On January 29, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his police chief Ronald dela Rosa announced the temporary suspension of the police’s role in the ongoing war on drugs following the high-profile kidnapping and killing of a South Korean businessman. After seven months and 7,600 deaths in the controversial campaign, some had hoped that this would lead to some soul-searching on the part of the Duterte government.
Instead, old hopes were quickly replaced by new fears. Duterte once again began publicly floating the idea of involving the military in the drug war, sparking worries about what exactly that would mean for civil-military relations in the Philippines and deepening suspicions about his commitment to democracy and human rights.
As with many of Duterte’s other proposals, the transition from rhetoric to reality has been far from smooth. In late January, Duterte suggested to a joint command conference the revival of the Philippine Constabulary (PC), an old law enforcement body that was a major service command of the country’s military along with the army, air force, and navy, before the country moved to a civilian police force in the 1990s after the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Given that the PC had been notorious for its human rights abuses during the Marcos era, it was not surprising that the idea was greeted with some skepticism. Amid this concern, the call for specifics became even louder, with the defense ministry itself requesting that the president issue an executive order to serve as a legal, formal basis for troops to follow.
Since then, security officials have been signaling that the Philippine military will in fact at best play a supporting role as part of what Duterte has called a “narcotics command” headed by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). Most notably, in early February, PDEA director general Isidiro Lapena, the former police chief in Davao where Duterte was mayor for over two decades, said that troops would only be standing by to support PDEA agents in target areas where there are armed groups, rather than carrying out their own patrols and operations.
Though that had eased some worries about the role of the military in the drug war, it still left the question of what exactly a “supporting role” would be, in terms of specifics like numbers and responsibilities.
Over the weekend, we got some additional specifics about what this role would look like. Speaking in Baguio City, where Duterte had attended a military alumni homecoming, Philippine military chief General Eduardo Ano said that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was creating a task force and was ready to operate with the PDEA.
Ano added that the task force, which is yet to be created, would be “battalion size,” with a rather flexible number of up to 5,000 soldiers or as little as 500 depending on the threat. Elaborating on the nature of its role, he said that the focus would not be on independent raids, but assisting the police in going after “high-level drug syndicates,” as well as intelligence support and target packaging as needed.
How exactly all of this plays out, of course, remains to be seen. Ano said that while the military had been in conversation with the police even before Duterte had requested that it play a role in the drug war, it was still awaiting its executive order to formalize its role. That confused more than clarified, as it raised the prospect of the military playing some sort of informal role even before a formal order was issued.
Meanwhile, as this process is unfolding, the suggestion of a “battalion-sized” task force has been questioned by rights groups as well as critics of the president more broadly. For example, former president Fidel Ramos told reporters that small units in several places, rather than a whole battalion, could be sufficient for a successful war on drugs.
As is often the case with Duterte, the path from policy initiation to implementation looks to be a rather long and tortuous one. To his credit, at least on the drug war, the president appears to be realizing this is the case, which explains his decision to extent his ambitious six-month timeline to the end of his presidency.