|Subject: Bulletin: Betrayal by Fire
(Australia training of the FDTL)
Betrayal by fire 06/06/2006
Australian army advisers were supposed to smarten up East Timor's military. Bureaucratic infighting meant they were never able to do their job. Paul Daley reports.
The Australian Special Air Service soldier, armed only with a video camera, crept around the perimeter of the makeshift barracks in the dead of a balmy East Timor night. There was no sign of the guards he’d anticipated.
As he neared the front of the camp, he held his breath and scurried towards the wall of sandbags that formed a protective barrier around the main sentry point. The muzzle of a combat rifle was barely visible on the edge of the makeshift parapet when the SAS man slowly lifted his head, focusing on the motionless soldier at the other end of the weapon.
Just as the Australian wondered, “Is he dead?” the sentry’s deep, throaty snore told otherwise. The SAS man switched on the camera and filmed the sleeping man a member of the Portuguese Army charged with protecting him and seven other troops in the Australian unit, led by Major Steve McCrohon.
So began, in March 2001, the ill-fated Australian operation to help turn East Timor’s Falantil guerillas into a coherent, disciplined defence force.
The dangerous and often bizarre operation, the details of which have not been previously disclosed, was doomed from inception. Ironically, the Australian forces deployed last week to restore order to the ruined country will realise the costly legacy of this immense Australian policy failure as the bitterly divided East Timorese soldiers, who should and could have been properly trained, turn on themselves.
Reports of the brewing civil war maintain Australia “trained” the East Timorese Defence Force. But this is far from correct. True, Australia sent hundreds of training advisers over several years from late 2000. A small team remains there. But they never imparted more than rudimentary skills. Deliberately ambiguous, conflicting orders from their military masters, and serious differences between the departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs, underscored by a characteristic obsequiousness to Jakarta, ensured the Australians would never, could never, do the job.
McCrohon and his men were based in Aileu, 40km south of Dili. Despite the presence of Falantil splinter groups, the Australians were, incomprehensibly, unarmed. Their political masters had deemed they would instead rely for security on Portuguese troops, such as the one asleep at his post.
In a secure cantonment just down the hill from the camp were more than 1000 heavily armed former guerillas. Inside the Australian camp, a shipping container held 600 M-16 assault rifles on loan to the East Timorese.
As independence approached, the guerillas and their many home-made, donated and stolen weapons were kept there to avoid suggestions East Timor’s final journey to democracy happened at the point of a gun.
“Some mornings, these Portugue had initially insisted that Australia should not help train the ETDF. Federal cabinet overruled DFAT.
“Defence had recommended the force be sent but it was opposed by DFAT where the view was, ‘Let’s settle this thing down ... having Timor’s defence force overtly trained by our heavily armed blokes will only heighten tensions on the border and anger Indonesia when the heat has been taken out of the whole thing by an international peace-keeping force not characteristically Australian’,” says one former senior Defence bureaucrat.
“Sending an armed team to oversee all the training would once again give it an Australian flavour and play into animosities with Indonesia ... in the end, they opted for a Clayton’s, middle-of-the-road version unarmed and without any authority to actually do the job.”
The bizarre nature of this decision is highlighted by the fact as McCrohon points out that the peace-keeping force were still, at this time, skirmishing with Indonesian forces and militia on the border.
Meanwhile, Hull, whose team was in Metinaro with South Korean, Portuguese and New Zealand military trainers, quickly realised that turning guerillas into a disciplined force was no easy task even if he’d enjoyed Canberra’s backing.
“We had numerous unauthorised discharges [of weapons]. Their weapons handling and maintenance was extremely poor. They basically didn’t maintain their weapons at all they lay down with them in the evenings and woke up with them in the mornings,” Hull says.
“They had to cut their hair, wear uniforms, get out of bed for drill in the mornings ... they would travel for many miles to go home over the weekends and many wouldn’t make it back in time by Monday.” Hull says a number of “drive-by” shootings occurred at Metinaro. The suspected perpetrators were believed to be ex-Falantil members who were not chosen to join the ETDF.
“The ETDF guys would jump in the vehicles and give chase, charge down the road fully armed after them,” he says.
As the UN Transitional Authority East Timor prepared for the shift of power to the newly independent East Timor, the country’s new soldiers clashed heatedly over the constitution. “They were armed and we weren’t. There were times we were required to separate them,” Hull says.
They remained unarmed despite the fact that Australian intelligence assessments judged that Australians and the Metinaro camp were potential targets for criminal gangs and disenchanted ex-guerillas.
The Bulletin has obtained an Australian Defence Force threat assessment for the training school at Metinaro. Marked RESTRICTED and SECURITY IN CONFIDENCE, it reads: “The intent of criminal gangs targeting Australian personnel and assets located in the Metinaro area with criminal intent is assessed as LOW while their capability is assessed as HIGH. The threat is therefore assessed as MEDIUM.
“Various stakeholders are assessed to have the capability to target the ... training school within the Metinaro area for intelligence-collection purposes ... information requirements would include the training being conducted and the level of competency being achieved along with the locations and specifications of key buildings such as the armoury.”
The ADF was well aware (presciently, as it transpires) of the potential for the East Timor Defence Force to fracture and corrupt.
“The potential still exists for ... [ETDF] members to be subverted by either criminal or security organisations to target weapons, ammunition or stores being used within the Metinaro training school ... It is assessed that the most likely threat towards the Australians and assets located in Metinaro will be from intelligence collection, criminal activity (MEDIUM) and from disaffected Falantil.”
Despite these well-held fears, Australia did nothing to enhance a culture of unity and cohesion with the ETDF. On the contrary, for all intents and purposes it seems to have deliberately bungled that opportunity a mistake for which East Timor is paying a heavy price.
Soon after Warrant Officer Wayne McInnes began at Metinaro in early 2002, he was ordered to deploy with ETDF’s 1st Battalion to Los Palos, in the country’s far east.
The East Timorese had pre-deployed to barracks, established by a Korean peace-keeping battalion, when McInnes and his men left Metinaro about two weeks later. Even though they had to traverse notoriously dangerous country (occupied by breakaway Falantil groups and bandits) on the way to Los Palos, they were unarmed. No security was provided.
(It is a curious aside that whenever visiting defence force chiefs or even junior personnel travelled such routes, they were invariably accompanied by a robust force protection unit, often including SAS troops.)
“The East Timorese went up to Los Palos by themselves, fully armed, and were left to their own devices. Eventually, my four-man training advisory team was deployed without force protection even though it said in orders that force protection would be provided,” McInnes recalls.
“They said, ‘You’ll be OK, you’ve got your radios and satellite phones’. But they didn’t work out there. And so I ordered my group to carry pick handles and I decided that if we were attacked on the road, we’d just put the foot down and force our way through. There were mobs with cane knives, bows and arrows and spears who came at us from nowhere.”
Little could prepare the Australians for what they found at Los Palos: about 150 of the 600 East Timorese soldiers had been struck down with dysentery, malaria and severe gastro. They had little fresh water and no medicines.
“We were shocked. The latrines were overflowing and there was human waste everywhere. They were so sick, they were shitting anywhere, and we had to clean it up, dig holes and start burying waste. We were given no medical support for two months while 150 of the East Timorese were confined to barracks, seriously ill,” McInnes says.
Despite the apparent desire of defence chiefs to limit the effectiveness of the training team, a number of the members (including some from the SAS for whom being unarmed is anathema) were ordered, from time to time, to undertake dangerous covert activities.
“At one stage, we were asked to observe certain activities in Sector East where there had been a suspected deliberate Indonesian military border infiltration,” one former team member says.
While the Australians were under orders to undertake surveillance on Indonesian units, peace-keeping troops were not called in to confront them.
“We were definitely carrying on unconventional warfare and special operations tasks,” says the team member. “I believe they didn’t want to let us be seen to be hostile to the Indonesians either across the border or in East Timor in any way. We were actually told that it was important to take a softly, softly approach to appease the Indonesians.”
McInnes says he left the full-time army as a captain “completely disgusted at the treatment we received in East Timor”. He remains an army reservist. “I’m still very angry and bitter about it,” he says.
Of the training received by the East Timorese, he says: “These people have come out of the jungle and they’ve been put into cantonment. Then the commanders have taken a selective group and let the others go, which has created very great resentment. Those who were chosen were given the most rudimentary training and then deployed to substandard conditions at Los Palos.
“Was it ever going to work? No. They never wanted it to. That was clear and it was stated many times.”
For months after he’d taken that footage of the sleeping Portuguese soldier at Aileu, the SAS man’s unit waited for an opportunity to show it to a visiting Australian commander.
The opportunity arose when, accompanied by a heavily armed contingent of special forces, the then Chief of the Defence Force Admiral Chris Barrie visited the Aileu camp.
McCrohon confirms this.
He recalls: “Barrie was visiting and he was taken to our makeshift operations room along with some of his staff and the door was closed behind him. It is my understanding that the footage of the sleeping Portuguese sentry was shown to him on one of the desktop computers.”
It was obvious, judging from the immediate deterioration in relations with the Portuguese, that, in McCrohon’s words, “a rocket had been put up them over the security they were providing”.
“But the security didn’t get any better,” McCrohon says.
“And we still weren’t permitted to be armed.”