JAKARTA, Indonesia, Jan. 16 -- Indonesia's defense minister on Sunday called on the United States to ease its restrictions on military relations between the two nations and to help train Indonesian military leaders, reaching out during the period of cooperation that has emerged in the wake of the devastating tsunami last month.
Following a meeting with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, Juwono Sudarsono said the two had discussed the strained military relations and ways to improve them. The United States has limited involvement with Indonesia's military because of concerns that soldiers have violated human rights in several areas, including the rebellious Aceh province, site of the most horrific tsunami destruction.
Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, left, and Paul D. Wolfowitz, U.S. deputy defense secretary, arrive at a Jakarta hotel to talk with reporters.
(Dadang Tri -- Reuters)
Wolfowitz said there could be significant benefits to improved military ties, suggesting as an example that Indonesian forces would be better prepared to deal with crises following natural disasters. He cited the success of cooperation with disaster relief in Thailand -- a longtime ally that has allowed the United States and other countries to set up a regional support base inside its borders -- as a reason for the U.S. government to possibly rethink relations with Indonesia.
"I think if we're interested in military reform here, and certainly this Indonesian government is and our government is, I think we need to reconsider a bit where we are at this point in history going forward," Wolfowitz said, adding that good relations with the Thai military allowed for a quicker response to the tsunami, probably saving lives.
Sudarsono praised U.S. forces for being "the backbone" of logistical operations providing assistance to ravaged areas and emphasized that what was initially described as an Indonesian deadline for foreign troop withdrawal -- set for March 26 -- was intended as a target date for the Indonesian government to take responsibility for the relief effort within its own borders.
"It is a benchmark for the Indonesian government to improve and accelerate its relief efforts so that by March 26 the large part of the burden of the relief effort will be carried by the Indonesian government and the Indonesian authorities on the ground," Sudarsono said at a midday news conference with Wolfowitz. "Foreign military assistance, foreign military operations providing relief and rehabilitation will be allowed to continue, albeit on a reduced scale."
Sudarsono later said that he wants to convince the U.S. Congress that the Indonesian military is trying to reform and needs training assistance and funding. Indonesia is working toward tighter civilian control over a traditionally powerful military but is struggling to adequately fund the effort. Sudarsono said the country needs more than the $1.1 billion allotted in its annual budget for its 350,000-member military, and the lack of funding complicates work to reconfigure and centralize the force. He estimated it would take 10 years for junior officers to be properly trained in management skills.
"That's no excuse for some of their alleged human rights abuses that have been taking place for the past 25 years," Sudarsono said, "but it is a measure of our challenge, that part of the problem in developing and building a more accountable defense force is to improve its budget, to improve its training, to improve its ability to manage its budget in a more professional manner."
Currently, the United States provides noncombat training to Indonesian forces in a series of conferences each year that focus on democratic principles. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military has also aided Indonesia in counterterrorism training.
A senior U.S. military official said that Indonesian military officials have effectively been removed from government positions and that Gen. Endriartono Sutarto, the military chief, accepts that he is subordinate to elected civilian officials. Still, the official said, there has been a lack of accountability for past human rights abuses, and the military is fractured and accused of mistreating people in Aceh.
Wolfowitz said efforts are underway to work within the present embargo and legal framework to get Indonesia as much help as possible, adding that the U.S. military has helped the country obtain spare parts for disabled Indonesian C-130 aircraft to help with the relief effort. Even that effort has been a point of tension between Indonesia and the United States because of concerns that the Indonesian military was using the planes for questionable and aggressive tactics against rebels.
Wolfowitz met Sunday with several Indonesian leaders, including the country's president. He said that, for now, it is more important to focus on the relief efforts than military relations.
"If we're successful in fulfilling our humanitarian obligations then we can think beyond it, but let's not mess things up because we're worried about other problems prematurely," Wolfowitz said.
He added that he wants U.S. forces to withdraw from the area as soon as is responsibly possible, in part because of the strain already being put on the military by the conflict in Iraq and upcoming elections there, and in part so U.S. personnel in South Asia can return home. The USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier that was diverted to the region after the tsunami, had been on its way back to the United States from Hong Kong when it received its new mission.
Wolfowitz's trip to Indonesia is scheduled to end Monday morning. He plans to head to Sri Lanka to survey tsunami damage and U.S. military relief efforts there before heading back to the Pentagon.