Indonesia's help with war on terror could restore US aid

The arrest of a second Al Qaeda member shows Jakarta will cooperate with the US.

The Indonesian military's waiting game is almost over: Less than three years after it was implicated in the murder of hundreds of civilians in East Timor, it is on the brink of regaining direct military assistance from the United States, diplomats and analysts say.

For that, it has to thank changed US priorities in the wake of Sept. 11. In Washington, idealism has been exchanged for pragmatism. Though US officials acknowledge ongoing abuses by the Indonesian military, they argue that America's interests are damaged by not dealing with the army of the world's largest Muslim nation.

The arrests of two alleged Al Qaeda operatives in Indonesia this year – one on June 5 – have fueled administration arguments that Indonesia is cooperating in the terror war and should be rewarded. If it isn't, officials warn, ongoing cooperation could cool.

Throughout the 1990s, US ties to the Indonesian military were reduced because of its frequent involvement in the kidnapping, torture, and disappearance of civilians. Then came 1999's UN-sponsored independence vote in East Timor. Indonesian army units and government-sponsored militias rampaged after the vote. The US cut all ties.

As a consequence, a generation of Indonesian soldiers have few personal relations with US officers. "They've gone 10 years without midlevel and senior officers in US schools, and it shows – and hurts,'' says a retired Western officer who served in Jakarta.

Now, diplomats and analysts say, it looks as if the Bush administration has swayed enough in Congress to eventually get past legal restrictions on assistance to the Indonesian military.

They say some sort of ties will probably be restored by the end of the year.

"It pains me to say it, but this is looking inevitable,'' says Sidney Jones, director of the Indonesia project for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Ms. Jones says human rights activists need to craft fall-back positions now that allow for some sort of contact, while limiting direct military aid and combat training, which could be used on civilians.

The Indonesian military, meanwhile, signaled that it's going to push for direct combat training and weapons systems. "There are already signs that there will be military training between US defense forces and the TNI (the Indonesian military)," said a military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, in a written response to questions.

Indonesia has often been painted as one of America's most recalcitrant partners in its war on terror because of its refusal to move against domestic militants backed by senior soldiers and politicians. But it has come through on CIA requests to detain foreigners who are alleged to be close to Al Qaeda. Intelligence sources say that on June 5 an alleged Al Qaeda financier, who goes by the names Mahmoud bin Ahmad Assegaf and Omar al-Farug, was arrested at the CIA's request and is awaiting transfer overseas.

The Bush administration wants more of this, and that's why earlier this year, the government asked Congress to approve an $8 million training package that would create a special peacekeeping unit within the Indonesian military to be used in communal conflicts. But analysts say its creation would undermine efforts to place internal security under police and civilian control and support the military's already strong political role. Washington sources say the package sidesteps restrictions on military aid to Indonesia which were crafted by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont. Congress has not yet approved the appropriation.

Activists are now hoping for a compromise that will allow for Indonesian officers to attend training programs in the US on management and human rights. A former Western military attaché argues that a program like the International Military Exchange Training (IMET), which took dozens of Indonesian soldiers to the States in the 1980s and early 1990s, would be appropriate. IMET was suspended because some of the officers that participated went on to be charged with human rights abuses at home.

But proponents of renewed ties say the real objective of such training is the contacts that it yields. "Sending a guy to US schools or establishing the all-important relationship means he will take your phone calls, give you appointments, and listen to your arguments," says the retired Western officer. "It never meant he agrees with you or will do what you want."

A key condition for the restoration of US military aid has been credible trials for officers in the killings in East Timor and the creation of an independent civilian judiciary that can try officers for crimes.

To date, the military, which has been the most powerful organization in Indonesia since independence, has managed to avoid true civilian oversight, analysts say. Though there are ongoing trials for East Timor, few in Jakarta expect they will end in convictions for senior officers.

That failure is going to make extending aid a tricky business. The former attaché explains the problem: "If you teach them professional military skills and don't fix the umbrella of impunity that the TNI operates under, then they're likely to misuse their training,'' he says. "So what you have to do is be selective about the type of training you provide."

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