It’s too early to celebrate
The UN force commander has declared the first week of operations a success, but the signs point to a protracted conflict with the militias.
ON A stretch of brownish plain in East Timor’s capital of Dili, the arrival of multinational troops last week brought hundredsof locals out of hiding from the mountains.
The East Timorese, who had endured 25 years of terror under the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) and its militia proxies, wanted to make their new overlords feel welcome.
This is even more so now, after weeks of violence following the election when the majority in the territory voted to leave Indonesia.
The local rupture came as no surprise to the Australian-led peacekeepers after what they had seen – a city in ruins and a people psychologically traumatised by cycles of violence.
As the United Nations takes over the command of East Timor’s security today and the TNI makes an ignominous pullout from a territory invaded in 1975, the champagne is seemingly out for the foreign forces.
The commander of the UN force in East Timor, Major-General Peter Cosgrove, declared the first week of the military campaign a success.
The facts speak for themselves. Within days of landing in Dili, his troops had secured the capital and flushed out the militia, making several key arrests. There was a semblance of peace – albeit an uneasy one – after three weeks of burning, looting, and mindless savagery.
But is it premature to celebrate?
Maj-Gen Cosgrove was the first to admit that the war against the militias was far from over and that his soldiers were here to stay until at least the new year.
With Super Puma helicopters hovering in the skies and troops still manning roadblocks and patrolling the streets, the UN force is anything but complacent.
Indeed, their stragegy now is to extend control over the territory’s interior to pre-empt pro-Jakarta militia from launching “a counter-attack” and engaging in guerilla warfare from the mountains.
Hundreds of militiamen are reportedly massing in neigbouring West Timor and analysts believe they are preparing for a strike.
The Australians, who form the largest contingent of 4,500 men have so far been tested in built-up areas in the city. The big question is whether they can perform with equal ease in the harsh mountainous terrain that for years has been the battle ground of insurgents and the militias.
The pro-Jakarta militias, in particular the notorious Aitarak, which has been blamed for much of Dili’s destruction, have had their wings clipped by the TNI pullout.
It would be difficult for them to find sanctuary or obtain assistance from military elements. In theory at least.
The TNI as an institution might disavow any links with the militias, but analysts believe that some generals, particularly those with intelligence backgrounds, might want to sponsor them for “a private war” against their new enemy, Australia.
About 13,000 Indonesian soldiers have been withdrawn but there is no guarantee that many of the weapons stored in East Timor would not end up in the hands of Aitarak or other militias crying for the “blood of the white men”.
This and the military’s decades of experience in manipulating factional differences between the militias compound the risk of another civil war being generated there.
So the prospects of a lengthy conflict with foreign troops look imminent.
Canberra, riding on a wave of assertiveness in its policy towards Asia, was the first to volunteer soldiers for East Timor. There were also broad strategic and economic imperatives. The key issue now is whether the Australians and the 23 countries making up the UN force are willing to accept cost in lives for tactical ends in East Timor.
There are other differences. On a tactical level, rules of engagement need to be ironed out, given that each force would be steeped in its own doctrine.
On the broader political level, the East Timor imbroglio has brought to the fore competition for the leadership of the region between Australia and the Asean countries.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard, inspired by Australia’s appointment as leader of the East Timor force, last week announced plans to take on the role of America’s deputy in Asia.
This prompted a barrage of criticism from two Asean members, Malaysia and Thailand, which currently chairs the regional bloc.
The Thai deputy commander of the UN force, Major-General Songkitti Chakkrabhat, had expressed unhappiness that Australian troops were unduly aggressive against those that back integration.
Ultimately, the enemy within will be the Achilles’ heel for foreign soldiers in East Timor in their fight against the enemy outside.