SAF 44: The deathly time on target

 I tried reading the report of the Board of Inquiry (BOI) on the Mamasapano incident with an eye more on the lessons that one may get coherently from the account than on knowing who’s to blame for what. The focus is on factors contributing to the death of the 44 police commandos. I thought using an assumption-based approach would better serve the purpose, yielding this modest take as continued from a previous Yellow Pad column.

After six aborted and three failed missions to get the Malaysian terrorist Marwan, erstwhile Special Action Force (SAF) Director Getulio Napeñas had “decided against informing or working” with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which he blamed for information leakages that “compromised” the missions. The BOI noted that this belief was speculative, but Mr. Napeñas had held on to it as truth. In my previous column, I referred to this as the “Theory of Leaky AFP” — the core assumption that determined crucial aspects of the botched mission codenamed Oplan Exodus.

On precisely such assumption, Exodus was hatched and executed as an all-SAF operation, precluding prior coordination with the AFP. Coordination aims to facilitate the availability of support when needed, particularly the artillery fire support from the 6th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army. (The government peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has mechanisms in place that could be tapped for support as well, but I will leave this account out of here for reasons of space.)

In place of prior coordination, Mr. Napeñas decided to use for Exodus his idea of “time-on-target” coordination. It means SAF will only start coordinating with and informing the AFP the moment the target is engaged. The prime consideration is ensuring operational security.

Implicit in the choice of this coordination idea is the assumption of a false dilemma: you only have black or white choices, either prior coordination or time on target coordination. Not necessarily, says the BOI, some shades of grey mark the margin. Even if it is hypothetically admitted that the Theory of Leaky AFP is true, some anticipatory steps might have been undertaken by the SAF command well beforehand, like the following:

• Prepare a grab bag of information, given at an appointed time, that the receiving unit will find essential for delivering the expected support;

• Establish contact mechanisms and rapport with the staff of receiving unit without necessarily discussing mission details;

• Trust the PNP and AFP high command (methinks it involves an issue of humongous implication to national security for suspended Chief PNP Alan Purisima to decide not to, especially without giving anybody the benefit of an explanation).

Overall, the BOI is saying that the time on target concept should only apply at the tactical level, or selectively, not uniformly, “based on intelligence assessment.”

Putting the time on target idea into actual operation, as conceived by Mr. Napeñas, involves some steps that rest, in turn, on some implicit assumptions deducible from the report. These failed to hold and broke down in the face of reality, with “disastrous” consequences. Like these:

• Everybody knows what time on target means. Among SAF people, the BOI found out, “understanding of the time on target concept is limited, or for others, inexistent.” The AFP has never heard of it; it even runs counter to its standard operating procedures.

• Coordination means one and the same for PNP and AFP. The BOI says it does not. The SAF and the Army do not speak the same coordination language.

• Coordinate at your own convenience. The BOI has taken pains to show that coordination is mandatory and follows established procedures and protocols.

• Text messaging is a reliable means of coordination. Obviously, it is not.

• Request for support gets quick partners response from notice. Denied by the time on target idea of operational information, the BOI says, “the responding units were deprived of the opportunity to study the courses of action and make the necessary preparations so they can efficiently act.” They lacked “commonality of thoughts” that left them responding disjointedly. Expected response arrived when the death toll was already heavy at 44.

Answering questions in a forum of Christian leaders in March 9, 2015, PNoy narrated in Filipino the benefits you get from coordinating with the AFP well ahead of time, like this:

“So sinabi ko… kailangan makipag-coordinate ka sa AFP. ‘Yung AFP po kasi… yung AFP ho ang may kanyon, may armored vehicles, may eroplano. ‘Pag sinabi hong coordinate…hindi pwede ‘yung pagkilos dahil patungo ka na doon sa objective. Kailangan iposisyon ‘yung kanyon; kailangan iposisyon ‘yung tangke; kailangan iposisyon ‘yung eroplano; kailangan iposisyon ‘yung tao; kailangan iposisyon ‘yung gasolina at saka ‘yung bala ng kanyon, ‘yung bomba ‘nung eroplano, et cetera. Hindi mo naman magagawa ‘yan in 30 minutes or less.Sabi nila, ‘sir, ‘yung operation on security.’ Kausapin niyo ‘yung pinakamataas na kailangang kausapin na pwede niyang utusan lahat itong subordinate units na pumunta sa kani-kanilang mga puwesto para reding (ready) umalalay.

From all accounts, Mr. Purisima took on the role of coordinating with the PNP and AFP top management but he only started informing each of them after the target has been engaged. An entirely new set of assumptions might be needed for his actions. The assumption of leaky AFP can never explain why he chose to bypass the Secretary of the Interior and Local Government and the OIC Chief PNP. “Theory” is not the right word to use, either, but something more personal.

Like “power.”

Mario M. Galang is a senior fellow of Action for Economic Reforms and a development and governance specialist.

This article was first posted in Business World last March 29, 2015.
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