Subject: ST/McBeth: Much Ado About RI-US Join Military Drills

The Straits Times (Singapore) May 31, 2008

Much ado about joint military drills

John McBeth, Senior Writer

THE Pentagon has been told it cannot train any officer who is serving or has served in the controversial 5,000-strong Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) under a new interpretation of the Leahy amendment that could have repercussions for Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan.

Well-placed sources say the ruling came down in April after US State Department lawyers learnt that US Special Forces were planning a joint training exercise with Kopassus - an innocuous classroom session that would have been followed in August by a so-called 'friendship' parachute jump.

Instead of making the decision himself, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte reportedly sought the advice of Senator Patrick Leahy, the Democratic architect of the measure that forbids US funding of foreign defence forces that have been credibly implicated in gross human rights abuses.

Mr Leahy, a longstanding critic of the way Indonesian officers - many of them Kopassus-trained - have escaped accountability for human rights abuses in East Timor (now known as Timor Leste) and elsewhere, is said to have warned that unless the exercise was called off, he would oppose any new funding request for Indonesia's military.

Apart from heading the Senate Judiciary Committee, the six-term Vermont senator chairs the appropriation sub-committee on foreign operations.

'Asking Leahy's advice about anything to do with the TNI (Indonesian Armed Forces), and particularly Kopassus, is like asking Hamas about Israel,' says one former American officer who served in Indonesia. 'You can't anticipate an objective or rational answer.'

In any event, the US military was forced to withdraw an invitation to Kopassus commander Major-General Soenarko to attend a special operations conference in Tampa, Florida, and also to cancel plans for a Kopassus lieutenant to enter the Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) exercise would have been the first involving Kopassus and the Okinawa-based 1st Special Forces Battalion since the Bush administration restored full military relations with Indonesia in 2005.

The programme at a special forces camp near Sorong in West Java was to have involved about three weeks of human rights, first aid and military decision-making courses. The subsequent parachute jump would not even have involved techniques used for covert insertions.

Before the new ruling took effect in April, the Pentagon had been accepting Kopassus-trained officers for training on a case-by-case basis, carefully vetting prospective candidates to determine if they had ever been in a unit accused of committing human rights abuses.

In fact, two Kopassus officers are already in the US - including Colonel Andika Perkasa, son-in-law of former State Intelligence Agency chief Hendropriyono, who played a leading role in the arrest of Al-Qaeda operative Omar Al-Faruq near Bogor in November 2002.

Al-Faruq was flown out of Jakarta's Halim airbase aboard a CIA executive jet to the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Three years later, in a major embarrassment for the US, he and three other terrorists escaped and have never been recaptured.

With Kopassus under the microscope, observers are looking to see how the new ruling is applied in Thailand, where the Thaharn Pran - a paramilitary ranger force led by regular officers - and district-level army units have been linked to torture cases in the southern provinces.

In the Philippines, little progress has been made in investigating the extrajudicial killings of scores of leftist activists, some of which have been blamed on retired major-general Jovito Palparan, a former commander of the 8th Infantry Division in the eastern Visayas.

Most of the US$68 million (S$93 million) in grant aid to Indonesia has been allocated to the air force and navy to improve the country's airlift capability for disaster relief and boost maritime protection. About US$19 million is being spent on spare parts and maintenance upgrades for the air force's fleet of seven or eight airworthy C-130 cargo planes - down from 25 before the US embargo took affect.

A further US$18 million is for anti-piracy radars in the Malacca Strait, and an extra US$30 million will go towards a similar radar screen across the northern Sulawesi coast to monitor terrorist infiltration across the Sulu Sea from the southern Philippines.

The Indonesian Army has gained only from the US$900,000 International Military and Education Training programme, which sends promising officers to US military schools.

Senator Leahy still no doubt remembers how the US Special Forces continued holding exercises with Kopassus long after the military relationship was frozen in the wake of the 1991 Dili churchyard massacre.

Contrary to the sensational reports that later appeared in the media, the JCET training in the 1990s was paid for out of the US Defence Department's budget and was known to other congressional sub- committees charged with overseeing the Special Operations Command.

In fact, it was created not as a scheduled training event for Asian forces, but primarily to provide airborne training for the US Special Forces battalion itself because of the small drop zones and other restrictions on Okinawa and an operational requirement for theatre orientation and language refresher courses.

As with their counterparts in Thailand and the Philippines, Kopassus arranged the drop zones and limited ground support and benefited from the training that went along with it, including tactical high-altitude, low-opening parachute insertions.

The public disclosure of the training came at a time when the Clinton administration was weakened by the Monica Lewinski scandal and led to then defence secretary William Cohen pulling the plug on any further planned exercises.

It proved to be a fortunate decision, reducing the exposure of US personnel when the shooting of students at Jakarta's Trisakti University in mid-1998 triggered the events that led to then-president Suharto's downfall.

Back to May menu

World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu