TCS Daily

Leahy's Legacy

By Melana Zyla Vickers - January 18, 2002 12:00 AM

The prospect of 600 U.S. troops being sent to the Philippines this month to help defeat the terrorist-linked Abu Sayyaf guerrillas has more than one Vietnam-era baby boomer blanching about "quagmires in Southeast Asia."

But in truth, the only valid criticism of the U.S. military's Pacific foray is that it doesn't yet include Indonesia as well. That's because of a Congressional provision that has since Sept. 1999 kept the U.S. from assisting Indonesia militarily. That provision is frustrating to Pentagon officials who would like to aid Indonesia along with the Philippines. In the interests of the U.S. war against terrorism, the provision should be removed.

Like the Philippines, Indonesia's weak central government has for decades struggled with armed Muslim rebels fomenting separatism on several of its far-flung islands. And like the Philippines, Indonesia has watched those rebel groups cozy up to international terrorists, by many accounts including Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda.

Try as Indonesia's military, or TNI, might to keep armed separatists under control, it has difficulty succeeding: Policing 6000 islands would be a monumental task for even the most skilled force. Thus, the armed groups have been able to operate fairly openly in the archipelago, possibly using Indonesia as a staging ground for future attacks on the U.S.

What help the U.S. could lend the Indonesian military - training for special forces, advice on the front lines - has been blocked under the 1999 Leahy Amendment. Designed to punish the Indonesians for their admittedly unjust crackdown on East Timor, it requires that high-level officers involved in the crackdown be brought to justice before U.S. aid is restored. That principle was laudable before 9/11, when the U.S. had the luxury of making Timorese human rights a top priority. But those days are gone. The amendment is now a barrier to fighting terrorism effectively, and it should be put aside until the counterterrorism battle is won.

U.S. military assistance to Indonesia might include:

  • Training in counterterrorism tactics

  • Advising the military while joining them on patrols against rebels

  • Providing logistical support

  • Providing military equipment

Last month the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Dennis Blair, succeeded in securing a small loophole in the defense appropriations bill through which the U.S. can give the Indonesians some counterterrorism training, according to a defense official. But the loophole -- and aid totaling at most $21 million -- doesn't allow U.S. soldiers to actually go to Indonesia, nor to assess properly what sort of help Indonesia needs, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Meanwhile, the infiltration of Indonesia by Al Qaeda continues, with The Washington Post reporting that in 2001 hundreds of fighters were trained in Central Sulawesi by members of Osama bin Laden's network.

The obstacles on Capitol Hill cannot stand. While punishing Indonesia for human-rights violations is a worthy goal, assisting Indonesia in uprooting Al Qaeda is a far more pressing concern.

TCS Daily Archives