GMA TV war reporter Benjie Liwanag when he set foot in Marawi City on an early week of Marawi seige had reported intense exchange of gunfires between government ground troopers and the Maute ISIS terrorists. After 100 days and two weeks of fighting, the TV reporter reported the same- intense firefight breaking at the earliest hours of the day. Why it is taking too long for the Phillipine Army to extinguish this armed challenge of the terrorists in urban environment is the subject of this analytical essay.
First and foremost, this Battle of Marawi is the first encounter of the post-war modernizing Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine Army in particular in urban warfare. But for this, the army has no prior training in urban warfare, the first general reason of the slow military action to contain the armed challenge posed by the comparatively few number of terrorists, why the battle lasts until this writing. Factor in this lack of urban warfare expertise of the army.
The other major factors are the physical characteristics of Marawi City and the tactics used by the Maute ISIS terrorists. Marawi City is one built-up compact urban environment having city blocks divided by usually narrow, tertiary and old two-lane primary streets and narrow alleys and walks in the interiors. The city is predominantly flat intersected by waterways draining to Lake Lanao. Its housing stock consisted of a mix of concrete houses and buildings, two to four stories, usually made by buhos-type of concreting out of the need to protect family in case of tribal rido, semi-concrete and makeshift houses so contiguous to each other. The “bohus” tall buildings are excellent sniping posts of the Maute ISIS terrorists and each of these is a “fort unto itself.”
Army commander Lt Gen Carlito Galvez said Wednesday air strikes are still avoiding mosques which have been used by Maute ISIS terrorists as hideouts. On the same day, the long stretch of city’s sewer system leading to Lake Lanao was exposed to be the structure where terrorists hide during aerial bombing runs. The sewer tunnels and canals and buildings have been known structures where soldiers and defenders took advantage of during battles in urban terrain since World War II. It’s no longer secret that mosques have been taken as refuge of militants during pitched battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hotbeds of Islamic insurgencies.
The exchange of gunfires between government troopers and few Maute ISIS terrorists remains to be intense and heavy this Saturday on the 110th day of the Battle of Marawi. The terrorists are down to around 45 gunmen in a constricted 20-hectare main battle zone, said Task Force Marawi spokesperson Capt. Jo-ann Petinghay on Friday. During the 109 days of fighting, 653 terrorists, 145 soldiers and cops, and 45 civilians died, while there are still more than 2 dozens of hostages alive in the urban battle zone. The military claimed that 5 of the 6 Maute brothers were killed, but Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon is still alive. There are also some 300 suspected backers in the government’s arrest list.
“Before the end of October,” said Westmincom chief Lt Gen Carlito Galvez in another deadline set by him to rout the terrorists after missing around four deadlines mouthed by generals including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and President Duterte.
This observer is using social media posts, in text, photo and video forms, in deriving war analysis. The recent striking photo shows two columns of mammoth army troopers marching down Marawi street going to the main battle zone. It projected a systematic advance of the infantry with the armours going to the final battle zone. There is also a video showing a pitched building-to-building battle separated by a primary road. The rather long distance between the two fighting forces points out that they are still not engaged in close-quarter battle in strict sense as practised by the Israel Defense Forces which are skillful in house-to-house, room-to-room battles, and in quick hot pursuit operations inside enemy lairs.
But an urban warfare is tridimensional one. The mammoth armoured columns of the army can be halted and even destroyed by few terrorists maximizing their sniping and machine gun advantages from high-story buildings, their IEDs and booby traps hidden in wrecks and rubbles, their rat-like ambuscades using their RPGs, and from hiding in below-the-ground old foxholes and bunkers used during the Marawi uprising in the 70s, canals, sewage tunnels and mosques while showing their hostages as human shields. From some videos posted by pro-ISIS elements on social media, it is evident that the enemies have organized fire teams or squads scattered in various strongholds and hideouts, hiding behind thick buhos walls, firing shots through loopholes, over rooftops, luring the army into ambushes, moving easily, so mobile in narrow alleys and secret passages in the city, aided by their mastery of urban terrain and detailed local knowledge of the area being residents and locals of Marawi. They have snipers, machine gunners, anti-tank gunners, ammo runners, assistant gunners, the terrorists have many small killer fire teams scattered in the city during the first months of the battle, and now they are constricted in 20 hectares. But that’s still a wide area, 20 hectares is 20 hectares.
With this size of the battlefield and given the still evolving close-quarter battle, it looks like that on tactical and operational levels, the military would still have to brace for more dangerous days and nights in Marawi beyond what Lt Gen Galvez has set at “before the end of October.” The longest Yuletide season of PH is already in us and certainly, this would sap the morale of the ground troops, war stress paradoxically caused by Yuletide yearning to be home alive on Christmas is setting in among the ground troopers. That is, if the lines of supply, provision and replenishment for the terrorists continue to be unquashed despite heavy aerial bombardments that started in Week 2 of the fighting, following the mass evacuation effected by the military.
No doubt about this, commencing on Week 2 up to this posting, the military has fired large quantity of artillery from long distance and foremost relied on intensive air attacks- in three months time but the battle is far from over as yet. It would seem the government troopers are fighting segurista, slow but sure- and safe from afar using snipers and slow advance and clearing while the terrorists are fighting ferociously fiercest for death. The powerful armour, artillery and air strikes of the military have been stiffly challenged by the urban warfare tactics of the ISIS-aligned local terrorists. In this battle, the issue of human shield that the military keeps on saying this limits their actions to protect hostages and holding out civilians is more than seen as tied up to the collateral damage eventuality, given the almost daily bombing runs that eventually destroyed the city. What if the military poured in its greater strength in the city’s rear controlling Lake Lanao and started its campaign from there by dropping down troops and logistics? That, to immediately cut the line of supply and block reinforcements to the terrorists. Maybe it could have ended the battle earlier.
As all things appear now, a close-quarter, room-to-room battle, hand-to-hand combat is the ultimate solution to finally exterminate all the remaining terrorists, achieve a decisive Philippine military victory and end this most devastating battle in the country’s long history of Moro insurgencies. But how as the army has no expertise on this? It would seem the ground troopers in Marawi would be forced to develop their own close-quarter combat skills right there in the battle zone and their ground commander has to call the shots, and shout “soldiers, fix bayonets!”
Cha Monforte is a political reporter, correspondent to BusinessMirror, Edge Davao and home-based content writer-researcher, occasionally having research assistance portfolio on military studies worldwide.