US-Indonesia ties face terrorist roadblock

As recent events in the Middle East have shown, defining terrorism can be a difficult proposition.

Nowhere is this truer than in Indonesia today, where one man’s terrorist can be another’s freedom fighter, community leader or Islamic preacher.

Having to come to terms with this issue is one of the biggest challenges facing the Indonesian military, with significant implications for US-Indonesia ties.

The United States and Indonesia are facing a chicken and egg situation: Is Jakarta going to get serious about fighting terrorism as a goodwill gesture to help lift the military-aid embargo?

Or is the hawkish US Congress going to revoke the ban first and then hopefully entice Indonesia into getting serious? For their part, the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) and intelligence agencies see little value in launching a frontal assault on Muslim militants and suspected terrorists.

Since the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the military has tried hard to avoid creating the impression that it is anti-Islamic, for fear of alienating the wider Muslim community.

Islamic militancy in Indonesia is a ‘tar baby’ for the generals. Like the political elite, no one wants to touch the issue.

Intelligence chief A.M. Hendropriyono adopted a strong stance on terrorism initially, only to find himself incurring the wrath of vociferous militant groups.

It is no surprise, then, that his National Intelligence Agency (BIN) is now being criticised for allegedly being instrumental in the arrest of three Indonesians in the Philippines recently.

Two of them were released last week after Manila granted a request from Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri to set them free.

Backed by zealous politicians at home hoping to score a few points, they accused BIN of complicity in ‘fixing’ their arrests without any solid proof, and of being made use of as a tool by the US.

Noted an army general: ‘There is very little room for us to manoeuvre. The risks are just too high for us to do something, without there being a backlash.’


DESPITE such problems, security authorities are supporting the anti-terrorism drive, but in a low-profile and non-confrontational manner, and using the police in the front line.

Doing nothing altogether could be even more harmful.

Ms Megawati’s ascension to power last July was a boon for the army, after enduring the trenchant desire of the past two leaders – especially Mr Abdurrahman Wahid – to sideline the armed forces.

For the first time since Mr Suharto’s fall in 1998, the military is enjoying some freedom to dictate security policies with the blessings of the President.

Why would the TNI leadership rock the boat by giving radicals a chance to destabilise the new regime?

In fact, the generals have much to gain by going along with the US war against international terrorism, given the military’s struggle against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Washington’s campaign gives the TNI a chance to justify both increased troop deployment in Aceh and a crackdown on the separatists, without worrying about being accused of human-rights abuses.

Another big plus is that it could also normalise bilateral military links and remove restrictions that were imposed after the East Timor debacle in 1999.

But the TNI is not putting too much hope in this.

Ms Megawati’s trip to Washington just after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks saw some gain when US President George W. Bush made overtures to improve military ties between both countries.

He offered to convince Congress to lift the Leahy Amendment restriction that applied only to two things: US-funded military training and military aid.

Sceptics, however, saw this as nothing but a symbolic gesture.

Security talks by Indonesian and US military officials here two weeks ago bore little fruit, other than the usual diplomatic niceties, which were expressed in a joint statement.


THE Indonesian military, while recognising that it stands to gain critical military hardware if the Leahy Amendment were in fact lifted, is in no mood for others to dictate terms.

The army, in particular, appears to be taking a much harder line.

American influence on the air force and navy has been much stronger, given their dependence on equipment and spare parts. But, as one senior army officer noted, the army has no need for American aid.

‘We don’t need to go all the way to Fort Bragg for special-forces training when we can teach our officers the same things here,’ said the three-star general.

‘We would like to see it as a loss for the US.’

In terms of military aid, the army has not received a great deal from Washington in recent years – except for a few Harley Davidson motorcycles for Mr Suharto’s presidential security guards in 1997.

US influence over senior army officers continues to be marginal, given that they do not have any real leverage over them. That state of affairs looks set to continue, with sources saying that Washington is unlikely to disburse much-needed counter-terrorism funds to the TNI and, instead, plans to give them to the police.

The army generals would argue that Washington might be lacking in judgment here, given that the police have a dismal record in cracking down on extremist elements in Indonesia.

Conversely, one could argue that it would be a liability giving the money to the TNI, because there is no guarantee that it would be used to good effect.

There has been persistent speculation that a handful of rogue officers are adding fuel to the fire by encouraging radical elements. A two-star army general is openly sympathetic to such groups.

Even more damning are whispers of a retired army brigadier allegedly playing the role of puppet master in the sectarian violence in Maluku, by arranging shipments of arms into the province.

This does little to boost Washington’s confidence in the TNI.

Problems will almost certainly worsen if events in the Middle East take another turn for the worse.

So, the face-off continues, with little indication that Indonesia is prepared to reassess its domestic extremist threat, or that Washington is willing to loosen aid restrictions as an incentive.

Judging from the lacklustre outcome of last week’s bilateral military talks, neither side seems willing to blink first.


Security talks by Indonesian and US military officials here bore little fruit … American influence on the air force and navy has been stronger than on the army, given their dependence on equipment and parts. But the army has no need for American aid.

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