Mislang aware of how odd, absurd even, his statement sounded? If there wasn't any body count, how was the number of 20 casualties arrived at, let alone more than a dozen of them identified by name? And even as the AFP claimed it had achieved a "strategic victory" by overrunning a "major stronghold" of the Abu Sayyaf, not one enemy body was recovered to prove its claims. Zero—because, in the heat of battle, "the bandits carried their dead and wounded away."
What are we to make of this baffling tale? There is no doubting the courage and heroism of the soldiers of the republic, who continue to risk life and limb—in more ways than one, in this case, with a couple of Marines said to have ended up "hacked beyond recognition"—to protect the nation against armed and dangerous renegades. The dead and wounded on the government side deserve every honor that a grateful nation can bestow on them—and may that extend to adequate support for the families and loved ones these soldiers have prematurely left behind.
But if these Marines' deaths are not to end up as more needless kindle on the raging fire that has consumed Mindanao for decades now, hard questions have to be asked. Among other things, they concern the AFP's ability to get its story straight, to not fudge the facts, however embarrassing or inconvenient they might turn out to be, so that it can learn from them and avoid putting more lives and resources pointlessly in harm's way.
The Abu Sayyaf enclave, for instance, which the AFP said the Marine troops only stumbled upon while they were combing the area for the rogue group's alleged kidnap victims. What this implies was that the military had no prior knowledge of the camp whatsoever. Yet Marine Commandant Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero went on to describe it as "one of the major strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf Group," while Lt. Col. Randolf Cabangbang, spokesman of the Western Mindanao Command, would up the ante by proclaiming it as the group's "main base" and "nerve center."
Really? So how—given the billions of unaudited pesos poured annually into the AFP's military intelligence operations, and the millions of dollars more extended by the United States to help subdue the Abu Sayyaf—had the major encampment escaped anyone's attention, right up to that fatal day when, as Cabangbang put it, "the [soldiers] found themselves in the middle of it"?
The military now says the camp was the headquarters of notorious Abu Sayyaf leaders Radulan Sahiron and Isnelon Hapilon. Sahiron has a $1-million bounty on his head offered by the US government; Hapilon has $5 million. The war against the group itself has stretched for years now, robbing the country not only of scant public resources, but of the peace and security essential to socio-economic progress. It has claimed the lives of hundreds of gallant soldiers, while at the same time inflicting terror and misery on Mindanao residents caught in the crossfire.
Time and again, the military has declared the Abu Sayyaf a spent force, if not on its way to being crushed. Yet, like a deathless ghoul, it has risen again and again to spook the nation's headlines with new outrages. So what, after all the vast amounts of money it has managed to suck up, has the military's so-called intelligence service to show, so far, in this interminable war?
"Their sacrifices were not fruitless, as the Marines in Sulu have proven that they are coming closer to attaining their goals against terrorism," Vice Adm. Alexander Pama assured.
How close, Admiral? At the very least, those soldiers have paid for the truth with their lives. Say it.