THE military is targeting to cut the strength of the communist New People’s Army by half this year. It is also aiming to defeat the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Liberation Front within the year.
The three are being considered by government as terrorist groups.
The NPA has about 3,700 fighters. The Abu Sayyaf has 300 to 400 men, operating mostly in Sulu and Basilan while the BIFF has some 200 to 300 members operating mainly in Central Mindanao.
Armed Forces chief Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero yesterday said he has given directives to all military commanders “to sustain the momentum” of the operations against the all threat groups, including the NPA which has been pursuing the armed struggle for nearly 50 years now.
“Their (NPA’s) manpower is about 3,7000. We intend to reduce that number by half for 2018,” Guerrero said in an ambush interview after traditional joint Department of Defense-Armed Forces New Year’s call in Camp Aguinaldo.
Incidentally, Guerrero is due to retire in April this year after President Duterte extended his term for four months.
President Duterte formally terminated peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines-NPA-National Democratic Front last November because of continued NPA attacks even while peace negotiations were ongoing. He later said the CPP and NPA will be declared terrorist groups.
Asked to assess the military’s operations against the NPA last year, Guerrero said: “We have been successful as we were able to significantly reduce their strength, firearms and affected barangays.” He did not give figures.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said finishing the communist insurgency problem within the year may be impossible.
“We have a plan to degrade (the NPA)… To finish the communist terrorist is far-fetched. It’s a tall order and we may not be able to do it,” said Lorenzana.
“What we are trying to do is to degrade their capability to conduct large-scale attacks. So our operations will be a combination of combat operations plus development in the countryside,” said Lorenzana.
On the possibility of resuming peace talks between the government and the communists, Lorenzana said “there is always a chance for peace talks… for as long as we will have an enabling environment.”
“If the environment is good and there is trust from both sides, and we’re not hiding information from one another and we’re not fooling one another, it’s still possible,” he said.
Nevertheless, Lorenzana said President Duterte is “not very keen” on resuming the peace talks with the communists.
Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, said he considers the Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF as the biggest security threats in the Western Mindanao area.
“That is our goal for the year. We will do it, it can be done,” he said on the target to defeat the Abu Sayyaf and BIFF before the end of the year
“That’s our challenge. We will push our capabilities to accomplish this,” he added.
Galvez noted a recent feat against the BIFF in Maguindanao, which he said left 10 group members dead. The military stepped up operations against the BIFF in August last year, in collaboration with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
“We will sustain our operations to rescue the villages because they are trying to create havoc in the villages,” said Galvez of the BIFF members who are mostly former MILF fighters.
Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the military’s Joint Task Force Sulu, said defeating the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu this year is “very doable.” About 300 ASG men are operating in Sulu where the group is holding three Filipino and six foreign hostages, he said.
“We want it done as soon as possible. We are exerting our best efforts. We are trying to get their leadership because we have proven in the past that neutralization of their leaders led to surrender (of members) because they are no longer being led,” said Sobejana.
“Our priority now is getting their leaders, neutralizing their leaders to really fast track the defeat of the ASG problem…We strong believe that that’s (ending ASG) very doable,” Sobejana said.
Duterte in August 2016 ordered the military to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf. Former AFP chief Ricardo Visaya, who assumed the top AFP post in July 2016, set a deadline of defeating the Abu Sayyaf by before his retirement in December 2016. Visaya’s successor, Eduardo Año, set a deadline of ending the Abu Sayyaf and other terror groups within the first six months of 2017. He retired in October last year and is now officer in charge of the interior department.
Meanwhile, Lorenzana said the defense and military establishments are verifying reports about the entry of an undetermined number of foreign terrorists in Mindanao.
“There are reports coming from other countries like Malaysia and Indonesia that there an increase of foreign terrorists, entering through our southern backdoor,” Lorenzana told reporters.
“But we are trying to verify that. Up to now, we have yet to confirm. Our intelligence gathering is continuous,” he said.