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East Timor: The Hard Truth About Peacekeeping

Global Intelligence Update
September 16, 1999


The United Nations has now approved a peacekeeping force for East Timor, with troops preparing to land in the coming days. Still the prospects for success are unclear at best. The reaction of the Indonesian forces and militia will be the key variable influencing the outcome. The units now assembling for this mission appear adequately suited to keep peace - if local forces cooperate. But they appear wholly unsuited to force peace upon the territory. If they are called on to do so, they may put themselves in harm's way, or they may even have to delay landing in order to avoid that possibility.


With the situation on the ground in East Timor as it is, the title of peacekeeping force is a misnomer. This force will be a peacemaking force, a much different animal. The international community's record on such missions is less than impressive. It appears that the UN is setting itself up for failure once again []. Most troubling, no specific mission has yet been announced for the international force.

A comparatively lightly-armed Australian force plans to arrive aboard two ships. The first, the fast catamaran HMAS Jervis Bay, is capable of carrying 500 fully-equipped combat troops and a range of army vehicles and equipment at speeds in excess of 40 knots - a 10- hour transit to Dili, the capital of East Timor. A second ship, the HMAS Tobruk (LSH), can carry up to 18 Leopard tanks and 22 light, armored vehicles. The Australian Defense Forces (ADF) will deploy ASLAV 8 wheeled light armored vehicles. Significantly, no tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs) or artillery are currently planned for this mission.

It is expected that the Special Air Services will first take control of the port in Dili, with a regiment of paratroopers inserted at the airfield in the initial phase. Both would be supplemented by troops and vehicles from the sea-lift ships immediately thereafter. Specially equipped long range Blackhawk helicopters will supplement the C-130 fleet and are capable of flying without refueling from Northern Australia to East Timor. If the international force goes in unopposed, its likely immediate objective will be to secure Dili.

But the degree of force that will be necessary to do so, salvaging what little is left of the territory and its long-suffering people remains unclear. That depends on the scale, composition, and leadership of the international force and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) presence on the ground. It is estimated that TNI has approximately 15,000 troops in East Timor - including 2,000 Kopassus - in addition to 8,000 police. Beyond Dili, most are located in the territory's towns and near the West Timor border.

Whether the Australians and others can take control of the territory depends to a great extent on the TNI and to a lesser extent, the militias. It must be understood that the militias by themselves are not a credible military force. They were formed in the early 1990s, when Indonesia initiated a modest program throughout the archipelago to supplement its stretched police forces. The militias then were nothing more than a small, unarmed special constabulary led by the foremen in charge of TNI businesses in the territory. The rapid expansion of the militias was triggered by President B. J. Habibie's surprise announcement in February that Indonesia would let East Timor vote on independence. Furthermore, many militia members simply have no idea what they are supposed to be fighting for. Interviews with recruits at militia parades demonstrated that they frequently did not know what the banners they were holding said. They were equally unfamiliar with militia aims and objectives. A crack force this is not.

The militias' dependence on TNI support and leadership is unquestioned. In the past six months virtually all militia attacks have occurred within visual range of TNI troops, suggesting TNI complicity in the attacks. General Wiranto, chief of the armed forces, appears to be largely in control of the military; the violence abruptly ended in Dili just before he arrived with a UN team this week. But it is unclear that all the TNI commanders who have lived and worked with the militias for years can now be counted on to obey orders from Jakarta and support the UN operation. For international troops, the only truly safe scenario is one in which the TNI withdraws.

If the TNI ultimately does not withdraw or some elements fail to cooperate with the international force, the UN mission could be scuttled before boots touch the ground. In this scenario, it would be unwise for the lightly-armed initial force to go in without backup forces, or heavier amphibious forces in case the landing in Dili is stalled or opposed. So far, the only force in the region that might be available to back up the Australians - the Americans - are ill-suited to do so. No Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) has recently been afloat in the area.

The Australians must be wary that their landing, in fact, is likely to be unpopular. Given the anti-Australian climate in Jakarta and the current strengths and dispositions of both forces, a direct confrontation between the TNI and ADF could quickly escalate. Without a withdrawal by the TNI, the equation on the ground will put 4,500 Australian troops - the vast majority of an overall force that could reach 8,000 - in close proximity to Indonesian forces. The ADF also has robust rules of engagement. Following the Security Council Resolution authorising "all necessary force" the ADF troops will be able to use lethal force in self-defense or in defense of the missions objectives.

It is unlikely, however, that the Indonesians, who could seek to exact some revenge on Australian forces, would dare take on U.S. forces. They would have too much to loose. Both President Habibie and the TNI would fear large numbers of body bags; loss of IMF and other monies; and most importantly, the loss of face involved in a military defeat on their own soil. So far, however, the U.S. has refused to commit combat forces. As a result, the U.S. may be unwittingly increasing the chance of conflict - or that its forces may be needed, either to step in or kick down the door in an amphibious landing. If a fight ensues and the U.S. forces are forbidden to respond, which appears to be the current U.S. policy, it would cause severe stress on the U.S.-Australian alliance.

Even if the TNI withdraws in large measure and remaining units cooperate fully with the international forces, it is very likely that TNI elements will establish bases in West Timor and conduct covert, cross-border hit-and-run operations against both the East Timorese and the international force. This has happened in the past. Pressure of this kind would undermine international efforts to stabilize the humanitarian situation and establish basic security within the territory. Depending on the mandate given by the UN Security Council, cross-border attacks could tempt UN forces into Indonesian territory, thereby escalating the conflict and giving Indonesia reason to cry foul.

If the most unlikely scenario unfolds - the best-case scenario - the force is likely to restore order fairly quickly. Australian and other troops would then proceed to keep opposing sides separate, find arms caches, disarm combatants, monitor the borders, curtail any further movement of arms or disruptive forces, verify a potential cease-fire and begin basic reconstruction efforts. Additionally, the intelligence services would no doubt be heavily engaged in monitoring the activities of a variety of actors to ensure compliance with agreements both on the island and elsewhere.

There is reason to believe that the international community is underestimating the complexity of the task in East Timor. Up to this point, the international community has critically failed to anticipate events in the territory. For example, the U.S. and Australian governments have failed to fully consult on this issue until very recently. Even the visits of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth and Assistant Secretary of Defense Kurt Campbell failed to form a cohesive policy, even with the upcoming Crocodile '99 military exercise on the horizon. It was only last week that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and his pacific commander were instructed to start lobbying Wiranto on resolving an embarrassing crisis. This was critical in forcing Wiranto's hand and has led to the current decision, the first time Indonesia will allow foreign troops on its soil since independence in 1945.

On balance, the UN appears to have gotten itself into a mission that will be difficult to execute. The future of East Timor will depend on how the TNI decides to react to the presence of international troops. If they decide to fight it, outright war could break out between the ADF-led international force and the Indonesian military. Even in the best-case scenario, we see potential for conflict. Such a development could stymie the post- cold war emergence of the UN as a global policeman for good. Rather than heralding a new era, the pacific application of the Kosovo doctrine may well turn out to be an embarrassing episode in international military cooperation.

(c) 1999, Stratfor, Inc.

Link to main East Timor page

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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