(Note: Dana Batnag is a journalist working for a foreign news agency. She has also worked for several Philippine newspapers such as Manila Times.)
“Tayo nag-initiate, ng encounter. Tayo nalagasan ng ganoon karami. Automatic ang tanong, pinaghandaan natin ang operation, bakit ganito ang resulta?…ang pagkakamali, nasa tao. Pero ang paulit-ulit na pagkakamali, kasalanan na iyon. Hindi natin pwedeng pabayaan na magkaroon ng pagkakataon na maging paulit-ulit ito. Kung may mali, depekto sa sistema, ayusin na natin ito. Kung sa training, kung saanman. Hanapin kung saan ang sanhi bakit nagkaroon ng disaster. Ayusin ang mga problema.”
That was President Aquino III speaking, during a press conference he gave on Monday afternoon, where he reiterated that there will be no “all-out-war” against the MILF.
He had earlier refused to answer what lessons were learned about the Basilan encounter, simply saying there is “an ongoing investigation” that “will decide lives, careers and perhaps even criminal liabilities of (the) people involved.”
What was he talking about?
The initial findings – THE INVESTIGATION IS STILL GOING ON – as reported in the command conference with the President and the AFP’s top brass last Friday, was that the soldiers who died shouldn’t have been sent there in the first place. They died because they were sent there unprepared and without planning, so much so that they were practically sent there to die. But that’s me talking, generalizing.
Here are the findings, according to a printed report shown to me:
*The use of the students of scuba diving course to conduct combat operations was not authorized by the 1ID, WestMinCom and GHQ.
*No deliberate mission planning was done which could have provided a thorough preparation and action during exigencies. This resulted to the following:
*during the planning and preparation, appreciation of the threat situation and the terrain in the area of operation were not properly considered and analyzed. The area is within the vicinity of MILF concentration. The implications of operating in the area were not considered despite the incidents in the past. Moreover, the CO, 4th SFBN miscalculated the intervention of MILF 114th Base Command.
*the commanders failed to consider the limited capability of 4th SF Battalion Forces and the students. Forces of 4th Scout Ranger Battalion or the 32nd Infantry Battalion could have been used if operation is properly planned or coordinated.
*The U3, WestMinCom was told about the operation only at about 180700H Oct 2011. He was informed about the encounter at about 0900H.
*The lack of proper coordination from higher headquarters delayed the use of air and artillery assets. Aside from the lack of jointness in the planning process, there was no participation of other arms services and the reserve force is very small composed of one SF team only.
*There was no operation order for the operations, hence, some of the planning process and considerations were neglected.
*The use of air and artillery assets was delayed due to poor planning. With the distance of the engagement area, it took sometime before reinforcements to arrive and the time to prepare the reinforcing troops.
“4th SFBN Commander initiated and launched the operation utilizing his own forces and the students of military scuba diving course class 42-11 without the proper authorization from higher headquarters.
“The Commander of SOTF Basilan was only informed of the operation the day before the troops jumped-off from their line of departures. Though, the SOTF Commander informed them of the enemy situation in the area and warned them regarding their inconsistent assessment of the MILF presence and possible engagement with the troops, the operation was still pursued.”
But the problem goes beyond a lack of authorization. As PNoy reportedly said during the command conference, the problem was a breakdown in the chain of command. Commanders are supposed to know what is happening in their areas of responsibility, whether or not the actions were authorized.
Among the recommendations made were to “review the procedures on the utilization of students for operations,” and to “follow basic military decision-making process in order to produce a more effective combat team.”
The stories told by the survivors are not part of the report. I have not heard the stories personally, I was told about these instead, so this is considered hearsay. But even in a court of law hearsay may be admitted, depending on the circumstances and the reasons why the court is being asked to admit them.
One survivor reportedly described how, as early as 5:30 a.m., their officers were asking for reinforcements. The radioman had fallen and the officer could be heard shouting over the radio, asking for reinforcements. The report said that helicopters were sent in as early as 9:30 a.m., but they only picked up the wounded. By the time the reinforcements got to the site, according to the report, it was 4 p.m. The enemy had left. The officers who had asked for reinforcement were dead.
“The 4th SFBN requested close air support and casualty evacuation for the engaged forces. At about 9:30 in the morning, two UH-1H aircraft (504 and 794) escorted by one MG-520 helicopter took off Edwin Andrews Air Force Base, Zamboanga City and proceeded towards Basilan. The helicopters proceeded to Al-Barka, Basilan and were able to pick-up four WIA and brought them to Tabiawan, Basilan arriving at about 10:42 a.m.
“At the same time, a reinforcing SF team under Capt Mallanao from Bato-Bato detachment was engaged and fixed by another blocking enemy force.”
It was already 12 noon when another pair of Hueys inserted Scout Ranger troops into the encounter site. An hour later, two OV-10 Broncos conducted bomb runs “to support the engaged forces.”
“Finally, the reinforcing forces were able to reach the engagement area and conducted clearing operation at about 4 p.m. to recover the other KIA and WIA. At the same time, the enemy had already disengaged.”
Another hearsay story: One of the officers –who died – was heard shouting over the radio: Huwag ninyo naman kaming ganituhin! or Walang ganyanan. Or something to that effect.
“While the casualties were evacuated and troops were inserted by helicopters in the encounter area, Cpt Tupas eventually managed to link-up with the 2nd combat group. He found difficulty in the process as the command and control of the group is no longer effective with the death of its four officers, notably 1Lt Alsiyao who acted as the overall commander of the group.
“It was learned that 1Lt Alsiyao was hit by enemy fires at about 7:30 in the morning and the other officers subsequently becoming casualties.”
I was told that the course director said the students were unprepared, and unarmed. To which the officer who ordered them deployed replied that he would give them guns.
I have no idea if that was true. But the report details what the AFP lost, aside from 19 soldiers: 15 high-powered firearms, one Harris man-pack radio, and three night-vision goggles. I didn’t know students who go on test missions were that well-equipped.
The way the story was managed, and eventually spun and twisted by interest groups, is a different story altogether. Another, longer story that must also wait, is how many people — journalists included — jumped into conclusions without digging for facts. Or used their opinions — which they mistook for facts — to jump into conclusions.
This was just the initial report, presented to the President three days after the incident. Reading the report, it’s easy to pin the blame on the commander of the 4th SFBN, who ordered the deployment. But I’ve been told that it was the system that encouraged and allowed him to do that: hanging one officer would not correct the system, but perpetuate the policy mistakes that allowed the Basilan encounter to happen in the first place.
This might also be why some officers have remained silent, though they could – and should – have spoken out. But that’s a longer story, meant for another day.
This article originally appeared on the official website of Dana Batnag (www.danabatnag.wordpress.com)