BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Jan. 3 -- In an image that would have been unthinkable two weeks ago, a U.S. admiral and an Indonesian general huddled together Monday on a tarmac making plans. Rear Adm. Doug Crowder was having trouble making out the words of his Indonesian counterpart over the roar of two U.S. Seahawk helicopters.
He was comparing notes with Maj. Gen. Bambang Darmono on the latest relief airlifted into Aceh province for victims of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the western end of Sumatra island.
Tsunami refugees crowd around Petty Officer 2nd Class Ralph Topete in Krueng Raya, a fishing village about 15 miles northeast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. U.S. helicopters began shuttling injured refugees out of isolated areas and bringing in food and water to survivors.
(Yuriko Nakao -- Reuters)
Still, Crowder could not hear. So he bowed his head slightly, putting his ear up to Darmono's mouth. Then he placed his left hand on the Indonesian's shoulder.
Though the U.S. government has banned most forms of military cooperation with Indonesia because of human rights disputes, the disaster has brought the countries' armed forces close together in a major relief operation.
Indonesia has welcomed the U.S. military in Aceh, where until last month most foreigners were barred because of Indonesian fears about possible outside assistance to Acehnese rebels waging a struggle for independence.
"Isn't it incredible?" said Social Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab, a former foreign minister, watching a stream of slender, silver U.S. Navy Seahawks buzz into the sky, silhouetted against the lush Acehnese mountains and bound for the province's ravaged west coast with provisions of food and water. By sunset, the Navy expected to have flown at least 36 missions to locations set by the Indonesians, it said.
Besides the joint planning of these operations, Indonesian marines have been flying on some of the Seahawks, helping to maintain order when refugees throng the helicopters seeking aid.
Senior military officers on both sides acknowledged they could not have imagined such close cooperation, especially in such a politically sensitive province.
"This is a once in a generation, if not once in a lifetime, natural disaster that has occurred in this area of the world," Crowder told reporters. "We offered them help, and the Indonesian government has accepted it. We're working very closely."
In an interview later, Crowder said he expected the joint efforts would improve the prospects for resuming full military ties.
"There's nothing that focuses cooperation like a huge task. This would be one of those huge tasks," he explained.
The Bush administration has sought to restore military links, in large part to help fight terrorism. But Congress has repeatedly blocked the efforts because of Indonesia's failure to hold its military accountable for mass killings in East Timor conducted by militias but orchestrated by security forces after residents of the annexed province voted for independence in 1999.
Some members of Congress are also concerned about possible involvement of Indonesian soldiers in a 2002 ambush that killed two Americans and an Indonesian who worked for the Freeport-McMoRan mining company in Papua province.
In recent days, Darmono took over command of the Indonesian military's relief operations from Maj. Gen. Adam Damiri, the chief operations officer who was indicted for war crimes by a U.N.-backed tribunal in East Timor. Damiri's continued role at the air base could have complicated U.S. efforts to provide humanitarian assistance.
U.S. helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln began flying missions on Saturday, transforming what had been a sleepy air base into a center of frenetic activity. U.S. sailors in blue-and-tan flight suits and sweating in the tropical heat worked with Indonesian soldiers clad in green camouflage to load the Seahawks.
Along with military personnel from Australia and Singapore, who were present in smaller numbers, the Americans and Indonesians hurriedly moved mountains of relief supplies into the hangar. They tossed boxes of biscuits, noodles and bottled water in a bucket brigade from one to the next, and to the back of a waiting truck, which in turn would haul them to the helicopter.
Capt. Iwan, 35, a stocky Indonesian air force pilot in a green flight suit, said his French-made Puma helicopter had nearly collided with two Seahawks on Saturday because of confusion over radio frequencies and because the Americans could not pronounce the names of Indonesian towns and villages.
When the three helicopters landed, Iwan was livid. But before long, he recounted, the Americans had offered him a military meal package and calmed him down.
Capt. B. Junair, 30, another helicopter pilot, wearing an orange flight suit and sunglasses, said the Americans had invited him to inspect the controls of their Seahawks. He said he was impressed by their craft.
But he was also skeptical about U.S. motives for coming to Indonesia.
He noted that the United States had been flying P-3 Orion reconnaissance planes from a base in Thailand to photograph large swaths of Aceh. U.S. officers said the aircraft were mapping destruction along roads and bridges and using infrared sensors to locate refugees in the mountains. "That will be helpful for them in the future," Junair said suspiciously.
Indonesian officials objected vigorously last year when the U.S. Navy suggested patrols in the strategic Strait of Malacca to guard against terrorists. They said U.S. forces should stay out of the straits, which run just north of Sumatra island.
Now, however, the Lincoln and five other U.S. vessels, with 6,500 personnel on board, are positioned within a 10-minute helicopter flight of Sumatra. A Marine expeditionary unit based on the Japanese island of Okinawa with seven ships, 29 helicopters and more than 2,200 troops was expected to join the Lincoln off Sumatra Monday night. While most of the vessels in the expeditionary support group are scheduled to continue on to Sri Lanka to help with disaster relief there, at least one ship will likely remain.
Shihab, the social welfare minister, said the magnitude of the disaster has discouraged most people from publicly airing any reservations they might have about the U.S. presence.
"People will think what they want to think," Crowder told reporters when asked about Indonesian sensitivities. "We've offered our assistance."
The presence of Australian forces in Aceh also strikes a nerve with some Indonesians. In 1998, Australian peacekeepers were deployed to East Timor before its U.N.-supervised vote on independence, and many Indonesians continue to blame them for the secession.
Darmono, the Indonesian commander of relief efforts who studied at a military staff college in Australia, said he welcomed both the U.S. and Australian forces, dismissing the disputes that have bedeviled Indonesia's relations with these counties.
"Politics is politics, and soldiers are soldiers," he said. "The cooperation of militaries bridges countries."