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Americans cared more about saving SAF than Aquino and his generals

The Senate report on the Mamasapano massacre revealed one of its saddest chapters, narrated in one of its executive (read: secret) sessions.

Special Action Forces were radioing for help as they were trapped, and real-time video by American drones showed the actual battle that Muslim snipers were killing them one by one with their caliber-50 Barrett rifles.

US helicopter evacuating the SAF wounded on Jan 25. Where were ours?
US helicopter evacuating the SAF wounded on Jan 25. Where were ours?

It was most probably mid-day, five hours after Philippine National Police (PNP) officers, not only those on the ground but even PNP acting chief Leonardo Espina, had asked

Major General Edmundo Pangilinan, commander of the 6th Infantry Division, for artillery to fend off the Muslim forces.

According to the Senate Committee report there were six Americans at the command post, probably civilian contractors under the US military’s payroll:

“One of the Americans (at the tactical command post) ordered Pangilinan to fire the artillery. However, Pangilinan refused and told him, ‘Do not dictate to me what to do. I am the commander here.’” Appearing even proud of his remark, Pangilinan confirmed he said that in a Congress hearing the other day to confirm his promotion to top major-general rank.

I don’t think the American gave an “order,” or he wouldn’t have any business in that kind of clandestine affair.

Most probably, he was viewing in real time provided by their drones that the SAF troops were trapped and would be soon massacred. Probably, nobody else in the tactical command post had the guts to emphasize to the general that without the artillery, the commandos were goners. Probably, the American got to be friends with the SAF commandos, based on reports that Americans had trained them.

So most probably, and considering how informal—and emotional—Americans could get, he got mad, and maybe one of them even raised his voice to Pangilinan and told him: “Can you fire your f——ng artillery now, general, or those soldiers will be f——ng massacred!”
And how did Pangilinan respond? Not with an angry flag-waving statement that went something like, “the US cannot interfere in our country!” Not with a rational reply that the artillery didn’t have precise coordinates and may hit civilians.

Instead, his reply was so petty and egoistic: “Do not dictate to me what to do. I am the commander here.” Pangilinan was more concerned about his bruised ego, that he was being “dictated to,” than about saving the lives of the SAF troopers.

Was it because Pangilinan didn’t want to appear to be “dictated to” and to assert his position of authority, so that he ordered the artillery to fire three white phosphorus markers, only at 5:48 p.m.—10 hours after he was first requested to do so by PNP officers at 8 a.m.? But that was hours after the 44 had been killed, with the Muslim insurgents even having the time to be able to approach the wounded, shoot them in the head and rob them even of their personal belongings.

Indeed, the Senate committee’s report that six Americans were at the operation’s tactical command post providing real-time monitoring (with the use of their drones and high GPS systems) belies Pangilinan’s excuse, which he gave in the hearing.

He had claimed that he didn’t want the artillery fired since without precise information, they risked hitting the SAF or even civilians. But the US monitoring systems at the command post were the most technologically advanced in the world, that coordinates could be precisely established, and had been, in fact, given.

He even claimed that he had not deployed “forward observers,” i.e., personnel watching where the first rounds would land so as to adjust the next firing, because the PNP had not coordinated with his troops. But the US drones, in effect, meant a limitless number of “forward observers.”

There’s another instance in which the Americans seemed to care more for the lives of the SAF than those of Aquino and his generals. Even as the battle was still ongoing, they sent at least one helicopter to evacuate the wounded. The Western Command had six helicopters based in Cotabato City. Why weren’t they deployed? There was no request, Aquino’s generals replied.

Did the thought cross Aquino’s mind that fateful day while he was pretending nothing serious was happening as he toured Zamboanga City to ask the helicopters hovering above the city for his security to, instead, be deployed to rescue the SAF in Mamasapano? Not a chance.

There could only be three reasons why Aquino’s generals dragged their feet on saving the police commandos:

One, it was petty jealousy, and even inter-service rivalry. The Laguna-based SAF would be praised for having killed a notorious international terrorist in Maguindanao, where the Army’s 6th Infantry Division was based and should have had a vast intelligence network to know that the terrorist lived there, apparently for years. Since the SAF didn’t want to share the credit, and didn’t coordinate with them on the operation, they were left to fend for themselves, until the generals realized the casualties would become too high that they moved to rescue and fire the artillery to save the 84th SAF company, after the 44th SAC had been decimated.

Two, the generals were in cahoots with the insurgents, especially with the MILF. While this may be a cruel accusation, I was told way back in 1996 by my MILF informants: “Don’t you notice that nearly every general gets to be assigned in Maguindanao before he retires? They amass their retirement money here, since we buy our arms and ammo from them.”
And third, the most likely reason, which is why suspended police chief Alan Purisima – Aquino’s commander of the operations—claimed his boss’s last text message was at 10:16 a.m., and why Chief of Staff Gregorio Catapang and his generals refused to submit their cell phones to the PNP Board of Inquiry: Their commander-in-chief told them to stand down, or his peace plan with the MILF would be derailed.

This is not just dereliction of duty, not just betrayal of public trust. This is criminal, deliberate negligence that resulted in the deaths of 44 of our elite troops.