The most difficult way to conduct a war is to do it along two or more fronts. Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote, war is the continuation of politics by other means. If so, one must ask: What kind of politics led to the fighting in an urban setting, just one of many simultaneous campaigns, each of which affects the capacity for battle?
The role of politicians is to set policy; this includes defining what victory is, which governs the actions of the military. An environment, created by politicians, wherein the goal of policies is neither clear nor conducive to successful military operations, can be fatal to the national interest.
The military had to conduct a rearguard action with its own commander in chief, even as its Vietnam-era equipment and tactics ponderously heaved into action in Marawi. President Duterte put political objectives—martial law, the proposal for MILF, MNLF and NPA to join the fighting—ahead of fixing the real problem which ranged from a shortage in precision-guided missiles to lack of capacity in conducting surveillance (only sorted out when the Americans were approached for assistance after nearly a year of disengagement mandated by the President).
Amid all these distractions the military tried to prevent the attack from turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It failed.
The President was the biggest early booster of Maute as an Islamic Stateunit. He helped (along with the military being bogged down) assure Maute’s formal recognition by IS. But the President has never been one for nuance. After he dared Maute to attack, the battle had to be painted in apocalyptic terms with drugs to spice it up. Last Saturday President Duterte tried to explain that in his desire to keep the peace with larger rebel groups, alliance-building between Maute and local officials was overlooked, and that the Marawi operation provided Maute with the pretext to launch what it planned to do all along—turn the city into a caliphate base.
The President’s political capital has been lavishly spent on promoting a coalition government with the communists. All this has proven so far is that its exiled leadership is only nominally in charge, easily ignored by guerrillas who need to keep extorting funds and justifying their ideology by attacking the military and police. The communists’ above-ground front organizations and underground networks are aware that the campaign against drugs is showing signs of alienating the poor, limiting avenues for cooperation with Western democracies, and raising legal troubles after the administration’s term ends. Which means their impotent titular leaders abroad and cadres at home need to align themselves with antimilitary and antigovernment advocacies if funding is to keep coming in.
Now the President’s simultaneous and more successful policy of cultivating the MILF and the MNLF must now collide with an unintended consequence of the Battle of Marawi. The same coalition of warlords and traditional politicians that rallied around Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to scuttle the BBL now have a perfect excuse to oppose the newly-approved BBL redux. The recent statement of the mayor of Iligan City about the need for militias reveals potential flashpoints.
This is strategic drift, when conditions change and an organization—in this case a national administration—responds too slowly and deterioration sets in. The administration does not realize that its NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) model of local governance, where all sides can coexist so long as they all recognized the supreme authority of the mayor, cannot be imposed by sheer force of will either on the Philippines or the world. What is unfolding is the slow, creeping, but cohesive, collapse of this NIMBY policy with its strong views and hazy knowledge.
Consider Tablighi Jamaat (ostensibly an organization meant to bring Muslims back to more traditional, pious practices of their faith). It was tagged by the President as a possible vehicle for terrorism. But the President seems unaware how the organization’s relevance to Islamic extremism is debated on by experts. (It does not belong to the Wahhabi branch of Islam to which radical Islamists belong.) Now the military has conceded that the “point of no return” has been passed, and the problem now is whether a Malaysian-Indonesian-Philippine alliance can prevent the infiltration of motivated, ruthless foreign fighters in large numbers into Mindanao and elsewhere.