ZAMBOANGA CITY–The moment he assumed the highest government post in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military to eliminate the 400-odd heavily armed militants of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) which had been terrorizing the country for over 25 years.
Around 10,000 soldiers were deployed and a naval blockade was ordered on the shores of Basilan and Sulu. The military offensive killed at least 70 militants.
But the group struck back by killing 15 elite marine soldiers and three seasoned army scout rangers. Some of them were beheaded. The group struck again recently by bombing a public market in Davao City, Duterte’s hometown, killing 15 people and wounding 70 others.
ASG spokesman Abu Rami said the “bomb attack on the president’s hometown is just the beginning of a wider war and they (militants) are ready to engage in a war with thousands of soldiers deployed to hunt them.”
This week, the ASG abducted three Malaysians and this adds to its existing captives that include nine Indonesians, seven Filipinos, and a Dutch. Nowegian Kjartan Sekkingstad was freed in Patikul town in Sulu province on Saturday.
The recent attacks by Abu Sayyaf prove that it is not so easy to destroy them.
AFP spokesman Major Filemon Tan says the militants are elusive and the military is seeking information from locals about their movements and hideouts.
The military is well supported in the anti-terror fight by a hundred US Special Forces stationed in Zamboanga City as part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the U.S.
Surprisingly, after his return from the ASEAN summit in Laos, Duterte asked the US Special Forces to leave the Philippines saying their presence will never bring peace to Mindanao. Left-leaning organizations welcomed Duterte’s call.
But the AFP maintained that the relationship with the US military remained rock solid and that the statement of President Duterte had not yet been translated into a government policy.
So how will Duterte eradicate ASG without US support?
Duterte is planning to buy weapons from Russia and China. He is sending Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and some technical experts to these countries to canvass weapons. Among those military assets the AFP wishes to acquire are propeller-driven planes to be used against insurgents and terrorists in Mindanao.
Duterte believes the ASG can be wiped out during his term by deploying 10,000 soldiers. He is going to upgrade military facilities that will include salary increase for soldiers to boost their morale. He will also use his diplomatic skills to persuade ASG to end the war.
Earlier, during his visit to Basilan, Duterte had met with Islamic leaders. He also appealed to militants to end the war in Basilan for the sake of posterity.
But Duterte’s appeal fell on deaf ears. The militants continued to ambush and kill soldiers and abduct people for ransom. He immediately deployed five battalions there.
Dr. Adrian Semorlan, Asian Sociology professor, said to Asia Times that Duterte can eliminate ASG with the support of locals who can give provide vital information to the military about the militants’ whereabouts.
“Duterte has already given them powers to go after Abu Sayyaf. So it’s time for the community now to do their part,” Semorlan said.
Renato Reyes, leader of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAM), one of the country’s biggest leftist groups, appealed to Duterte to scrap EDCA which, he said, is disadvantageous to Filipinos.
However, opposition senator Antonio Trillanes opposed Dutete’s call. Trillanes said the presence of US Special Forces has been helpful in upgrading Philippine military’s capability, especially in combating terrorism.
Washington is set to allocate $66 million for the construction of US military facilities in the Philippines as part of the EDCA. But Mindanao analysts say the presence of US troops in the Philippines is not to contain ASG militancy but to counter China’s growing military strength in the region.
While the U.S. tries to support the Philippines, Duterte is moving closer to China. For instance, he recently appreciated China’s move to construct drug rehabilitation centers for 600,000 drug users who surrendered to the Philippine authorities. Since he became president, Duterte has also been saying that China should construct a railway system in Mindanao.
“Ang China ang may pera, hindi Amerika, walang pera ang Amerika (China has the money and not America. America has no money),” he said.
But three years ago, US troops had supported 4,000 Philippine soldiers in their fight against Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) militants who attacked Zamboanga City after declaring independence.
The US military lent their drones and water assets to limit the movements of the rebels. The three-week attack in September killed at least a hundred MNLF rebels. More than a hundred rebels surrendered to face rebellion charges while the government lost dozens of soldiers.
Noel Tarrazona is a freelance international journalist.