A protracted battle to retake a city from Islamic State-backed militants is threatening to derail the political agenda of the Philippines popular President Rodrigo Duterte. The stiffest challenge yet to his authoritarian rule over the country began on May 23, when terrorists from the Maute Group captured large parts of the city of Marawi on the southern island Mindanao. Despite an intensive campaign that has included air and artillery strikes, the Philippine armed forces have so far been unable to drive the Islamist militants from the city.

An issue is Duterte’s declaration of Martial Law over the entire region within hours of the attack, which caught local security forces by surprise.

The Maute Group is just one of dozens of armed bands belonging to Muslim separatists, Communist rebels, or local warlords in Mindanao, where decades of tension have led to widespread poverty and distrust of the national government.

Martial law is a sensitive issue in the Philippines because it was used by the country’s long-time dictator Ferdinand Marcos to maintain his hold on power during the 1970s, but a majority of the country supported Duterte’s decision. The measure seemed sensible when it was first imposed, because it was justified as necessary to contain the conflict. Under martial law, the writ of habeas corpus is suspended, allowing the military to detain suspected terrorists without charge.

It also allows the military to take control of local police forces, and impose curfews and otherwise restrict people’s movement.

Military outmatched

The clampdown, however, hasn’t worked. The military estimated the terrorist force in Marawi to be about 200 fighters shortly after the battle started, but they were evidently joined by others as the fighting continued.

Military and government spokesmen have given figures ranging from 350 to 450 for the number of terrorists killed in the clash so far. And there have been other attacks by rebellious groups in areas far outside the combat zone, in southern Mindanao and in the central province of Iloilo.

The Philippine military originally announced a self-imposed deadline of June 6 to drive the terrorists out of Marawi and then extended it to June 12, the country’s Independence Day.

The armed forces have since stopped providing estimates of when the battle for the city will be over. At a daily briefing on July 10, military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said that progress was “positive,” but declined to say when the military might take control of the city. For his part, Duterte said on July 12 during an event at the local stock exchange that he expects the fighting will be over “in 10 to 15 days,” a forecast that the military spokesman sidestepped when asked about it by local reporters.

In an article for the online news site Spot.ph on June 27, military analyst Jose Antonio Custodio said the reason the imposition of martial law has had no apparent impact on the fight in Marawi is because the Philippine military is “overstretched.” Although the armed forces have about 130,000 personnel, only about 50,000 – including police and auxiliary units – are actually available for combat operations, Custodio explained.

Both Australia and the United States have offered some support to the Philippines, providing military intelligence and supplies, but political considerations have kept the assistance to a minimum. Duterte has publicly expressed his intention to end US military involvement in the country on a number of occasions, and asking for more help now would be obviously inconsistent.

Besides the difficult urban warfare in Marawi, the Philippines faces a number of other internal security threats. The Maute Group in Marawi is one of a number of Islamist terror groups either ideologically or materially backed by the IS. The most well-known is the Abu Sayyaf group, which operates mainly in the island provinces of Sulu and Basilan.

The ASG specializes in piracy and kidnappings, killing their victims when ransom demands are not met.

Elsewhere, government forces are kept occupied by major Islamic separatist groups the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with whom the government is negotiating to create an autonomous Muslim substate in Mindanao, and MILF rival the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The MNLF in 2013 staged an attack on Zamboanga City that led to a 20-day siege, and supported a short-lived invasion of the Malaysian province of Sabah by Sulu-based rebels. In January 2015, despite having an active peace agreement with the government, MILF forces took part in an ambush of police commandos during an operation in Maguindanao Province, slaughtering 44 officers.

The Philippines is also plagued by the world’s longest-running Communist rebellion, with hit-and-run attacks by the New People’s Army (NPA) being carried out with some regularity all over the country.

Military analyst Custodio pointed out that one of the government’s worst fears, an attack by another armed group taking advantage of the Marawi crisis, came to pass rather quickly. NPA guerrillas raided two towns in Iloilo Province in the central part of the country on June 17. On June 21, gunmen from the MILF-associated Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters group attacked a school in the Mindanao town of Pigcawayan, taking a number of hostages before escaping pursuing government forces.

Growing skepticism

Under Philippine law, a presidential declaration of martial law has a 60-day time limit, which expires on July 22; after that, Congress must approve any extension. Duterte has said that he will ask for an extension, based on the guidance of the military. Even though he has not made the request yet – he is expected to when he meets with Senators on July 17 – an initial extension is a foregone conclusion. Several legislators in the overwhelmingly Duterte-allied Congress have publicly supported an extension, and the public backs the idea as well. According to an uncommissioned survey by local pollster Social Weather Station (SWS) conducted two weeks ago, 66 percent of Filipinos favor a longer martial law period.

Significantly, however, both Congress and the public seem to be increasingly skeptical of giving Duterte either an indefinite martial law extension, or supporting an expansion of it to other parts of the Philippines. The same SWS poll showed that a majority of Filipinos do not support the idea of extending it to other regions of the country. Meanwhile, a leading Senator told GMA TV that his colleagues would not support a call from the Speaker of the House to extend martial law in Mindanao for the entire five years remaining in Duterte’s term.

Facing a dilemma

These first signs of uncertainty among the public and the legislature, which have until now been overwhelmingly supportive of Duterte, are indicative of a political trap he has unwittingly fallen into.

If he were to change his mind now and not ask for an extension of martial law despite there being no real change in the situation that prompted the declaration, it will be seen as having been an empty gesture, and place his heretofore unchallenged credibility with the nation in doubt.

On the other hand, if he requests an extension as expected, a successful conclusion becomes critical. That would include not only flushing the terrorists out of Marawi City, but making clear headway towards curbing the lesser depredations of other armed groups in order to validate the declaration of martial law. Unfortunately, that conclusion is unlikely without significantly bolstering the military, something the government cannot afford to do on a large enough scale quickly enough on its own.

Turning to other countries such as the US for help is politically unpalatable because it would compel Duterte to backtrack on his popular “independent” foreign policy stance.

All of which leaves Duterte facing two possible outcomes, neither of them very attractive: Either he owns the decision to extend martial law and its almost inevitable disappointing results, and accepts consequences that would politically weaken him, or he assigns the blame for any shortcomings on the military, which would harm morale and do nothing to improve its capabilities or performance.

Duterte’s management will be questioned even more if the conflict has a negative effect on the country’s economy. The Philippines saw lower than expected GDP growth and a year-on-year drop of nearly $4 billion in foreign direct investment in the first quarter of this year, even before the fighting broke out in Mindanao.

Several important but politically contentious policy initiatives of the Duterte administration could face increased resistance from Congress and the public. These include a comprehensive overhaul of the tax structure that would lower income taxes but raise taxes on nearly everything else; an operative law – scheduled to be sent to the President’s desk on Monday – for the proposed Muslim substate in the south; and major increases in government spending for infrastructure development. At the very least, the continuing distraction and expense of a protracted conflict will make carrying out these policies much more difficult.

Strong enough for the job?

Political challenges are unfamiliar territory for the former strongman mayor, who ruled the southern city of Davao for 27 years and installed his daughter in his place when he sought the presidency in 2016.

And the challenges may be even more difficult to overcome if Duterte cannot dispel growing concern over his own fitness. The Philippine Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) noted in a report this week that local media is becoming increasingly aggressive in questioning the 72-year-old president’s frequent disappearances from public view and rumors of health problems.

The issue is a sensitive one for Filipinos, CMFR explained, because the country’s former dictator Ferdinand Marcos (for whom Duterte has expressed unreserved admiration) kept his own serious health problems hidden from the public for the last few years of his rule. As a result, Philippine presidents since Marcos have traditionally erred on the side of providing too much information about their personal health. Duterte has conspicuously bucked that trend in recent months despite being candid during his presidential campaign about various ailments he suffers. While it must be said that there is nothing yet to substantiate any of the speculation about Duterte’s present health, CMFR suggested that the evasive way in which such questions are being handled by government spokespeople is not helping to relieve concerns that Duterte may not be completely fit and in control.