COUNTER-INSURGENCY OPERATIONS IN THE PROVINCE OF SULTAN KUDARAT, MINDANAO, PHILIPPINES: OUR VALUABLE LESSONS by Harold M. Cabunoc

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’.

 

 

The Insurgents

 

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 Counterinsurgents

 

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)

1 biography

 

 

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Yes, I Can!

Yes, I Can!

…dedicated to Persons with Disability (PWDs )

By Apolinario B Villalobos

 

I may be lacking a foot or both

That will make it hard for me to stand,

 

I may be lacking an arm or both

That will make it hard for me to touch,

 

I may be lacking an eye or both

That will make it hard for me to clearly see,

 

I may not have a voice nor hear

That will make it hard for me to feel the crowd,

 

But God gave me a spirit, strong and bold

That can make me soar to heights – up there

It can bring me where I want – everywhere

It is my spirit that makes me say to anyone:

“That, as God made you, so am I,

and, what you can do,

Verily, I can do, too!

Proudly, to every one

I say, yes, I can…..!”

The Gutsiness of Duterte Sets Him Apart from the Rest of the SEAn Leaders…he is a standout

THE GUTSINESS OF DUTERTE SETS HIM APART

FROM THE REST OF SEAn LEADERS…HE IS A STANDOUT

By Apolinario Villalobos

 

Let us just talk about leadership quality based on the strength of impact that it impresses on others and definitely, our own president, Rodrigo Duterte has IT. Nobody among the SEAn leaders has made such an impressive feat in less than six month after assuming his office, not even Singapore’s whose own mark made a deep impression only after several years of attempt, but which at the end proved successful, making the comparably small nation an unquestionable model for disciplined metamorphosis into progress.

 

Duterte is a no-nonsense leader, and whose steely personality is made more tough by his bluntness. He is not a hypocrite which is a very important trait that leaders should have, so that people around him and those with whom he deals with shall IMMEDIATELY know what he FEELS and THINKS about issues, instead of virtually running around the bush.

 

Only avowed detractors perceive him as evil because of his honest ways. Evil, because nasty words have become practically emotional punctuations of his language just like the “callejeros” who, happy or angry can easily mutter “putang ina”. How about comparing him with a president who always attends religious service every Sunday, maintains friends from the high society, eats French foods, wears signature apparel and cologne, drives luxury cars, earned doctorates from reputable universities here and abroad…AND NEVER EVER UTTERED EVEN A SINGLE “BULLSHIT”, BUT IS ACTUALLY DOWNRIGHT CORRUPT!?!?

 

If Duterte could be bad based on the hypocritical ethical standard, and the corrupt president may appear clean unless proven in court as corrupt….which of them has a better image in the eyes of the people and God? The honest though cussing Duterte? …or the hypocrite corrupt who puts on a deceitful religious and clean countenance!

 

During the 2016 ASEAN conference that Duterte attended in Laos, the dignitaries were unanimous in showing their admiration. Upon his arrival, other leaders and dignitaries practically vied with each other in getting his attention for a selfie opportunity that virtually broke diplomatic protocol. The Japanese minister mentioned him at the start of his speech. Prior to the conference, curiosity made Obama call Duterte “colorful”.  During an opportunity, Duterte courageously showed photos of the American atrocities in Mindanao which for me is an affront challenge to Obama who was even jolted by the historic evidences….reasons for the alienation of the Moros from the democratic system of the Philippines that the Americans planted. Had he not been outright honest, the world whose eyes were focused on the ASEAN conference would have not known the reason why our country is such in a dire state of discord.

 

And, most importantly, the Indonesian president was very vocal about his desire to copy what Duterte is doing to obliterate the drug menace in the Philippines. All of those are strong manifestations that contradict what detractors are sowing about the supposedly negative effect of his “bad image” due to his cussing and what his campaign against illegal drugs could give to the country such as absolute infamy!

 

Duterte’s request about the issue on “extra-judicial” killings was not respected, and of all people, by fellow Filipinos who by virtue of the string that attaches them to their white-skinned employer have practically made them lost their identity….as they thought they are Americans, too. All that Duterte has been asking is that this issue be not taken up during the ASEAN conference, which makes such question no longer necessarily asked during the press conference at the Davao airport. He is not dumb as not to know that it could make him flare up, if questioned, especially, by other leaders, much more Obama.

 

The biased and mocking editorial “warnings” about his being confronted by Obama on the issue of “extrajudicial killings” insinuated that he would buckle down, irritating him more which made him remark, “who is he”.  They obviously enjoy poking at the patience of Duterte who to them cannot compare with any other leader, just because he hails from the south, hence, with unrefined manners. Their impertinence shows that their hate of Duterte made them so naïve of the guy’s own feelings.  But, as the saying goes, goodness really prevails over evil at the end….and just like a popular Pilipino song, “Ako ang Nagwagi”…he indeed, came out the winner! On the positive side, the incident could also be another blessing in disguise as it made the world see that the Philippines has a gutsy president who dares to stand equal when it comes to asserting justified rights, even to the president of the most powerful nation in the world!

Gutsy and Self-Confident Maricar Oliveros of Cd-r King

Gutsy and Self-Confident Maricar Oliveros of Cd-r King

By Apolinario Villalobos

This is not a paid advertisement. It has been my advocacy to write about people I meet on the street, in malls, in restaurants, or any unusual place. I have written about a solicitous supervisor of a McDonald joint in Quiapo, a compassionate technician of an internet café-Bacoor, a teacher, a vendor, local government officials, government employees, and many others.

This time around, it is about Maricar Oliveros of the SM Bacoor’s Cd-R King outlet. Petite and morena, with a gentle face punctuated by expressive eyes, she may not elicit much attention, except that because she is one of the store attendants, you really have to seek her. My encounter with this young lady was when she attended to me when I bought a pocket wi-fi. As the gadget had to be set due to the required code, she tried her best in the absence of their technician. Unfortunately, that morning I was not in a good mood and sort of in a hurry. I was irritated by her explanations which I interjected with questions. Several times we did not meet on certain points of my inquiry, so that, unknowinglhy, I was already raising my voice.

Despite my impatience and ill-temper, she was very much in control of herself, not even rattled a bit. She even smiled while looking at me straight in the eye. Her courageous posture brought me to my senses. In other words, she was able to make a sale triumphantly, while I was short of breath due to my bad temperament. She successfully taught me how to use the gadget, and with a smile closed the transaction with some precautions, such as taking note of the power bar, overcharging , etc.

The following day, I brought back the gadget to the store thinking that it was defective because I could not connect to the internet. I saw to it that I was the first in line in their store by waiting until the doors of the mall were opened at 10:00. When I arrived at their store, I found her fanning herself with a piece of cardboard as the aircon  system was not yet of much help. I explained to her the problem and without any question, she tinkered with the gadget to make it effective again.

She did a remarkable series of testing because I gave her the idea that I am amenable for a replacement. She practically spent almost an hour attending to my problem, until finally she reset the gadget as a last resort, doing which she used her resourcefulness because she had no tools. I cannot divulge such “resourcefulness” here, as it could be her “trade secret”.  I ended up with the same gadget that I bought, as she found out that replacement was not necessary. Her effort saved the store from replacing a purchased gadget, unnecessarily.

I was touched by her effort, silently trying to do her best to satisfy me, an irate customer who ruined her morning, the day before. She was a sales attendant, not a technician, yet, with a knowledge that she, perhaps, gained by observing their technician, she was able to put to use an admirable resourcefulness. Her self-confidence and guts can put a guy to shame. Do we ever wonder now why Filipinos are loved by their employers abroad?

Do Not Pamper Illness and Grief

Do Not Pamper Illness and Grief
By Apolinario Villalobos

Several times, I have proven that “mind over matter” really works. I found out that some friends also had the same experience. Pain can be managed – both emotionally and physically. All it needs is discipline. Unfortunately, some people fake illness and grief to be used as alibi in evading responsibilities.

Pampering illness and grief results to self-pity that further results to the deterioration of personality. The body has its own way of counteracting the malfunction of any organ, the most noticeable sign is having a fever. Instead of feeling down, the mind should help the body by controlling the emotion. The same mind-driven control should be applied when somebody is grief-stricken.

If a person becomes used to the “mind over matter” routine, emotional maturity sets in which is very important in coming up with sound decisions and having a healthy outlook in life. Also, if a person gets used to pain, no amount of threat or weight on his shoulder can buckle him down.

The Woman I know…this is Virgie

In commemoration of the International Women’s Month, March 2015….

The Woman I Know
… this is Virgie
(For Virgie Paragas-Adonis)

By Apolinario B Villalobos

With boundless desire
to accomplish many things
that others think are impossible,
the woman I know
through impeding hurdles
would just simply breeze through.
Her mother’s strength and loving ways
tempered by her father’s intelligence
and innate golden values –
her overpowering person shows.

A woman of fiery temper
and a heart brimming with affection,
the woman I know
always fights for the righteousness
not much for her own
but for others who, though abused
can’t fight back
as guts and persistence
are what they lack.

She is the woman I know,
who, on some occasion
could be furious or let out tears
in a candid show of emotion.

She oozes with intelligence
that she would unselfishly share
just like the comfort
of her tender motherly care.
Could there be other women
just like this one I know?

Perla…

Perla

Ni Apolinario Villalobos

Ang karangyaang naipagkait sa murang gulang

Ay nagsilbing lakas upang si Perla’y magsikap

Para sa kanya, ang buhay ay puno ng pag-asa

Na sa tamang panaho’y magdudulot ng biyaya.

Mga pangarap ang humubog ng kanyang buhay

Natanim sa isip habang kinakaya ang pagsubok

Dasal sa Panginoon sa kanya’y nagbigay ng lakas

Habang tinatahak niya ang bulubunduking landas.

Mga pagsisikap niya’y hindi binigo ng Panginoon

Dahil pangarap niya ay nagkaroon ng katuparan

Napatunayan niyang may kapalit ang pagtitiyaga

Lalo’t gagawin itong hindi nanlalamang ng kapwa.

Angkop ang pangalang Perla sa kanyang pagkatao

Na hango sa perlas, maselang yaman ng karagatan

Nagdadagdag -akit, sinuman ang magsuot na dilag

Kaya ang lalaking ‘di sumulyap at humanga ay bulag!

Perlas siya ng buhay…siya ay isang pamukaw-sigla

Inspirasyon at lakas ng iba upang maging masigasig

Dahil napatunayan niyang mahalaga ang magsikap

Upang magkaroon ng katuparan ang mga pangarap!

(Si Perla ay nakatapos ng pag-aaral sa pamamagitan ng pagsikap…naging

self-supporting. Nagkaroon ng trabaho, hanggang ang swerte sa ibayong

dagat ay kumaway sa kanya. Siya ay nakapag-asawa ng isang Amerikano

na todo ang pag-unawa sa adbokasiya niyang pagtulong sa mga maralitang

Pilipino at mga kamag-anak na naiwan sa Pilipinas.)