The commander of the multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor said today it was "almost eerie" that the operation thus far has been free of clashes and casualties, but he warned that risks will grow as his troops move into the territory's volatile western districts, where pro-Indonesian militia groups traditionally have been strongest.
In an interview, Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove said the mission "has exceeded my expectations" in its first 11 days, but he noted that the situation could worsen. "The nature of these things is that there will be a time when some person will either not lay down their weapon, or use violence against a Timorese, and a security person will come along and there will be a shooting. . . . It's still a dangerous job."
"So far, it's almost eerie that we've been able to conduct our mission so successfully without having to engage in decisive combat," Cosgrove said. He spoke at his headquarters in an old library building damaged by fire and looting during a two-week rampage through Dili, the territorial capital, by Indonesian troops and their militia proxies that followed East Timor's decisive vote for independence from Indonesia on Aug. 30.
Cosgrove dismissed any suggestion that Australia, which is contributing the bulk of the force that will eventually number 7,500, was heading for a long-term, Vietnam-style quagmire in East Timor. "This is not Australia's next Vietnam," said Cosgrove, a veteran of that conflict. "This is Indonesia's last Vietnam."
Cosgrove spoke on the day that peacekeepers fired the first shots of the operation. A unit of British Gurkhas in the town of Com in eastern East Timor fired warning shots before apprehending two suspected militiamen who had been harassing local residents, according to a British military statement.
The Gurkhas--highly disciplined Nepalese troops with a service tradition of nearly two centuries in the British army--had gone to the area to provide security for an aid convoy. Several British military sources said that after the Gurkhas arrived in East Timor last week and secured the United Nations compound, British commanders grew restless waiting to expand the operation beyond the capital. And the sources said the British commanders felt the Gurkhas, renowned for their fighting prowess, were being underutilized.
Cosgrove said today that such criticisms were unfounded and that the differences in approach were inevitable in any multinational operation. "My view of the Gurkhas is you get a soldier and a half out of each man. Anybody who feels that this commander doesn't appreciate the fighting qualities of the Gurkhas is far wide of the mark."
With more than 5,300 troops here--a New Zealand contingent was the latest to arrive--Cosgrove said the soldiers would soon extend their presence. "We're establishing a security presence outside of Dili in a limited way," he said. "We're poised for expanded operations."
[Early Friday, about 200 Australian troops, with armored personnel carriers, naval landing crafts and Blackhawk helicopters launched a major operation to seize control of Balibo, a town in East Timor's far western region. It was the first deployment of peacekeeping troops in the far west, and a spokesman in Dili said the troops met no resistance.]
Cosgrove said he is aware of Indonesia's intense political sensitivity to the Australian-led force in East Timor and of how relations between the Pacific neighbors had soured because of the crisis. There have been protests almost daily at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital; shots have been fired at the embassy's upper windows; and Australians have been evacuated from some outlying Indonesian towns.
Cosgrove said one of his goals is for countries that have contributed troops to the mission to be able to mend their relationship with Indonesia at the end of the intervention. "That will be the common ideal of the coalition, with one other: to protect the people of East Timor," he said.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who has accused the Indonesian military of "aiding and abetting" militia violence in East Timor, said after talks in Jakarta with Indonesian officials that they had indicated they would not let the militia gangs interfere with the peacekeepers.
Another potentially sensitive issue involves the future of the East Timorese independence guerrillas, known as Falintil, who have kept their weapons but have remained in their designated camp sites. Today, nearly 30 Falintil members showed up in Dili, leaving their weapons behind but giving every indication that they expect to be recognized as East Timor's security force when it formally becomes independent--most likely in November when the Indonesian parliament votes on ratification of the referendum result.
"Falintil represents the national liberation force of East Timor, so Falintil will not disarm," said Cornelio Gama, 54, who described himself as a Region 3 deputy commander. Gama said the guerrillas came to Dili to assist the intervention troops in searching for weapons and hostile militiamen.
In Washington, independence leader Xanana Gusmao, who will likely be the first president of a sovereign East Timor, told Washington Post editors and reporters that he foresees Falintil playing "a very great role" in East Timor's security.
Cosgrove, however, said he expects Falintil to disarm voluntarily along with the pro-Indonesian militias and that the multinational force would show no favoritism on the issue of confiscating weapons.
Cosgrove said he hopes to "review and extract the relevant lessons" from other recent multinational attempts at nation-building, including those in Haiti, where U.S. troops are ending a five-year occupation; in Somalia, which ended disastrously after a clan faction attacked U.S. Army Rangers; and in Kosovo, where a NATO-led peacekeeping force is trying to police a population torn by ethnic hatred.