Subject: The Age/E Timor: Terms of engagement

The Age August 29, 2000

Terms of engagement


A small group of Australian politicians and military chiefs still shudder when they recollect receiving a top-secret report from the Australian Defence Intelligence Organisation on September28 last year - just eight days after the first of 5000 Australian troops led InterFET into East Timor under a United Nations mandate at Indonesia's invitation.

Marked "SECRET AUSTEO" (Australian Eyes Only), the document outlined the fears of then Indonesian President B.J.Habibie that his armed forces chief General Wiranto was preparing to mount a coup.

The key implication of the document was clear: Wiranto would oppose InterFET's deployment into what was still Indonesian territory, thus heightening the danger of large-scale conflict between Indonesian troops and Australian personnel. For the first time since the 1963-1966 Malaysian confrontation, when Australian troops killed 17 Indonesian troops, Australia's most senior military officials were privately canvassing the possibility of war with Indonesia.

"By that stage we had about 2000 personnel there and TNI (the Indonesian military) were still in large numbers, particularly around Dili," one defence official explains.

"Things between TNI and InterFET were already hugely tense - much more volatile than the public ever knew. If this scenario happened and Wiranto took over, we expected the bodybags to be used in numbers."

It was not until nine months later that InterFET commander Peter Cosgrove gave any indication of just how tense things had been in East Timor in those first few days.

In June (in a speech carried on the Opinion page, 21/6) General Cosgrove recounted how a 22-year-old Australian lieutenant held his nerve as his 30-member platoon prepared for possible battle with a big group of Indonesian soldiers at a Dili roadblock. Although the Australians were badly outnumbered by the 60-truck convoy of Indonesians, Cosgrove said, the Australians made it clear they were prepared to shoot if the Indonesians continued to advance.

"Arguably the future of Australian-Indonesian relations may have been determined by the professionalism of that young officer and his small team at that control point in Dili on September22 last year," he said.

THIS incident, it seems, was one of dozens of unreported stand-offs between Australian and Indonesian troops throughout Dili in the early days of the InterFET deployment.

Late last year an Australian officer told me about a similar stand-off in a street near Dili's wharf.

"We'd told the TNI to clear out of the area and they told us this was their country and they weren't going anywhere," the soldier said. "When I told them again to leave, one of them pointed his rifle at my head. When I did the same to him, another TNI also pointed his weapon at me. One of my mates then pointed his weapon, and so on until there's perhaps 25 Australians and TNI all with weapons pointed basically at point-blank.

"This went on maybe 20 minutes and the Indonesian were screaming at us to get out of their country, swearing and saying we were all going to die. One of them said to me: `I'm going to send you home dead.' I said: `If I die, then you're all coming with me."'

After a tense stand-off, the Indonesians moved on. Over coming days and weeks there were more such run-ins between TNI members and Australians attached to InterFET.

"Our boys were keyed up, primed for combat with militia when they landed," a senior Australian defence figure says. "But I can't put it down to much more than luck that neither we nor the Indonesians lost any in those first weeks."

From Australia's point of view, it was also hugely fortuitous that Habibie stood down before Wiranto could challenge him. Despite the high level of training given to the Australian troops who were first into East Timor last September, luck was a factor behind InterFET's success.

In the 12 months leading up to InterFET's deployment on September20, Australia had never put more resources into spying on the Indonesian military. Using its intercept station at Shoal Bay in the Northern Territory, one of the Collins-class submarines and an elaborate human intelligence network, Australia's Defence Signals Directorate intercepted thousands of mobile telephone calls, e-mails and Indonesian military and diplomatic cables from Java, Bali, West Timor and East Timor.

The intercepts recorded conversations between TNI commanders and East Timorese militia leaders that made it clear that if the August30 ballot rejected Indonesia's autonomy proposal, the militias - with the help of TNI - would unleash a campaign of terror and murder against the East Timorese.

Beyond that, the Australian Defence Intelligence Organisation gained detailed knowledge of militia numbers, their armories, rations and ammunition supplies. Thanks to satellite imagery (some of it commercially obtained) and human intelligence, Australian Defence Force specialists were also able to map the exact locations - and, indeed, the layout - of key militia and TNI stations in and around Dili.

In the days before the InterFET landing at Dili's Comoro Airport and at Dili Harbor, surveillance and intelligence activities increased dramatically. A Collins-class submarine was involved in the activities, which included electronic eavesdropping close to the coast of East Timor.

Despite Indonesia's allegations that Australia deployed special forces troops in East Timor before its agreement to allow an international force to enter, top-level intelligence sources insist this was not the case. They maintain that Australia's "intelligence sweep" was so extensive that the use of special forces before the official InterFET deployment was an "unnecessary risk".

That is not to say that Australia did not have a range of covert military and civilian intelligence specialists on the ground before InterFET landed.

"The use of ASIS (Australian Secret Intelligence Service) was extensive and very, very successful. There were also others but there were no special forces ... That was seen as an unnecessary risk for arguably a small return," a source explains.

"At a time when the world was trying to get Indonesia to allow the force (InterFET) in, can you imagine the reaction if there was contact (a firefight) between the SAS (Special Air Service) and TNI? There was an assessment made that it just wasn't worth that risk."

REGARDLESS of whether Australia's diplomatic responses matched the uniformly high quality of its intelligence gathering, Australia's spies are claiming their pre-InterFET operations as a remarkable success.

The Australian military, which by mid-1999 had bolstered the Darwin-based First Brigade and refined Queensland's Third Brigade, much to Indonesia's chagrin, was trained to carry out such a deployment. In June, 1999, in a massive training exercise in the Northern Territory desert outside Tennant Creek, the First Brigade took part in a peacekeeping scenario - complete with rival militia - fashioned tightly around events unfolding in Indonesia and East Timor.

The soldiers might have been highly trained. But there just weren't enough of them.

Australia's defence planners and, indeed, a number of senior politicians, were deeply concerned that at the height of Australia's InterFET involvement - when about 5000 ADF personnel were in East Timor - Australia was left dangerously exposed.

"If the shit had hit the fan anywhere else in the region - if we had to evacuate (Australian nationals) or if the PNG border blew up - we'd have been absolutely stuffed," a military source says.

"(John) Howard, (Defence Minister John) Moore and (Foreign Minister John) Downer knew this. We all knew we had to wing it. It was a huge risk."

There was another problem. Australia could muster the personnel to send to East Timor, but faced a serious shortage of equipment. The Americans, who had been unwilling to supply troops, stepped in with body armor and helmets. Some troops bought their own boots and camelpacks. Most found the heavy fatigues they'd been issued were inappropriate for the humid tropical climate.

In the early days of the mission, when tensions between the remaining TNI and InterFET troops were at their height, many soldiers also questioned the extensive use of the Australian Light Armored Vehicle (ASLAV). While the vehicles were fast, some of the gunners, whose turrets were not shielded, and the drivers, whose heads were exposed at the front of the cars, complained they felt exposed as they drove around Dili's darkened streets.

There was, however, an up-side. The troops had come expecting to find thousands of well-armed, angry militiamen. The few they found in Dili's streets - and in the villages as the troops fanned out - were neither well-armed nor courageous.

In the 12 hours before InterFET's arrival most had fled over the West Timor border.

Twelve months later and still supported by elements of the Indonesian military, however, they show every indication that their fight is just beginning.

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