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Who is winning the war in Philippine’s Marawi city?

September 13, 2017
A building in Marawi is set ablaze by air strikes carries out by the Philippine Air Force.
A building in Marawi is set ablaze by air strikes carries out by the Philippine Air Force.

A war veteran once said: “Nobody wins in a war. They lost but we didn’t win.” This is the reality of war — a didacticism that our leaders should not overlook.

This comes to mind as the battle for Marawi city winds down.

According to the army, only about 40 extremists are trapped in an area of less than 500 square metres and are making their last stand in three mosques, the biggest of which is the Bato Mosque, a huge edifice more of a fort than a place of worship because of its dungeons, tunnels and caves.

In a few days they will launch the “final push” and Marawi will be liberated.

The jihadists will be left with two options: fight and die a martyr, believing it is their ticket to paradise, or “live to fight for another day,” as Demosthenes of Athens once said, by waving the white flag. Either way, the government forces will claim victory. But it is a pyrrhic victory, gained at a great loss to life and property, especially of non-combatants.

Without demeaning the gallantry of our soldiers and desecrating the memory of our fallen heroes, in my book the victors are the much vilified Maute-Abu Sayyaf extremists.

Holding the nation figuratively hostage for more than 100 days is no small feat. They have proven that they are no longer the pushover ragtag group made up of the family members and other kin of the Dawla Islamiya founders, once driven from the towns of Butig and Piagapo, but well-organised, disciplined and brave soldiers who “look at the barrel of the gun of the enemy and see paradise”.

They have surpassed the fame (or infamy) of radical Islamist groups in Southeast Asia, like the Jemaah Islamiya of Indonesia and other IS cells. They fought the might of the Philippine government, an enemy superior in number and armaments, supported technically by the world’s greatest military powers like the United States, Australia and China.

They were subjected to rote bombardment by modern fighter jets and Augusta attack and MG-520 helicopters to complement the barrage of ground mortars, howitzers and artillery fire.

The Commander in Chief, in full battle gear complete with helmet and bulletproof vest, travelled to the war zone to goad and inspire the soldiers to fight on, even if critics belittled the event as a mere photo op and PR tool.

The most lethal legal weapon available in our constitutional armoury, the martial law power of the presidency, was unleashed, plunging not only Marawi but the whole nation initially into an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and inconvenience.

The local Ulama Council issued a fatwa denouncing their occupation and destruction of Marawi as un-Islamic, and the 41 local government units of Lanao del Sur issued a manifesto declaring the Mautes as enemies of the Maranao.

Yet against all these odds we saw them unbowed and sustaining their ferocious fighting spirit, determined to die fighting for the kind of Islam they believe in even if, in the process, they caused unimaginable destruction and mayhem to their kin and to the only known “Islamic City” in Asean.

The feat of the Maute-Abu Sayyaf extremists in Marawi will dramatically improve their prestige and ranking among radical Muslims worldwide. Consequen­tly, oil funds and war material from the IS could flow in to boost their crusade and recruitment campaign.

Their mission of establishing a wilayat in Central Mindanao, if not a caliphate on the whole island, is no longer a dream but a stark reality that the government must seriously address. The IS menace is here to stay, and it is knocking on our doors.

Meanwhile, the heroism of our soldiers will forever be etched in Moro history. And to them our salute.

Philippine Daily Inquirer

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2017