Over the past decade, the U.S. military has spent millions of dollars to train legions of Indonesian troops. When Congress restricted the programs after the military's 1991 massacre of peasants in East Timor, the Pentagon continued to train elite special forces through a loophole it created.

The Indonesian military's participation in the violence in East Timor this month has rekindled a heated debate over the value of continued military contacts with the insular armed forces that dominate the world's fourth-most populous country.

On one side is the U.S. military and the defense committees in Congress, which argue that congressional restrictions have hindered the Pentagon's influence and have cut the United States off from the new generation of commanders.

On the other side are human rights groups and some members of congressional foreign relations committees, who believe the ties have only emboldened the Indonesia military and have trained troops responsible for long-standing repression in East Timor.

Last Thursday, the administration suspended all military-to-military contacts indefinitely. President Clinton charged the Indonesian military with "aiding and abetting" the violence in East Timor. U.S. military officials are set to argue for resuming contacts once the situation calms, according to defense officials.

Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. military has sent a parade of generals and the Navy has made numerous port visits to the country to gain access and influence. Dozens of Indonesian officers have come here each year on exchange programs.

Congress curtailed most tactical military training programs in 1992, after the military's involvement in the Dili massacre of peasants and independence activists in November 1991. Since then, though, special operations forces have conducted 41 training exercises with Indonesia. Most involved Indonesian special forces troops, called Kopassus, and included courses on sniper techniques, close-quarters combat, mortar attacks and "internal defense."

In May 1998, U.S. officials concluded that some Kopassus troops and commanders had been involved in torturing and kidnapping political dissidents, allegations human rights groups have made for years. Kopassus, which has played a key military role in East Timor, is being accused by international human rights groups and East Timorese activists of organizing and training the militias that carried out this month's rampage.

"I can't see any benefit to it," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) when asked yesterday about the contacts. "What good did it do us?"

Harkin, who visited East Timor days before the population overwhelming voted to become independent of Indonesia, said future contact should be "arm's-length" and that civilian exchanges to encourage a transition to democracy should be augmented.

Far from interpreting the recent crisis as evidence that military contact programs pay few dividends, Pentagon officials say the opposite is true. They say it was against the backdrop of friendly U.S.-Indonesian military ties that Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became acquainted with his Indonesian counterpart, Gen. Wiranto, during two visits over the past five years.

Shelton called Wiranto last Monday, telling him the United States expected Indonesian forces to reestablish control in East Timor, according to a high-ranking U.S. officer familiar with the conversation. Shelton phoned again Friday, as violence continued and after Wiranto opposed accepting peacekeepers in the near term. Shelton delivered "a very blunt message," the officer said, warning that Indonesia would become a pariah state, stripped of international military and economic assistance, if order were not restored.

"I do think it was influential," the officer said. "I think hearing it in no uncertain terms as a friend to a friend, as a military leader to military leader, sent a very clear signal to Wiranto that this was getting very serious."

Wiranto visited East Timor the next day, then phoned Shelton on Sunday to report his decision to recommend that peacekeepers be allowed in after all.

Pentagon officials suggest that events could have been worse in East Timor without their training. "We're not trying to claim that the Indonesian military is perfect, far from it," the senior officer said. "But we don't know what they might have been doing had they not had the training they've gotten or had we not had the contacts we had. You don't fix them overnight, but you at least stand a chance if you've got people in there talking to them and you've got people living in America looking at how we operate in this society."

CAPTION: Referring to U.S. contacts with Indonesian troops, Sen. Tom Harkin said, "I can't see any benefit to it. What good did it do us?"