Chaos Tests Ties to the Pentagon
By Dana Priest
For five years the U.S. military has sent a continual parade of generals and teams of elite troops to Indonesia in an effort to gain access and influence within the insular military forces that dominate the world's fourth-most populous country.
As a result, the U.S. military now has more contact with the Indonesian armed forces than with any other in Asia, except South Korea's. Despite a congressional ban on some military aid, U.S. Special Forces have been scheduled this year to conduct nearly monthly training exercises with Indonesian units. Top U.S. officers boast a network of contacts cultivated at the highest levels of the Indonesian officer corps.
But as the country has erupted into chaos, the U.S. military, despite its investment here, has been shut out from the inner workings of the armed forces, including a possible power struggle that could divide the 400,000-troop force.
Today, as Indonesian military leaders were closeted at Cilankap, their headquarters, hashing out what could be a new military coordinating body with martial law powers, the U.S. Defense Department postponed a mission by Adm. Joseph Prueher, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command. The trip was put off on the recommendation of U.S. Ambassador Stapleton Roy, in part, officials in Washington said, because the unrest has made the drive from the Jakarta airport hazardous.
Prueher, who is based at the command headquarters in Honolulu and has made numerous trips here, was to meet with armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto and Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, another military leader seen as his rival, and tell them that world opinion would not support the use of lethal force by the military against demonstrators. He would not, however, advocate that the military leadership abandon President Suharto, defense officials said.
During the past week, amid congressional criticism, the Pentagon has ordered the postponement of a training mission here and announced other moves to scale back contacts between the two military forces. But senior defense sources said Prueher views the suspension of the U.S. training as a temporary measure and has told Wiranto that he wants to continue it when the situation calms and Indonesian troops are not in the streets confronting students.
"It is important to maintain military-to-military contacts," Prueher said in an interview last week, the day after the suspension of the training exercises, a jumpmaster program that would have involved 50 U.S. Army Special Forces troops over a month. "Indonesia is important to the United States, and it is in our interest that Indonesia gets through this."
Despite congressional bans on small-arms sales and on certain U.S. military education programs that allow foreign officers to attend military schools in the United States, the Defense Department's in-country training program has grown steadily since 1992, when 10-man U.S. Special Forces detachments made three trips to Indonesia to train troops in close-quarters combat. This year 10 training exercises were planned and four had already taken place when the jumpmaster course was cut short.
The training, which would cost $3.5 million this year, has included basic infantry skills, rapid rappelling from helicopters, conducting amphibious assaults, blowing up buildings and raiding enemy-controlled territory, and detailed instruction on how U.S. Special Forces plan their missions.
U.S. military officers involved in the program counter congressional criticism by saying the training is a way to maintain access in a place where it is hard to come by, and to expose Indonesian soldiers and officers to U.S. values, such as respect for human rights and civilian control of the military.
"My take is, if you don't talk, you're guaranteed to achieve zip," Brig. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, commander of U.S. Special Operations in the Pacific Command, said in an interview last week.
Similar reasoning has been behind U.S. military relations with a succession of foreign armed forces, in countries such as El Salvador, with poor human rights records and dubious commitments to democratic reform. In some cases, U.S. military officials have discovered that they ultimately have less influence than they believed, with their allied officers fighting internal enemies.
The stakes in Indonesia are seen as especially large because of the dominant role of the military here. The armed forces, while relatively small for a country of more than 200 million people, hold seats in parliament, own sectors of the economy and act as the internal security force.
Because of this, "our military-to-military relationship in this region goes beyond the traditional military-to-military relationship," said a senior U.S. defense official.
In January, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen visited Suharto in Jakarta to discuss expanding security ties in what aides said then was intended as a gesture of support. At the time, Cohen focused on talk of continuity and stability in military relations rather than on the financial and political crisis.
The Indonesian military has been accused of serious human rights violations, including mass killings in East Timor, an island Indonesia occupied in 1975. They have been accused by human rights groups of kidnapping and killing suspected insurgents and their supporters in three outlying regions and of detaining and torturing political dissidents.
Most U.S. training has been conducted by the Special Forces, the most elite units in the U.S. armed forces, with their counterparts in an elite Indonesian unit known as Kopassus, which until March was commanded by Prabowo. Although among the most highly trained and disciplined in the country, they have been accused of serious human rights violations, charges Prabowo has denied.
The training program, known as J-CET for Joint Combined Exchange and Training, is designed primarily to provide training for U.S. troops. Special Forces officials say the Indonesian program has allowed U.S. soldiers of the 1st Special Forces Group based in Okinawa, Japan, to practice skills that are too politically sensitive to practice on the Japanese bases, such as helicopter infiltration and demolitions.
The training, as well as a tradition of future Indonesian generals attending U.S. officer schools before the congressional ban, has created an American following among Indonesian troops. To maintain the American influence over the development of young officers, Prabowo sends 25 lieutenants a year at Indonesian expense to the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel.
Prabowo, who is married to one of Suharto's daughters, is seen as involved in a rivalry with Wiranto. "There is a battle within the Armed Forces between the pro-Suharto and pro-reform elements," said one U.S. defense official.
Prabowo is a favorite in some U.S. military quarters, where his ease in English and his familiarity with American culture has smoothed the way for a comfortable relationship. The Special Forces training, in particular, helped boost his prestige, and over the past several years he is believed to have doubled the number of Kopassus troops from 4,000 to 8,000.
"The U.S. military assistance program has benefited him greatly," said one U.S. businessman with close ties to the military.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company