To Liberate a City by Destroying It

It has been a month and two weeks since the start of the Marawi crisis. As the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ fought valiantly to rid the city of Islamic State insurgents, they have savaged the community in the process. 

The blame should not go to the infantry men and women who have toiled vigorously in the campaign. Not only were they caught off guard by a sudden invasion by the bandits on the afternoon of May 23, but they have also been shocked by the sophisticated weaponry and urban warfare training of their opponents.

Structures in the city are set ablaze by aerial bombardment by the Philippine Air Force (PAF). Photo by Reuters.

Therein lies the problem with the battle in Marawi City: the military were ill-equipped to deal with the threat. According to reports, the ISIS fighters had advanced anti-armour weapons which penetrated the Fidel Ramos-era armoured personnel carrier the Army relies on for counter-insurgency operations.

Decades of fighting terrorists in the jungle meant that to fight them in an urban setting was unfamiliar for many of their recruits, a contrast to the foreign ISIS militants who have grown accustomed to urban warfare fighting in Syria and Iraq.

A senior risk analyst noted how the devastation in Marawi City is comparable to the scenes in Mosul, Iraq. That should be enough for us to imagine the havoc wrought by the military operations.

There are deep craters where entire villages should be, as well as high-rise buildings that have now been hollowed-out thanks to extensive bombing by the military.

A handout photo made available by the Joint Coordinating, Monitoring, and Assistance Center (JCMAC) of the GPH-MILF Peace Corridor on 06 June 2017 shows damaged buildings in Marawi City, Mindanao Island, southern Philippines, 05 June 2017. EPA/GPH-MILF PEACE CORRIDOR HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

The excessive collateral damage is a testament to a lack of precision-bombing capabilities by the AFP. In operations against ISIS by U.S. or Russian forces, laser-guided missiles are aplenty and even airstrikes are guided by radar. The sophistication of their equipment meant that damage to unintended targets remains at a minimal.

Compare that with the air assets of the Philippine Air Force: for the airstrikes early in the campaign Vietnam-era OV-10 Bronco bombers and SF-260 light attack aircraft were used. An operation involving the latter aircraft resulted in a highly embarrassing friendly fire incident, which killed 11 soldiers as a result of a botched bombing.

The pilot in question had been placed under administrative leave, but the blame should go to the fact that in 2017 the Philippine Air Force (PAF) is using obsolete air assets to conduct vital combat operations. It is unquestionable that counter-insurgency is the most fundamental defense concern the country faces, and it is a no-brainer that terrorism is a major hindrance to the economic and social development of Mindanao.

ISIS fighters victorious, after taking out a V-150 APC of the Philippine military.

Yet after five decades of counter-insurgency warfare being waged by the government against countless terrorist groups in the country, we still do not have the adequate capabilities to stamp out the enemy.

Indonesia have heavily modernized their military, they have successfully crushed the rebellion in Aceh. Similarly, Sri Lanka also invested heavily in their military to finally defeat the Tamil Tigers.

As with anything else, the Philippines lags behind its neighbors and demonstrates a lack of foresight.

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