What Can We Learn From the Battle of Marawi?

It is not a hopeless cause.


(SPOT.ph) Fighting in towns and cities is the most difficult of operations to do. The clusters of buildings that are typical of a densely populated town or city, and the large numbers of civilians, makes it ideal for the defense no matter how numerically inferior or ill equipped it is. Throughout history, formidable armies that had previously swept everything before them have floundered in the streets of urban areas. Their advance slowed to a crawl while their casualties piled up from pinprick attacks of an elusive enemy.


The Philippines is no stranger to urban battles. There have been a number of battles fought in towns and cities in the Philippines starting from the Filipino American War up to the present. The largest urban battle in Philippine history is the Battle for the Liberation of Manila from February 3, 1945 up to March 3, 1945. In that battle, a force of 16,000 Japanese troops and sailors, held off almost 50,000 Filipino and American soldiers in the buildings and streets of southern Manila. By the end of the battle, 1,000 Americans lay dead, an undetermined number of Filipino guerrillas were killed, and almost all the Japanese were wiped out. However, 100,000 innocent civilians were killed in the crossfire and massacres by the Japanese. The towns of Cebu and Baguio were also the site of large battles in 1945. Since then, battles in towns and urban areas have regularly occurred in the Philippines. To name a few, these are the battle of Jolo in 1974, the August 1987 coup attempt, the December 1989 coup attempt, the Zamboanga Siege of 2013, and Butig in 2016.



One would surmise that given these numerous urban battles that there would be a vast amount of literature on this matter in Philippine libraries and archives. Sadly though, there exists little especially in assessments of lessons learned obtained from these events. In contrast, the Americans have managed to keep voluminous records of their battles in urban areas including that of the Battle of Manila and they frequently access these sources when the need arises.


Shift to Large Scale Urban Attacks

During the War on Terrorism, the response to terrorist attacks was to undertake what has been called target hardening. Key strategic installations and popular places were allocated adequate security protection either by police, security guards, or military personnel and assets. One would see that in military camps, malls and even resorts. This was because the terrorists would prefer to attack these targets. The large rebel formations such as the New People’s Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front did not venture into large scale combat against the military in urban areas and almost all encounters were in sparsely populated areas. However, in 2013, ragtag elements of the Moro National Liberation Front staged an assault on the city of Zamboanga which then resulted in a 20 day battle for government troops to defeat them. This was the first time since 1989 that large scale fighting broke out in a major population center in the Philippines. Although failures of intelligence were cited to be the cause of the battle, it however revealed certain matters that exposed the weakness of government measures against terrorist and rebel attacks.

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The first is that the PNP because of its nature could not be relied upon to counter the rebel attack. Second is that the military would need time to deploy its scattered units to build up a sizable force to take on the rebels. Hence those crucial moments of slow government response, the rebels would have time to dig in. These, plus the target rich environment of assaulting a large urban area and the prestige associated with attacking such a target, caused a shift in strategies among terrorists and rebels.


The AFP Deployments

The Philippine military is deployed in a manner that is suited for ensuring government presence and to deter small enemy ambushes. As such, its units are rarely deployed as a whole but rather spread out in penny packets throughout the length and breadth of the country. Consider that there are approximately 130,000 military personnel of which at most one-third are directly assigned in ground combat units with the rest spread out in headquarters support, logistics and navy, and airforce means that at most 50,000 can be relied upon to immediately engage rebels and terrorists. There is the CAFGU and of course the PNP, but their combat reliability is dependent on the military providing the backbone for the operations. Against this government force, the various rebel and terrorist formations from Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the CPP-NPA, and all those smaller armed groups have a combined number that approaches 20,000. Thus the Armed Forces of the Philippines is undergoing overstretch and can be compared to be a small blanket that attempts to cover a large body that to pull on one side will result in exposure on another part.



The City

The city of Marawi lies within Lanao del Sur and is almost landlocked except for the southern part which is Lake Lanao. It is a modestly sized city by Philippine standards with a population of a little more than 200,000 and a land area of 87.55 square kilometers. The adjacent areas around Marawi are a mix of open fields and forested areas. Though hypothetically one may seal off the city by setting up checkpoints throughout the road network, the vast terrain surrounding the city will be much more difficult to seal off from small teams attempting to enter or exit the city. Several dozen miles away from the city at the southern approaches, lie the suspected training camps of the Maute group.


Despite the peaceful and cosmopolitan appearances of the Maranao people, a fierce warrior ethos is imbibed in their culture. A century earlier, Lanao was a hotbed of resistance to American colonial rule and one of the notorious campaigns of General Jack Pershing was waged against the datus of Lake Lanao. Even today, there is still evidence of that warrior ethos as numerous armed groups exist throughout that province.


Opening Shots

The opening round of the battle of Marawi superficially had the same pattern as that of the earlier Zamboanga siege. The local PNP was overcome by the onslaught of the Maute gunmen while military units being sent piecemeal into the city were either mauled by the enemy or could not achieve their assigned objectives. The government response was to declare Martial Law throughout the entire island of Mindanao with the intention of ensuring a rapid and serious response to contain the Maute Group. However, an effective Martial Law is only as good as the military capability you can use and given the overstretch of the AFP, other rebel and terrorist groups have began to take notice of a military vacuum in their areas due to the government’s focus on Marawi and the Maute. Furthermore, the longer operations are conducted in Marawi, the more it encourages opportunistic attacks by other rebel groups who wish to keep the military off balance and to create a climate of anarchy, notwithstanding the declaration of Martial Law.



Forces Pour In

As forces poured into Marawi, it once again showed the advantages of a defender no matter how small his forces or how haphazardly trained, could hold off a much larger and well equipped attacker which was reminiscent of the Battle of Manila, 72 years earlier. Reports were replete with photos of disabled PNP and AFP armored vehicles that had been waylaid by Maute gunmen. By the third day, the military was using what it calls as “precision air strikes” against the gunmen whose numbers had been underestimated.


With very limited stocks of precision guided munitions, the military began to use free fall general purpose bombs to eliminate Maute nests in Marawi. Ironically, according to Dr. Ricardo Trota Jose, the country’s foremost military historian, during the battle of Manila in 1945, General Douglas MacArthur forbade the use of aircraft as he feared that the bombings might cause collateral damage among the troops and civilians in the confined spaces of the city. True enough, on May 31, 2017, an aerial bomb slammed into government troops, killing 10 of them. Also, the difficulty in dealing with Maute snipers deployed in the strong buildings of Marawi is also reminiscent of Japanese troops surviving the onslaught of American artillery in the earthquake proof buildings of Manila in 1945. As it turned out, artillery also can cause the same amount of collateral damage as airstrikes.


Closing In

A month after the battle started, the Philippine military has managed to clear out a large area of Marawi although the military spokesmen are hesitant to provide any timetable as to when operations will conclude. There is still no reliable estimate of civilian casualties although the government has lost almost 70 soldiers while claiming that more than several hundred Maute gunmen and their affiliates were killed. According to reports, sniper fire is still a hazard and there very few places in Marawi that can be considered as totally safe from Maute sniping. Large areas of the city have been severely damaged by combat but it is an exaggeration to say that the entire city is demolished. Still, the psychological distress of the fleeing residents in witnessing death and destruction needs to be immediately addressed before anti-government resentment sets in. People displaced by fighting are most receptive to rebel recruitment especially if relief efforts are slow and disorganized.



Similar to what had happened in the battle of Manila, hostages, atrocities against civilians by the Maute gunmen, and a large number of evacuees have become major concerns of the military even to the point that it has affected the tempo of operations. To identify gunmen positions and secure intelligence vital for military operations, the Philippine military has been assisted by its reliable traditional allies, the United States and Australian militaries that have provided sophisticated reconnaissance platforms and aircraft.


The BIFF and NPA

As the Philippine military poured in more troops into the Marawi battle, it began to strip other provinces of units. This was noticed by other rebel organizations. For example, shortly after an infantry battalion was moved out of Iloilo and sent to Mindanao on June 17, NPA rebels staged attacks in the Iloilo towns of Maasin and Leon. The CPP-NPA had benefited greatly from the government’s overly generous peace initiatives that it had managed to increase its armed strength by 25% according to military sources.


On June 21, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters attacked the town of Pigcawayan in North Cotabato, leading to the evacuation of a thousand people and the death of a government militiaman. This has led the Philippine military to suspect some sort of a tactical alliance between the BIFF and the Maute Group. Although the casualties and damage of these NPA and BIFF operations are miniscule as compared to what is going on in Marawi, these acts do have a tendency of tying down the Philippine military. It also puts the government in a difficult situation as to how to deal with so many bushfires occurring at the same time.




Much has been said about the alleged failure of intelligence on the days leading to the outbreak of the Battle of Marawi. However a so-called failure to appreciate intelligence is a symptom of a problem that affects the government’s security forces. It has to be investigated if the current fixation on the drug war by the PNP, the overstretch of the AFP, and lastly the hiccupping policy on the peace process had collectively caused the government forces to be too distracted by so many responsibilities and tasks that traditional enemies of the state merely exploited a weakness they found too attractive to ignore. The setting up of a government fact finding commission may be considered by the administration following the conclusion of operations at Marawi. It can be closed door or open to the public depending on the government’s wishes, but it will have to assess current civilian and military strategies and policies and come up with recommendations.


The criticism on the military that it is only used to jungle warfare and not urban warfare, misses an essential fact. The Philippine military as an institution ascribes to rules of war, human rights issues, and tactical rules of engagement. Despite previous human rights violations involving a number of its personnel, it is still sensitive to collateral damage having been steeped so much in security sector reform since 1986. Those factors, coupled with the previously mentioned fact that urban warfare is the most difficult of all operations, will automatically result in a slow tempo of operations and numerous casualties on the government side. Had the Philippine military been like the indiscriminate Russian military during the first and second Chechen Wars, the city of Marawi would have been secured by the second week and it would have been a blackened, burned, and flattened landscape. Hence, even if hypothetically the Philippine military excels in urban warfare, an adherence to rules of engagement and rules of war would still result in a slow methodical and careful operation with a high casualty rate among the troops.



However, there is of course room for improvement and post Battle of Marawi assessments should consider this. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a Philippine Air Force colonel named Nestor Deona had been studying the use of non lethal systems by the military in undertaking counter terrorism operations to complement existing lethal methods. Systems like these may add to the options available to both military and police forces especially in high risk areas for collateral damage. Hence it is time for the Philippine defense establishment to review its literature and seek out new approaches especially as the rebels and terrorist seem to be shifting their operations to large attacks on urban areas.


Finally, what may have motivated the Maute Group to undertake an ambitious operation against Marawi? As stated by so many other talking heads and pundits, it is to attract foreign attention to their group in a display of strength. However, there is also a consequence for the government of such ambitious attacks. It forces the government to tie down more of its forces in major urban areas in Mindanao like Marawi, Iligan, Pagadian, Cotabato, Zamboanga, and General Santos thus creating “fortress cities." A system of fortress cities would then lead to weaker rural presence for the overstretched military and police, thus allowing the rebels and terrorists to spread their influence.


Yet, despite the challenges faced by the military, it is not yet a hopeless cause. Maute and its affiliates have been expending so much cadres and fighters in their attack on Marawi that they run the risk of suffering what the Huks and MNLF rebels experienced in their frontal engagements with the government. That of difficulty in replacing lost leaders and fighters as they have to reconsolidate their shattered forces in the face of huge government pressure and attention on Lanao del Sur. However, government’s success requires a comprehensive and realistic strategy based on sound assessments and not subject to political vendettas or policy flip flops.



Jose Antonio A. Custodio is a security and defense consultant. He also specializes in military history and has post-graduate studies in history from the University of the Philippines. He also occasionally teaches history and political science at several universities in Metro Manila.

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