Jul 8, 2010

As commander-in-chief, can Aquino reform the AFP?

Voltaire Gazmin calls the President ‘utol’ – the Tagalog slang word for brother – which speaks volumes of their relationship and the kind of trust put upon him in setting to order the Armed Forces.

President Benigno Aquino III with Defense chief Voltaire Gazmin (extreme left), outgoing AFP chief Lt. Gen. Nestor Ochoa (left) and incoming Lt. Gen Ricardo David (right) during the change of command ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo last week. Jay Morales
Benigno Aquino III didn’t have to go far in choosing Gazmin, a retired lieutenant general, to the post of defense secretary, if only to ensure that the nightmare of the coup attempts in the 1980s would not haunt him again.

It goes back to those days, when his mother Corazon Aquino suffered serious setbacks from plots trying to unseat her from the presidency. The son does not dwell on his trauma of being wounded in one of those attempts in December 1989, and no one else but Gazmin, who was then the chief of the presidential guards, would know the consequences of that event on the new president, then and now.

Speaking to the top brass at the turnover of the newly installed chief of staff at the general headquarters just two days after his inaugural, Aquino was forthcoming and encouraging – clean up your own backyard, he said – of a future that might be as tenuous as the events of recent years if reform programs and strategy changes are not done.

And there’s a lot that needs cleaning up. Deadlines to crush the insurgency are inutile, and the military is still not winning against communist or Muslim rebels. Gloria Arroyo left behind a culture of impunity that has spawned the likes of the euro generals mess, the missing Jonas Burgos and other human rights violations, and the dearth in equipment that saw Ondoy rescue efforts in total disarray.

A defense reform program must see the light of modernization, and a counter-insurgency strategy must seek fresh, innovative ideas in nation building.

Choosing the best

For a start, Gazmin has to set in place the billeting of positions, like moving pieces in a chessboard that had been stacked with officers of Class ’78, those that were loyal to former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and whose chief of staff, Gen. Delfin Bangit, had to step down in a somewhat comical twist of events.

The generals moving to the forefront, meaning key staff positions, service commands, area commands, are certainly those Gazmin can rely on, his ‘junior officers’ from his stint as Cory Aquino’s presidential guards commander and later, as commanding general of the Philippine Army.

“If he (the president) is going to go after people big time, he obviously needs an army that is intact, to his interest," said a ranking officer in the general staff. It is as simple as that, and it is the first order of the day in running the military.

But sensitivities also lie in the politicization of these men in uniform, and Gazmin will have to calculate his moves, that replacing one class with another – from Class ’78 to Class ’79 it appears – must be done with the astuteness of his mind in choosing the best among them and nothing less.

Arroyo’s blind side was that Bangit was not seen as having the strength of character, despite his code name “Emperor," and his departure failed to elicit regrets. She had also plugged key division and area commands with officers of Class ’78 simply because they were of that class and rarely with merit and approval. (Class ’78 had made Arroyo an honorary member.)

In fact the entire nine years of her term saw the artifice of a “revolving door," with chiefs of staff coming and going, generals whose name you can’t remember or what they’ve done (save perhaps two or possibly three), because every one of them has to have their turn, supposedly a concession to their loyalty and failing to pass into law a fixed tenure.

Safe choices

The current designation of Gen. Ricardo David as chief of staff was not difficult to fathom: he, too, was of Cory’s presidential guards and was, until Friday, the commander of the Northern Luzon command of which the Aquinos’ Tarlac bailiwick is its base.

The choice is safe enough, though probably not brilliant, and with roughly eight months to go before his retirement, it would give Gazmin more than enough time to figure out his plastada, a term the army uses in analyzing and moving about the terrain.

David won over the most senior of the remaining of his Class ’77 (the generals of the upper class whom Arroyo had bypassed for Bangit) among the generals – Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer of the Eastern Mindanao Command, who had crafted his reputation as a ‘peace warrior’ in the conflict of Muslim Mindanao and was perhaps a popular pick, but had been bypassed for other personal reasons.

Ferrer is being offered, sources say, the post of the largely administrative National Development Command, which does not hold much clout in the scheme of things and one that would hardly ease the blow from which he is smarting. He has got two more years in the service until the mandatory retirement age of 56.

The commanding general of the Philippine Army, the second most powerful seat in the military, a stepping stone to the four-star rank at the top, is also expected to be replaced. Lt. Gen. Reynaldo Mapagu of Class ’78 might be moved to the general headquarters as deputy chief of staff, a position of considerable influence but just the same a holding room before retirement.

Mapagu was the underdog chosen by Arroyo to lead the Army, supposedly to settle quarrels among classmates. He is about to be replaced, sources say (though nothing yet has been formalized), by Maj. Gen. Arturo Ortiz of Class ’79, a favorable choice considering his background in field combat.

Mapagu is of the Scout Rangers and Ortiz from the Special Forces – two of the Army’s elite units and the heart of the Special Operations Command, which Gazmin had also overseen.

The military is so much “unlike in a romance," explained a retired general, “where anything new brings excitement. In the military, you go back to the old days, to officers you know through time, tried and tested. Presented with equal qualifications, you will choose the one you know best."

Gazmin is of the old school, himself the son of a general, rigid to standards of discipline, obedience, and loyalty to the service. Will he stick to the style of the past? Or will he use it to re-shape the military, take a daring step forward as his ‘brother’ said he would do to change the country, to give soldiers the tools of a strategy for winning?

Initially, Gazmin had personally sought a retired general for the defense department post who, by coincidence, was also a former commander of the presidential guards under President Fidel Ramos. The offer was declined and so Gazmin took on the job, evidently with the approval from Aquino that he was trusted to make the choices of key positions in the military.

The military has been plodding on over the past decade or so, with the consolation of some pockets of successes here and there but absent of a core, a rallying force of a true army, a symbol of their own given the importance of its institution.

In time, Aquino can perhaps evolve as the commander-in-chief, setting concrete directions for the armed forces in achieving his avowed goal of “complete justice for all." By then he will know that he is a leader among the men in uniform. – YA, GMANews.TV

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