American role in the botched SAF operation

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

“Oplan Wolverine.”

That’s the name given to the operational plan to arrest or “neutralize” (meaning, kill) Malaysian Zulkifli bir Hir, alias Marwan – for whose capture, dead or alive, the US government had offered a $6-million reward, he being in its list of “most wanted terrorists.”

The covert operation, carried out at dawn last Sunday in Mamasapano, Maguindanao by the US-trained PNP Special Action Force, reportedly succeeded in killing Marwan. But it tragically ended up with 44 SAF officers and men dead in firefights with forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

Something went terribly wrong in the execution of the operation, although there was plenty of time to prepare, if the latest reported details prove to be true. Who botched it?

Both the government and the MILF leadership – which have signed a peace agreement and a ceasefire accord – say the tragedy should not have happened, depicting the firefight between their forces as a “misencounter.” Both emphasize the incident must not detract from pursuing the peace agreement’s implementation by Congress promptly approving the Bangsamoro Basic Law or BBL.

Both sides have ordered their respective investigations on the incident to ascertain its cause(s) and to prevent its repetition. It’s crucial to have a complete picture of what happened – and to identify the factors that went into play. The investigations must ferret out the truth and point out those accountable for the SAF debacle.

But is there a significance to the covert operation’s quaint name?

“Oplan Wolverine” sounds so different from the familiar-sounding names of the series of AFP counterinsurgency projects over the years: Oplans “Mamamayan,” Bantay-Laya,” “Lambat-Bitag,” and the current “Bayanihan.”

Wonder not about its provenance. Consider this: the US has tagged “Marwan” as a top terrorist and offered a huge reward for his physical elimination. It’s logical to assume that “Oplan Wolverine” was drawn up by US counterterrorist planners.

(“Wolverine” pertains to ferocious furred small carnivores found in North America. Another example is a weasel, which can be a derogatory term in English for persons characterized as “sly, cunning, or sneaky.”)

Hand it to the planners who coined the equally quirky “Operation Neptune Spear,” the clandestine US Navy Seals plan credited for the killing in Pakistan, in March 2011, of Osama bin Laden, identified as the prime leader of Al Qaeda. The US intelligence links Marwan’s alleged group, Jemaah Islamiyah, to Al Qaeda, which owned the devastating plane-crash attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in September 2001.

As though affirming their common origin, Police Director Getulio Napenas (the SAF chief who was sacked) drew a parallel between Oplans Wolverine and Neptune Spear in terms of the high secrecy involved in their preparation and implementation.

But there’s a difference: the blitzkrieg operation against bin Laden was highly successful without casualties on those who carried it out. What really happened in Mamasapano?

Reports say, in September 2014 US operatives gave definitive information to “ranking police officials” on the exact location of Marwan, evidenced by photos taken by CIA drones). A plan was hatched – with explicit instructions from the Americans not to share the info with other Philippine security agencies and to coordinate only with “government troops posted along the highway on their way to their mission.”

That was what the SAF forces claim they did last Sunday. But President Aquino, in his address to the nation, blamed the SAF commander – who had been reporting to him directly – for failing to follow his instruction for “maximum coordination.” A case of insubordination? Or did the SAF obey a more powerful superior that led them to disaster?

Another point: P-Noy disclosed that the PNP had the intelligence info as early as May, and there were earlier attempts to capture Marwan. These were aborted because firefights occurred. If that were the case, why did the SAF go ahead with the mission last Sunday not sufficiently prepared to fight?

Besides the government and MILF investigations, perhaps an independent probe has to be done in the interest of establishing truth and accountability. The larger picture of the US “war on terror,” as it is carried out in the Philippines with government acquiescence, has to be factored in.

Look back to 2002, when the annual US-RP joint military exercises, under the Visiting Forces Agreement, began to be directly connected to military operations against the Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao. The US then set up the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines inside Camp Navarro (an AFP base in Zamboanga City).

The JSOTF-P, says its website, was set up upon the request of the Philippine government. Its mission: to “work together with the (AFP) to fight terrorism and deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Mindanao.” It is made up of Special Operations forces and support personnel from all branches of the US military.

JSOTF-P says, “US forces are temporarily deployed to the Philippines in a strictly non-combat role to advise and assist the AFP, share [intelligence] information, and to conduct joint civil-military operations.”

The long and short of the arrangement is: the US pursues its “war on terror” here using Filipino soldiers and policemen as cannon fodder while keeping American “adviser-trainers” from harm’s way.

* * *

Published in The Philippine Star
January 31, 2015

Share This Post