By Melito Salazar Jr.
The Marawi battle between the terrorists and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is rich with lessons for the Philippine government, national and local, as well as ordinary citizens. Lesson Number 1 is that the Philippine military is not prepared to engage in urban warfare. Used to fighting in the forests and mountains of Mindanao without the presence of civilians, the military is finding it difficult to unleash its full force on the terrorists, fearful of the collateral damage. The situation is worsened by the hostages captured by the terrorists which, I am sure, they are using as human shields.
Sending troops in great numbers will only subject them to enormous casualties as terrorist snipers with sophisticated firearms bring them down, one by one. The firepower of the terrorists is quite impressive indicative of the substantial finances they are getting from foreign sources and from fund-raising activities locally (remember the over P70 million in cash seized by the military in a house vacated by the terrorists). Their ability to booby trap the buildings and alleyways reflects the result of a high level of training in urban warfare which our own armed forces have not undergone.
It’s about time the Philippine military establishment starts training the soldiers in urban warfare and for the Philippine National Police capabilities to be reoriented towards fighting terrorists, not just criminals. For a start, the AFP may rush the formation of special units not just trained to engage and defeat terrorists in urban areas but also as equipped as the terrorists, if not better. Battle strategies worked out in the AFP war room should concentrate on defeating urban terrorists where numbers will not count as much as the deployment of small but highly effective units.
The Philippine National Police supported by a highly efficient nationwide information and intelligence network beginning at the barangay levels should be alerted on the presence of suspicious strangers in urban communities and have the core capability to undertake surgical operations against them. A nationwide surveillance system using CCTVs based in each municipality and city with operations centers linked to a national office producing real-time videos which, given the appropriate computer programs, can highlight potential terrorist movements and activities. A extensive data bank should be generated and maintained to allow profiling of terrorists and their supporters which can be available on line to immigration offices, military units, and police stations nationwide. The infrastructure needed will cost much but the seriousness and urgency of the situation demand that these should be part of the Duterte administration’s Build, Build, Build program.
Local government units should supplement their disaster management plans with anti-terrorist strategies and plans. This will involve identifying the key vulnerabilities of their areas and coordinating with local police to strengthen these positions, ensuring that civilian houses and buildings near them are equipped and can easily be transformed into fighting stations. A ready reserve force should be created, regularly trained to handle both disasters and terrorist activities. (How regrettable that then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed a law making ROTC voluntary and effectively scuttling what was a ready source of disciplined and trained manpower for disasters and now for terrorist situations.)
The local government should have plans pinpointing evacuation centers with adequate food and medical supplies as well as security features with assigned barangay or community for each. Routes to this evacuation centers should be plotted to avoid congestion in the roads and streets leading to them and ensuring orderly and swift movements by the civilian population. Proper orientation and training should be given to civilians on how fast to mobilize, what bare necessities should be taken (the government can create a program where belongings lost in terrorist situations will be paid for by government), and how to behave under the circumstances. A well-informed civilian population will become an asset, not a liability in fighting terrorism.
Beyond the ground fighting for territory, the terrorists are fighting for the Filipino mind, to induce fear and distrust and create an impression of great power. While not discounting the seriousness of the situation, the Philippine government must emphasize its preparedness without making announcements of ongoing operations. Public statements should be limited to reports on terrorists killed or neutralized, finances frozen or confiscated (the financial system should be used to ferret terrorist funding), and effective results of joint patrols by Philippine and foreign troops (highlighting that terrorism is a global concern).
With unity and determination, the Philippine government and us, the citizens, can and WILL defeat terrorism!
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