The military dilemma
Yesterday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana issued a statement popping the Speaker’s martial-law-until-2022 trial balloon. His statement reasserted what the Armed Forces spokesman had said the day before: Martial law until 2022 is too long. The problem, for both Lorenzana and the rest of the military establishment that has been consistently — and rather boldly — arguing against martial law (before it was proclaimed), and pointing out it must be implemented in accordance with the 1987 Constitution and not Marcos-era principles in mind, is that it is arguing from a position of weakness.
As long as the military cannot proclaim victory in Marawi, then politically (and now legally, thanks to the Supreme Court), the President has no reason to lift his present proclamation—nor does Congress have an incentive to assert any opinion contrary to his. He has every incentive to issue another proclamation to extend it, which Congress shows every sign of accommodating. In the end, the President is Commander in Chief and for the same reasons the military establishment has tried to moderate the official interpretation — and implementation — of martial law, it cannot buck his authority. Both depend on the same laws and the same Constitution, after all.
This is the leverage the President has, and it limits the ability of the military establishment to maintain its post-Marcos, post-Arroyo attitudes toward its role in national life. But there is another lever of influence the President wields, and it is his power not only to hire and fire, and promote, but to shield the AFP from scrutiny as well.
As long as the Battle of Marawi is taking place, the AFP is shielded from serious inquiry. But eventually an inquiry will have to be held, if the military is to institutionalize the lessons learned from the battle and adapt its doctrines accordingly. The role of at least two generals will be crucial in the postmortem that should take place.
Brig. Gen. Rolando Bautista was selected to be the first commander of the Presidential Security Group in the present administration, and he obtained his first star in August 2016. It was the revitalization of a career that had been marred by the loss of 18 men in a clash with the Abu Sayyaf in April of that year. In March this year he ended his stint in the PSG and resumed command in the field. It was he who gave the order to undertake the raid on the Maute Group that turned into the Battle of Marawi. Coverage at the time, including interviews with Bautista himself, suggest that what transpired was a rush to seize Isnilon Hapilon when he was spotted in Marawi. “We did not expect the outcome, the reactions,” Bautista said, adding: “We did not expect also their sniping capability.” But a quick reaction, the moment it failed in its objective—to capture or kill Hapilon—left the military unprepared, either in terms of establishing a secure perimeter around the area, or crushing the Mautes before they could burrow into the city, resulting in the ongoing siege.
Bautista made decisions as division commander with supervision over brigade commanders; here, the role of one of them, Brig. Gen. Nixon Fortes, is crucial. In January, Fortes was transferred to command the 103rd Brigade in Marawi, giving chase to Hapilon and his men; in March he claimed they had managed to wound Hapilon. On April 10 he donned his brigadier general’s lone star; last month he was replaced as the commander in Marawi.
The military denied it was due to any failure of leadership, while unnamed sources asserted it was due to his failure to bring in sufficient troops in light of intelligence that the Maute Group was gathering there.
Success in Marawi could thus result in the distribution of medals and promotions, or a fact-finding witch-hunt in Congress to find someone to blame for what has become a drawn-out battle. The President has been on his best behavior with the AFP (broadly speaking), controlling himself to the extent of reading speeches at the Philippine Military Academy and AFP events rather than speaking off-the-cuff, as he does to the more primitive police. But he could easily use the Battle of Marawi to reshuffle commands, and promote officers uninterested in holding the line currently being held by Lorenzana and Gen. Eduardo Año.
Unlike generals facing retirement, the President has time on his side.