US role in Mamasapano highlights conflicting interests in peace process

By Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Mar 21 2015 12:54 PM | Updated as of Mar 21 2015 09:00 PM

Special to abs-cbnnews.com

A botched covert operation supervised by US forces United threatens to mire dreams of an autonomous Bangsamoro homeland in a swamp of conflicting interests.

President Aquino addresses the nation in the aftermath of the Mamasapano incident. Photo by Ryan Lim, Malacanang Photo

President Benigno Simeon Aquino III has emerged as the biggest loser in the hunt for slain Malaysian terror suspect Zulkifli Bin Hir, alias Abu Marwan, and his Filipino acoomplice, Basit Usman, who remains at large.

But the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the other main actor in peace talks to end decades of conflict in a wide swathe of southern Philippines, also faces the most serious challenge to its credibility.

Its forces have been accused of executing wounded Special Action Forces. The 15,000-strong Muslim guerrilla force also faces questions over its record for harboring more extreme local and foreign groups in its camps.

Now, as Philippine Congress hawks threaten to scuttle passage of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), or at least water this down to fit the tight confines of the Constitution, MILF leaders are faced with a potential backlash among influential and more hardline ground commanders.

It will have to wrestle with new compromise provisions that could diminish its hold over a region with contending Muslim groups.

“Substantial” American involvement in Mamasapano has been established, despite government efforts to keep this under wraps.

The actuations of US operatives, most likely from its civilian intelligence arm, has probably thrown a monkey wrench into the official government position of wanting a final peace agreement in areas it has targeted as economic and security bulwarks against China. It would not be the first time that US agencies have operated at cross purposes.

The government signs peace agreement with the MILF in March 2014. Photo by Fernando G. Sepe, Jr. for ABS-CBNnews.com

The United States has poured funds into “quasi-government” facilitation of the Bangsamoro peace process since 2003. But foreign policy changes, especially related to the superpower’s war on terror have since forced a more direct US government involvement.

The original facilitator, the US Institute for Peace, acknowledged as much in a 2008 report, saying that relative peace due to the ceasefire mechanism made US Embassy officials and those in charge of other agencies “less enthusiastic” about the focus on completing the peace process.

“One embassy official noted to PFP that the formal peace process, which had been USIP’s focus, was not the most critical element of future stability in Mindanao.,” the USIS report noted.

The US, which has not included the MILF in its list of terror groups, has dangled the promise of huge development funds in the aftermath of a final peace agreement.

Allegations that Americans were substantially engaged in the Mamasapano clash – and that one US national had ordered reinforcing troops to fire on hostile forces around cornered SAF units – endanger the MILF’s relations with the US that go back to the presidency of George W Bush.

MILF at crossroads

The leader of the country’s other main rebel group, the communist party-led National Democratic Front (NDF), forecasts a law watered down to levels that would force the MILF to rethink its peace initiatives with the Aquino government.

MILF troops in Camp Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat, 2014. Photo by Ted Aljibe, AFP

In an interview with abs-cbnnews.com, exiled leftist leader Jose Maria Sison said: “If the BBL will be enacted at all in the time of Aquino or even thereafter, it will be shorn of the provisions deemed unconstitutional by Congress and will come very close to the law governing ARMM.”

“If BBL will become too far from its expectations, the MILF will have to choose between accepting it and deciding to pursue the armed revolutionary movement,” he added. (See sidebar: US wants to plunder Bangsamoro lands)

Already, MILF leaders have warned against efforts to water down the draft law.

A letter earlier sent by the MILF leadership to the House of Representatives states they will hold Mr. Aquino to his commitments, including insuring passage of the original draft law, which includes major points of agreement between the negotiating parties.

Historian Norodin Alonto Lucman, a former fighter and then official under the government of former president Fidel V. Ramos, told abs-cbnnews.com that rebel leaders fear “the peace process might not hold under this present administration.”

The MILF blames the government for Mamasapano, saying SAF did not abide with the provisions of a ceasefire agreement signed during Mr. Ramos’ time. The military and civilian officials in charge with the peace process, have also said the clash with the MILF was due to failure to coordinate the police operation under the ceasefire mechanism.

Malacanang says that it was a legitimate police operation to serve warrants of arrest and, thus, not covered by ceasefire rules.

Lucman cites options under international law for the MILF to pursue its right to self-determination.

“The Bangsamoro people can opt for a way out of their predicament given the failure of the Philippine government to fulfill its obligation to the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro,” notes Lucman, pointing to the case of Kosovo, a Muslim territory that broke away from Serbia.

A 1999 UN Security Council Resolution placed Kosovo under transitional UN administration and authorised Kosovo Force (KFOR), a NATO-led peacekeeping force to oversee security in the war torn region.). The UN move happened after widespread fighting and ethnic killings on both sides turned Kosovo into a world hotspot.

‘I am the commander here’

For the MILF, the more serious challenge will be deflecting anger among followers influenced by global anti-American sentiments spawned by the US war on terror that has seen invasions and attacks on various countries.

US marines during a joint exercise with Filipino troops in 2013. Photo by Ted Aljibe, AFP

The rebel group claims 18 of its guerrillas died in self-defense. While they still have to complete their probe into the Mamasapano clash, MILF spokespersons have said rebels were fired upon by SAF and forced to fight back.

Various police officers, including SAF survivors, claim they killed at least a hundred men, although it is not clear how many belonged to the MILF, the the breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) or private armed groups,

For more than a month since the January 25 Mamasapano operation, Mr. Aquino’s government has tried to hide his direct involvement in the tragedy, as well as the critical role played by US forces.

A report by the police Board of Inquiry disclosed that six Americans stayed overnight at the command post of SAF Director Getulio Napenas to monitor the exact location of Marwan.

It did not say much, except to point out that the finger of the slain Malaysian should have been turned over the Philippine authorities and not agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on standby in General Santos City.

The FBI has released a report on DNA studies, based on the finger and samples from Marwan’s incarcerated brother. It noted a high probability that the slain man was the wanted Malaysian but said findings are not yet conclusive.

The Senate report, however, provides details from an executive session, indicating a greater role by Americans. It sweeps aside the government claim that Oplan Exodus was 100% Filipino planned and implemented.

The naming of one American, as a Mr. Alan Kurtz, who supposedly engaged in training the SAF, and the use of a private contractor in the evacuation of wounded cops, has raised the possibility of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) involvement to skirt a ban on direct US military combat involvement.

State authorities have said the US role was limited to supplying intelligence and training the SAF. Napenas and other SAF officers, under questioning, admitted the Americans in the command post were in charge of real-time surveillance,

But the Senate report indicates the Americans exerted so much influence over Napenas that they also tried to direct military troops who were requested to reinforce the beleaguered SAF units.

“One of the Americans ordered Maj. Gen. Edmundo Pangilinan to fire the artillery. However, Pangilinan refused and told him, ‘Do not dictate to me what to do. I am the commander here!’, “ the report said.

US oversteps bounds of ‘unjust’ treaties

Mr. Aquino follows the example of his mother, the late president Corazon Aquino in building closer ties with the United States.

Philippine soldiers train with a U.S. military adviser in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija. Photo by Ted Aljibe, AFP

The superpower has increasingly tightened its security links with the Aquino government following the passage of new controversial agreements.

With the publication of a draft of a Senate probe report on Mamasapano, groups from the left to the right of the political spectrum demand to revisit agreements that could have spawned violations of principles of sovereignty.

Lawyer Edre Olalia, a consultant of the NDF for peace talks with the government, describes the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreements (VFA) and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the US as “onerous”.

Senate firebrand and foreign relations committee chair Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a respected international law expert, criticized Mr. Aquino’s government for the “unfair surprise” of signing the agreement on April 24, 2014 without the chamber’s concurrence.

The defense secretaries of both countries signed EDCA, which is billed as the implementing agreement of the Mutual Defense Treaty passed by the Philippine Senate in 1951.

The VFA is also considered by the two governments as “executive agreements” that do not need the US Senate’s approval.

To Olalia, VFA and EDSA are “fundamentally in blatant disregard of provisions of the Constitution on the presence of foreign troops, facilities and material, nuclear weapons, and mandatory requirements in treaty processes, not to mention national sovereignty.”

In Mamasapano, he said, “the US not only circumvented these agreements/treaties, they actually disregarded and violated the already onerous terms of the same.”

Olalia says the treaties prohibit actual participation in combat, but so so disingenuously worded as to circumvent this prescription.

Thus, US forces have done practically anything short of actual combat, including training, intelligence, surveillance, advise, “suggestions”, “recommendations”, “rescue, humanitarian missions and cooperation in transnational crimes.

EDCA is seen as a virtual basing treaty, allowing the US numerous forward military installations with pre-positioned logistics, war materiel and troops. The SAF units involved in Mamasapano trained in one such facility in Zamboanga City.

Olalia underscores that neither the Mutual Defense Treaty or another agreement on military logistics do not cover Mamasapano because there was no armed attack by any foreign entity on Philippine territory.

“Even the areas under EDCA have not yet been determined,” he points out.

Ringside view of carnage

The details of American involvement raise several questions.

If they could see the SAF units coming under intense fire, why were requests for rescue so muddled that military responders couldn’t make heads or tails of the coordinates?

U.S. military personnel help evacuate wounded SAF members in Mamasapano on January 26, 2015. Photo by Mark Navales, AFP

One of the surviving SAF told abs-cbnnews.com that they also sent coordinates every time they moved and that, had they been asked, they could also have given the enemies’ positions.

There are also questions as to what exactly the President knew of unfolding events. He coursed all his questions through Purisima. The latter, according to the police board of inquiry, was fed wrong information by “an undisclosed source.”

Malaysia has come under fire for its role in the Mindanao peace process. Yet the US involvement in Mamasapano fuels suspicion that their operatives were so focused on their goal – Marwan – and disregarded the life and death situation of cops doing the dirty work.

The US drone used in Mamasapano, according to SAF officers, was aimed at Marwan’s position and that of the SAF Seaborne unit.

A senior military officer based in Mindanao, who asked that his name be withheld, said that drone saw the Seaborne unit engaged in a firefight, thus the order for them to skirt their original exit route. They were given directions to an army mechanized unit, the same position where a US medical evacuation team landed – and took possession of the prized finger of Marwan.

“They abandoned the 55th because they had their main objective,” the military officer said.

The BOI report scored Mr. Aquino, who is the chief architect of the current peace process, for not factoring in potential fallout in the SAF operation.

‘Betrayed’

Napenas’ presentation before the Senate acknowledged intelligence of a host of hostile forces around Marwan’s hiding area. And yet he and Purisima insisted on informing military units after the fact.

Suspended SAF Chief General Getulio Napeñas talks to the media. Photo: ABS-CBN News

By all accounts of the men involved in the operation, Mr. Aquino kept silent when they verbally insisted on the dangers of informing military counterparts in advance.

The lack of rescue prompted accusations that the SAF were sacrificed. “Betrayed” profile photos bloomed across social media to express sympathy for the fallen cops.

The Senate report said the President continued his very tight hold on information, keeping this from other senior security aides, even as reports of mounting SAF casualties came in.

Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto has gone as far as hinting that time on target could have been at the behest of the Americans.

“I ask this: is it possible the 'time on target' idea came from the Americans,” he told reporters. “Look at the situation: the PNP did not coordinate with the AFP but they coordinated with the Americans; there's somethinng amiss there."

He also said Americans were “dictating” from the tactical command post.

Golden carrot

The US sees the Bangsamoro areas as optimal sites to launch operations to foil increasing Chinese incursions into Southeast Asia.

The lush fertile lands of the Bangsamoro people, and reports of a vast trove of minerals and natural gas, are also magnets, given the vast amounts China has invested into territories out of bounds to the US because of foreign policy.

But persistent reports of some rebel commanders ties to Al Queda and Jemaah Islamiya sent the American government in 2003 to enlist the aid of the United States Institute for Peace (USIS), a quasi-government body, in facilitating the peace talks.

A 2008 USIS document, citing the complex global landscape, states that new techniques of conflict management, including quasi- and non- governmental actors, could better push U.S. foreign policy goals and interests. https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/sr202.pdf

American involvement has been a source of friction with official third-party mediator, Malaysia, which some Philippine sectors believe is covertly involved in fomenting conditions to increase its influence in Mindanao.

Through the USIS, the US government has channeled funds into the Philippine Facilitation Project (PFP) to prepare the MILF for peacetime governance.

US Senators Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye inserted $30 million into the First Iraq War Supplemental Appropriations of May 2003, with $27 million reserved for economic development activities in Mindanao and $3 million for USIS administrative expenses.

The same year, $5 million went to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It also received the $22 million as conduit since no peace agreement was finalized by Sept. 2004.

By 2007, the Bangsamoro Development Agency, known to be the MILF’s development arm, was receiving funds for small development projects in Lanao del Norte, Zamboanga del Norte, Basilan, Sultan Kudarat, Davao Oriental and Matanog, Maguindanao.

The World Bank had established the Mindanao Trust Fund, with close to $4 million, to improve the capacity of MILF communities for peacetime governance.

Road project in Mindanao. Photo by Fernando G. Sepe, Jr. for ABS-CBNnews.com

The USIS program’s primary focus was ancestral domain, building a public constituency for peace and smoothening relations among groups composing the ethnic quilt of the Bangsamoro areas.

That program helped influence the drafting of a Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), which the Americans had championed.

It suffered a major setback in 2008 when the Supreme Court moved against it on the day representatives of the peace parties were scheduled to sign the document in Kuala Lumpur. The decision fueled a new convulsion of conflict.

Leaked cables from the year after show the MILF chair’s wariness of a rebel group weakened by access to development funds without any clear political victories.

Wikileaks published in 2011 cables on a February 2009 American visit to MILF Chair Murad Ebrahim and political vice chair Ghadzali Jaafar at the rebels’ heavily-guarded Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao.

The visit came months after the legal defeat of the MOA-AD and the resumption of back channel talks that led to new suspensions of military operations of both sides.

The cable sent by then US Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenny lists US chargé d'affaires Leslie Bassett was accompanied by US Agency for International Development (USAID) acting mission director Elzadia Washington, defense attaché Col. Tony Senci, and political officer Michael Pignatello as members of the delegation.

Murad acknowledged the US as “the only country we feel can push peaceful resolution of the (Mindanao) conflict."

Even then, the MILF leader already feared that development aid without political advances could “purge the insurgency” of its strength.

Now the peace process lies in shreds and peace negotiators – unfairly branded as traitors for hewing to ceasefire mechanisms – are left holding the bad in an operation hatched by men who thought the wildlands of Mindanao could be molded into their visions of operational success. #30