A deadly misstep stems from a wrong assumption. We hear the same wisdom from barbershop sages when they warn us in the vernacular, marami ang namamatay sa maling akala. Lately, somebody failed to take heed and the toll was 67 dead, in Mamasapano. After reading the report of the Board of Inquiry (BOI), the fact-finding body created by the Philippine National Police (PNP) to look into the Mamasapano incident, I felt better informed about the issue, with the pieces of information cohering into a clearer picture of what happened. I see in the picture a merit to our folk wisdom.

Prompting the BOI investigations was the aftermath of a PNP-Special Action Force (SAF) anti-terrorist operation, codenamed Oplan Exodus. Not that it failed. On the contrary, using its primary objective as measure, it was a successful one: terrorist Marwan is dead. But output counts less on this one than process. Oplan Exodus, as the media have described it, was a “botched” one: fouled up hopelessly through clumsiness, stupidity, ineptitude, as Merriam-Webster’s Third would have it. By numbers, it means 44 SAF police were killed, unnecessarily.

People cried for justice: they wanted it meted out. To whom? That was for the BOI to find out, hence the report. Who did what wrongly? Oplan Exodus involved the following key decision-makers:

• President Benigno S. C. Aquino III, who exercised his prerogative to bypass the PNP chain of command and deal directly with those that follow;

• Suspended Chief PNP Alan Purisima, who involved himself in the planning and execution of the mission despite his suspension; and

• SAF Director Getulio Napeñas, who led in the planning of the mission and commanded personnel for its execution, and served as such as the pivot of the mission.

For its fact-finding activity, the BOI developed a conceptual framework as guide, from which it derived 11 issue-topics (say, Chain of Command, Command Responsibility, Coordination, Operation Plan, etc.); for each topic, the corresponding actions taken are checked against actual results and these are evaluated for compliance or deviation from “generally accepted standards and policies.” The evaluation framework comes handy for BOI’s fact-finding purpose of establishing “lapses” and recommending actions to address them. The results are necessarily static since no relationship is established among issue items.

But working out relationships among them (causal or influence) is possible by using a different approach — one that is assumption-based. The idea takes for granted that Oplans and missions, like programs and projects, work on implicit or explicit assumptions, or theories, about how they’ll work. An evaluation attempts to surface these assumptions, and sub-assumptions, and examine to what extent these hold, say, against scrutiny, or which stand on firm evidence.

Take Oplan Exodus. It’s the tenth such mission conceived since 2010 to get Marwan: three were executed but failed, six were aborted. All these missions saw the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in joint planning sessions and operations, and involved Mr. Napeñas, earlier as Deputy Director of SAF, later as Director. The lessons that Mr. Napeñas drew from these previous tries would bear markedly on his planning and operational decisions under Exodus. The BOI report cited Mr. Napeñas as saying that these aborted missions “caused uncertainties and suspicions, so much so, that he decided against informing or working with the AFP” in later operations. “He speculated that sensitive intelligence and operational information were deliberately leaked whenever ‘big operations’ against HVTs [high value targets] like Marwan and Usman are conducted. Mr. Napeñas lamented that ‘the subjects are being coddled by the MILF, whose members have a lot of contacts in the AFP.”

It’s clear to the BOI that Mr. Napeñas’s belief about the AFP was speculative, but not without the benefit of hindsight. It wasn’t so to Mr. Napeñas when he was leading the planning of Exodus. The theory — let me call it the “Theory of Leaky AFP” — is all over the Operation Plan guiding its every major part. It’s interesting to know whether Mr. Napeñas explored other explanations for the aborted missions; if he did, what are these, and whether he found them less plausible than his adopted theory. I don’t see any indication in the report that he brainstormed other ideas on his own, gathered evidence for his theory, or tested it in the crucible of discussion.

We just know he held on to it tenaciously. And the report let us know, too, that no one in the SAF command challenged the theory. Groupthink? PNoy unwittingly put up a challenge according to an account from the report, thus: “[During the January 9, 2015 meeting with PNoy] Napeñas expressed his concerns that the operation might be compromised again. Both [PNP Intelligence Group Acting Director Fernando] Mendez and PDG Purisima shared Napeñas’ qualms about the order to involve the AFP in the operation. To this the President asked, ‘Wala na ba talaga kayong tiwala sa AFP?’ None of the police officers answered the President’s query.”

A core theory neatly embedded in the scheme things defines your dilemmas and the limits to your actions, bringing with them their own assumptions. The Theory of Leaky AFP excludes prior coordination with the AFP, which the report found disastrous. Given that the “hostiles” in the area were expected to join forces (following a pintakasi tradition) to yield an estimated 2,000 armed warriors, execution would come to depend heavily on tactics, timing, techniques and technology.

Mr. Napeñas opted for Time-On-Target coordination concept that the report finds severely flawed for assuming and assuming away a lot of factors. He admitted to not having them “thoroughly studied and considered” in planning for the Exodus. The omission was fatal by 44 counts.

The lesson is in the song by the Brownman Revival, as these lines show:

Maliit na butas lumalaki
Konting gusot dumadami
Di mo maibabaon sa limot at bahala
‘Pag nabulag ka ng maling akala
Bago maniwala
Magisip-isip ka muna
Marami ang namamatay
Sa maling akala

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


This article was first published in BusinessWorld last March 22, 2015