COUNTER-INSURGENCY OPERATIONS IN THE PROVINCE OF SULTAN KUDARAT: OUR VALUABLE LESSONS
By Lt Col Harold M. Cabunoc
As one of the most experienced military in counterinsurgency operations, the Philippine Army has accumulated tons of lessons that can be shared among its leaders. In the 1950s, we had learned the value of winning popular support, a crucial factor in defeating the forces of the Huks. It was President Ramon Magsaysay’s pro-people policies that ensured the delivery of essential services to the poorest communities, enhancing the legitimacy of the Philippine government. The show of good governance during that period was also coincided with the creation of the AFP’s effective counterinsurgency outfits, the First Scout Ranger Regiment and the Civil Relations Service. However, these lessons usually disappeared in the shadows of oblivion because of poor documentation, lack of effort in doctrine development, and non-inclusion of COIN studies in our professional military education. In this article, I will attempt to describe how my unit relearnt some of the past COIN lessons that resulted in the surrender of a significant number of NPA rebels in Sultan Kudarat.
Communist insurgency in Sultan Kudarat
The Philippines as a whole and Sultan Kudarat in particular, suffered from the turmoils brought by various insurgencies after it was granted independence by the American colonizers in 1946. The newly created province became a battleground when the ethno-nationalist Moro National Liberation Front expanded its militaristic forays in mainland Mindanao in the 1970s. In response, pro-government paramilitary forces such as the BSDU/CHDF were organized to help the AFP contain the main security threat during that period. As a result, the indigenous peoples like the T’boli, Teduray, and Dulangan Manobo tribesmen, the jungle dwellers, got entangled in the armed conflict that raged in the area. Displaced from their ancestral domain, the indigenous people would later join the communist movement to fight the heavily armed ‘land grabbers’.
Based on its own online publications, the communist movement (CPP-NPA-NDF) has remained focused in achieving its ultimate goal of replacing the current economic and political order in the Philippines with a socialist system. To achieve this, the communistscarry out a ‘protracted people’s war’ that is waged from the countryside. According to Commander Bobby of the NPA’s Local Guerilla Unit in Sultan Kudarat, the cadres of the Guerilla Front 73 entered the communities of the Dulangan Manobo tribe in the tri-boundary of Senator Ninoy Aquino, Bagumbayan, and Esperanza, sometime in May 2015. Led by Ka George (T.N. Randy Lamigo) and Ka Makmak, the small group of Visayan speaking NPA cadres gathered the Manobo tribal members including their Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representatives (IPMRs), to identify community problems. The NPA recruiters had a perfect audience for their organizing activities because of the existing land conflict between the lumads and the 29,000 hectareM&S Company. The issuance of high-powered rifles and the prospect of seizing what they claimed as part of their ancestral lands had attracted more than a hundred of the lumads (indigenous people) in joining the New People’s Army. The surge of lumad recruits is reflected by the fact that indigenous peoples comprise at least 90% of the ranks of the Guerilla Front 73. Notably, all of the 161 NPA surrenderees from May 2017-August 2018were Manobo tribesmen. The result of the custodial debriefing for the recent surrenderees reveal that they have not considered the state forces (Army and PNP) as their enemies; rather, they were focused on attacking the SCAA (Special CAFGU/paramilitary forces of the Army) that protects the peripheries of the plantation.
The support of the lumads enabled the Guerilla Front 73 to establish training camps along the Daguma Mountain Range, straddling from Ampatuan town in Maguindanao to Bagumbayan in Sultan Kudarat. The lumad support and the establishment of safe havens also allowed the NPA to collect ‘revolutionary taxes’ from farmers, illegal miners, businessmen, and private contractors. There is no reported foreign funding for the group but there are consistent reports about politicians from South Cotabato who had provided material and political support for the communist rebels. In mixed communities, the insurgents were able to establish a tactical ‘alliance’ with other armed groups such as the loose factions of the MILF and other private armed groups.
Through the immersion of communist front organizations like Kalumaran and Kaluhamin, the insurgents were able to manipulate the lumads in joining the mass mobilizations in Koronadal, Kidapawan, and Davao City. Kilusang Rebolusyonaryong Baranggay leader Eson Digan was among the few who were deceived by the members of the Anak-Pawis and Bayan Muna in joining the protest rallies in Manila.
The case of TAMASCO claimants of the 1,600 hectares of land in the boundary between the villages of Sto Nino in Bagumbayan town and Ned in Lake Sebu, is the perfect example of how the communists are able to exploit the issues on land conflicts. Datu Victor ‘Bitul’ Denian, the leader of the Dulangan Manobo tribe, had been fighting to get back the 300 hectare Dawang Coffee Plantation of the Consunji Family. Unfortunately, when the contract of lease expired in December 2016, the investment company allegedly extended its hold of the land through ‘integration’ process. The indigenous people complained that the land must be returned because they no longer approved of the lease. While most of the tribal elders opted to raise their sentiments to DENR by legal means, Datu Victor and his followers, out of desperation, accommodated the CPP-NPA-NDF in their community. This patronage led to the forcible seizure of about 50 hectares of coffee plantation, employing child warriors with indigenous weapons. Former New People’s Army members who surrendered to the 33rd IB revealed that they were actually providing fire support in case the armed SCAA (militia forces) will repulse them.
Eventually, eight of Datu Victor’s followers became full time members of the New People’s Army. Meanwhile, Datal Bonglangon community gradually evolved as a communist guerilla base with a shadow government (Kilusang Rebolusyonaryong Barangay) headed by Abelardo Wali and satellite camps manned by regular NPA members. The recovered subversive documents after the encounter against the armed groups in DatalBonglangon on December 3, 2017 revealed the extent of the communist influence in the area including nearby communities of the Dulangan Manobo and T’boli.
The 33rd Infantry (Makabayan) Battalion in collaboration with its partner government agencies, combines offensive, defensive and civil support operations in dealing the communist influence within the area of operations. Though thinly spread in a vast expanse of communist-influenced area, the unit enjoys the support of the majority of the population including the local government leaders. To appreciate the operating environment, I retooled two of my maneuver companies (Alpha and Charlie) in order to prepare them in the new operating environment that requires skill sets in both small-unit tactics, counter-guerilla operations, and nation-building. As the primary field operators in our counterinsurgency campaign, I encouraged collaboration and cooperation within the Army. I required my Intelligence Section to collaborate and exchange notes with other intelligence units that are directly supporting or complementing our operations. On the other hand, I taught my Company Commanders on how to conduct purposive stakeholders engagement to frame the problem correctly and to achieve unity of effort in our COIN campaign. At the battalion level, I work with my S3, S2, and S7 on how to support the line units in whatever means necessary, including the establishment of network of contacts among public servants and civil society organizations that can partner with our unit. Most importantly, I encouraged self-education by requiring my subordinates to ready and critically analyze books on Counterinsurgency and military history, and spearhead small group discussions on relevant topics that would improve our ability to effectively handle the local insurgency problem in our AO.
Lessons in Counterinsurgency
I have learned valuable lessons in my involvement in different type of insurgencies (carried out by non-state actors such as MNLF, Abu Sayyaf, and the MILF) since my younger years as a combat leader of the First Scout Ranger Regiment. I realized that there are similarities in most of the lessons based on my field experiences but let me put emphasis on the recent lessons that we gained in our recent campaign against the CPP-NPA-NDF’s Guerilla Front 73, Far South Mindanao Region:
- Frame the problem
- Win popular support
- Synchronization of effort
- Dominate the information domain
Framing the problem correctly enabled my battalion to focus its efforts on the root causes of the communist insurgency. Like any other insurgencies in the country, the armed insurgent is only a symptom of a bigger problem that needs to be addressed. Through our community engagements, we relearned that the communist insurgency in our AO is driven by socio-political and economic grievances. For example, the illiterate and desperate lumads (Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao) were easily convinced by the communist cadres that their ancestral domain claims could be solved through armed violence. The sad experience of being driven out of their traditional hunting grounds led the lumads to take up arms against the ‘Consunji guards’. This information was corroborated by the tribal elders during our initial engagement with all members of the Dulangan Manobo tribal council in April 2017, and it was further attested by the initial batch of Manobo tribesmen who surrendered to our unit in May 2017. Ka Randy, a former NPA leader from Kuden village, revealed that they were not fighting the government; rather, they were repulsing the ‘Consunji Guards’ who were allegedly sent to destroy their crops. This vital piece of information gave us a clearer picture on how to negotiate for the surrender of the other tribal members, and how to facilitate the resolution of their dispute with the M&S through legal means. As a battalion commander, I facilitated dialogues with the TAMASCO claimants of the Dawang Coffee Plantation in collaboration with Mayor Jonalette De Pedro of Bagumbayan town. Our problem was that Datu Victor, the President of TAMASCO, had allied with the NPA and seized part of the plantation. Later, the seized property became a communist run ‘communal farm’ tended by recruited YUMIL (Yunit Milisya) in the neighboring villages.
Winning popular support rather than focusing on the armed insurgents is something that we have relearned from the experiences of past counterinsurgents around the world. Ramon Magsaysay understood this concept during the HUK Campaign in the 1950s, in the same way how General David Petraeus stabilized Mosul in 2004, and later, the whole of Iraq during the ‘Troop Surge’ in 2007. In our AO, we engaged the local chief executives to pledge our support in delivering social services right in ‘the doorstep’ of their constituents. As a result, our unit actively participated in the AKAP (Abot-Kamay Program) of Bagumbayan town and the similar public service caravans of Lutayan and Senator Ninoy Aquino (Kulaman). We took charge of the security arrangements on the ground and at the same time, provided ‘libreng gupit’ as well as donated items from our unit’s partner CSOs like HOPE Philippines, PBA Legends, and QSMI. Highly visible in the ‘whole of government’ delivery of essential services, our battalion facilitated the enhancement of the local government’s legitimacy. In summary, we learned that government’s legitimacy means winning the support of the people, the center of gravity in an insurgency.
Directly related to winning popular support is the ability of the military unit and the civil government to synchronize their effort towards a common goal. We learned the need to understand the impact of kinetic operations on the community. To attain unity of effort in a particular town, we briefed the local executives about our lines of operations and the objectives that we are trying to achieve. We explained to them that the military and civilian government can effectively work together in achieving common objectives in a particular community. The synergy of our effort is reflected by our battalion’s facilitation of the passage of a barangay resolution requesting for the establishment of a community defense system that will augment the effort of the Army in peace and security matters. The same is true with the unity of effort that we achieved in our community services that were participated and supported by non-government organizations such as HOPE Philippines focusing on education and Rotary Club of Tacurong for community based livelihood opportunities. Through synchronization of effort, we were able to walk the talk, enhancing our credibility before the people.
We have also relearned that respect for the rule of law establishes our credibility as members of the state forces. It means respect for human rights, adherence to the laws of armed conflict, and rules of engagement. To achieve this, I ensured that every soldier and our partners from other law enforcement agencies will refrain from committing abuses during our operations. During our focused military operations against the New People’s Army, we saved injured insurgentsand treated them humanely. My battalion observed the rules of engagement during the kinetic operations against members of the Platoon Cloud Phone in Isulan town in August 2017 during which we captured two NPA fighters. We replicated this during our combat actions against the Platoon Arabo of the NPA in Datal Bonglangon wherein my unit treated wounded combatants. These operations established my unit’s solid reputation as human rights advocates and pro-people soldiers. Consequently, the good reputation of the unit enabled us to win popular support, influencing the decision of the disorganized insurgents to lay down their arms.
Last but not the least, we learned the value of dominating the information domain. I taught my subordinate leaders to tell their story in images and videos. I reminded my soldiers the saying: “Even if Superman was able to save the whole world but nobody talks about it, it never happened.” To capacitate my unit, I invested in training. Ms. Hannah Reyes-Morales, a world-class photographer for National Geographic, shared her skills in Cellphone Photography. We also handpicked soldiers to undergo Combat Photography under Mr. Carlo Claudio, and hired an expert on Video Editing/ Film Making. With a steady source of public affairs and psy-ops products, my unit utilized the social media in sharing our good stories, and refute the narrative of the communists. On the other hand, I learned that the people in the hinterlands are fond listeners of both Bombo Radyo and Brigada News, two of the most influential radio stations in the region. With this knowledge, I made sure that we were always ahead of the enemy in the headlines, focusing on the truth of what we have done in the communities. And, we reaped the fruits of our labor in a few months when Benjamin Calay, one of the first surrenderees from Platoon Cherry Mobile of the GF73, shared his story. He narrated during our radio guesting at Bombo Radyo-Koronadal that they learned about the deployment of trained snipers, based on the feature story of our advanced marksmanship training for selected CAFGU personnel. The ‘presence’ of the snipers (and also the good stories that they heard from the tribal elders) influenced his decision to surrender together with 10 of his fellow NPA fighters.
Learning and adapting
We recognize the fact that we are currently confronting a highly adaptive enemy in our COIN campaign all over the Philippine archipelago. It means that the Philippine Army must document its lessons and turn it into case studies and doctrine manuals that will be shared to the next generation of COIN operators. We have to admit that we are currently engaged in ‘small wars’ that require continuous learning. We have to learn and adapt to win a war, as German leader Otto Von Bismarck said: “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”
(The author is the incumbent Battalion Commander of the 33rd Infantry Battalion based at Tual, President Quirino. The said military contingent confronts both communist insurgents and Southern Philippines secessionist groups in Central Mindanao. Prior to his current assignment, he had served in various conflict-affected areas such as Basilan, Sulu, Bicol Region, and Central Mindanao. He finished his Masters in Military and Defense Studies at the Australian National University)