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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Philippine forces struggle to defeat Muslim extremists in Marawi

The prolonged siege has raised questions about the performance of the armed forces, and the military are the first to admit that this is not the kind of fight they are set up for

Government soldiers take cover behind a military truck, as they take up positions in Marawi City. Erik De Castro / Reuters
Government soldiers take cover behind a military truck, as they take up positions in Marawi City. Erik De Castro / Reuters

In their dark green Woodland camouflage, the marines looked out of place on the paved streets lined by brightly painted facades, barren concrete walls, or exposed breeze blocks. Even though they had been fighting in Marawi for several months, they still felt out of place.

Ever since the Maute Group had seized the city in May, the military and police units have been battling to dislodge the ISIL-aligned jihadists. Government forces vastly outnumber the insurgents, which at their peak strength were estimated to have massed between 800 and 1,200 fighters in the city. The Maute's numbers have shrunk considerably since, but a handful of jihadists still manage to hold out in the city's centre.

The prolonged siege has raised questions about the performance of the armed forces, and the military are the first to admit that this is not the kind of fight they are set up for.

"This is a new kind of warfare for us, for the longest time we have been fighting a guerrilla war, we fought in the jungle," says Col Romeo Brawner, the army spokesman on the ground in Marawi.

This line is echoed by the troops in the city, who have had to learn the hard way how to advance through the built-up neighbourhoods of Marawi, whose 200,000 inhabitants fled the city at the onset of the battle.

They suffered stiff losses trying to storm entrenched positions, and many soldiers fell victim to improvised explosive devices planted by the insurgents, or to snipers lurking in the shadows.

The Philippine military has received extensive training by the US to search out and destroy Islamist insurgent groups hiding in the dense jungle of the country's southern islands, where the country's Muslim minority lives, and where Marawi is located. But no one anticipated an extremist group having the audacity to take control of a city, and urban combat was never taught to the troops.

Fearing to further alienate the already disgruntled Muslim population, the government has also refused to allow in foreign special forces to counter the sniper threat.

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Read more:

Siege of Marawi: How Philippines insurgency provided fertile recruiting ground for extremists

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"It’s the one capability that they could have utilised beyond intelligence. But from a propaganda and an optic standpoint, the Philippines government didn't want any foreign troops to help out in a substantial way," says Justin Richmond, founder of the development consultancy impl.project and former US special forces team leader deployed to the southern Philippines.

Despite those difficulties, the military was quick to take back most of the city. But commanders have hesitated finishing off the insurgents, knowing that the final phase of the battle against a cornered enemy will be costly.

"The stalemate we have right now is that none of the generals want to take back those last five blocks, because they are going to lose a lot of men," says Mr Richmond. "It will absolutely ruin someone career unless [President] Duterte comes to them and says, 'Look, just do what you need to do to get the job done.' That's what needs to happen, and that's what needed to happen for the past three months."

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