Pentagon Exploits Humanitarian Mission to Rebuild Military Ties

by John M. Miller

In the immediate aftermath of the massive tsunami that swept through the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, George W. Bush, safe on his Texas ranch, offered a paltry $35 million in aid to the affected countries. Bush was widely criticized for his hesitation. One U.N. official called the United States “stingy,” prompting Bush to up the aid to approximately a billion dollars.

The U.S. military showed no such hesitation, immediately dispatching ships loaded with aid from its own budget. But in the process the Pentagon seized a number of opportunities that in long run may harm the very people it was purportedly helping. Within days, a Navy strike force with initial orders to head to the Persian Gulf instead loaded up with humanitarian supplies in Guam and was soon diverted to tsunami relief duty. U.S. forces were quickly on the move, anchoring off the coast of Aceh, the area most devastated by the disaster.

The relief mission provided an opportunity to conduct an operation without land bases through “sea-basing,” a strategy designed to allow U.S. forces to operate free from the constraints of land bases and allies. The effort in Aceh was mainly confined to helicopter transport of relief to villages cut off by the disaster. U.S. troops spent very little time on the ground. Indonesia was wary of too many foreign eyes in Aceh, where a decades-long counter-insurgency war continues despite the crisis. In addition, nationalist Indonesians were reluctant to allow the deployment of U.S. troops on any Indonesian soil.

Nonetheless, the Pentagon leadership seized the opportunity to rebuild relations with officers of the Indonesian military forces, called TNI, for Tentara Nasional Indonesia (National Army of Indonesia). Contacts have been limited since the early 1990s, when Congress began to restrict U.S. military assistance to Indonesia because of serious human rights violations in occupied East Timor. The Pentagon also saw in the relief efforts a new excuse to campaign to lift remaining restrictions and fully restore military ties.

The U.S. Air Force flew in mechanics to repair several of Indonesia’s aging C-130 military cargo planes. In announcing the supply of parts, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Jan. 6 that he hoped that “if we can get this taken care of, the government of Indonesia will use the planes for the intended purpose … and would not use them in a way not intended, i.e. going after the GAM.” The GAM is Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, the Free Aceh Movement, which has been conducting a guerrilla war for independence from Indonesia since the 1970s.

Indonesian officials portrayed the supply of spare parts as a major shift in U.S. policy, but Indonesia has been allowed to purchase C-130 parts at least since 2002. Instead of buying the parts, Indonesia preferred to repeatedly misrepresent their availability in an effort to get the United States to remove all restrictions on weapons sales. Sharing the goal, the Bush administration rarely bothered to correct the misrepresentation publicly. Throughout the joint relief effort, senior administration officials, led by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz described the Indonesian government and military as fully cooperative in the relief effort but argued that the operation would have gone more smoothly if only military relations were normal. What was needed, they said, was restoration of the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.

Wolfowitz, Indonesia and IMET

Congress first voted to restrict IMET for Indonesia after Indonesian troops wielding U.S.-supplied M-16 rifles massacred East Timorese protesters in Santa Cruz cemetery, Dili, on November 12, 1991. That was the first cut in military aid to Indonesia. Through the 1990s, decisions by Congress and the Clinton administration gradually restricted other forms of assistance to Indonesia in a rare instance of human rights concerns affecting weapons sales. During that decade, as restrictions on Indonesia tightened, Wolfowitz, a former ambassador to Indonesia, help lead the charge against the restrictions, defending the Indonesian regime and exaggerating its very limited efforts to prosecute some mainly low-ranking soldiers, usually in response to intense international pressure.

All military ties with Indonesia were severed in September 1999 as the TNI and its militia proxies razed East Timor after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence. At that time, Congress placed some of these restrictions into law. Renewable annually were bans on IMET and sales of lethal military equipment. Conditions for lifting these bans have varied, but have largely focused on transparency in Indonesia’s military budget and accountability for human rights violations, as all senior Indonesian officials responsible for crimes against humanity in East Timor have escaped successful prosecution. Under the Congressional restrictions, IMET could be restored with State Department “certification” that Indonesia was meeting conditions.

Then, when George W. Bush assumed the presidency, Wolfowitz was appointed to the Pentagon. One of his goals was normalization of military relations with Indonesia. The Pentagon saw an opening after the attack of September 11, 2001, arguing that Indonesia, as the country with the largest Muslim population, was an important front in the war on terror and the Indonesian military was needed to fight terror in the region.

Yet under most definitions, the TNI itself conducts terrorist activities; using violence against civilians for political ends has been its modus operandi for decades. A 2002 study for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, notes that the Indonesian army has become “a major facilitator of terrorism” due to “radical Muslim militias they… organized, trained, and financed.” In the wake of the tsunami, the Indonesian military helped transport some of these militia to Aceh, ostensibly to help with the relief effort, but handy if needed to intimidate foreigners or create an impression of internecine conflict to deflect blame from their own operations. Both are tried and true tactics from East Timor and elsewhere. But the Pentagon’s allies in Congress were willing to set aside those criticisms, authorizing a post-9-11 Pentagon counter-terrorism training program open to Indonesian officers with no restrictions, although IMET and the sale of weapons remains banned.

The Papua Killings

Congress balked at completely lifting the IMET ban after three teachers, two from the United States and one from Indonesia, were murdered on land operated as a mineral concession of the U.S. multinational Freeport MacMoran (and under the control of TNI forces) in West Papua in August 2002. Instead, Congress declared that the ban could be lifted conditioned on certification of Indonesian cooperation in solving the crime. This past February 26, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice certified that Indonesia was cooperating with the FBI and was therefore eligible for full IMET. The certification came just days before the State Department issued its annual human rights report, which detailed how in 2004 Indonesia’s “security force members murdered, tortured, raped, beat, and arbitrarily detained civilians.”

The main argument for certification was an indictment for the murders drawn by a U.S. grand jury (under a legal doctrine retaining jurisdiction over the murder of U.S. citizens abroad) in June 2004 against Anthonius Wamang, an Indonesian. The FBI has said the investigation remains open but has essentially ignored any evidence that implicates the TNI in the killings, and instead blames Free West Papua Movement (or OPM for Organisesi Papua Merdeka), the local pro-independence guerrillas. But according to local human rights investigators, Wamang has extensive ties to the Indonesian military as a business partner of Kopassus, the Indonesian army’s notorious special forces. The TNI is largely funded by profit-making enterprises, and Wamang markets timber and gold in a joint venture with Kopassus. In August 2004, Wamang told Australian television that he obtained the ammunition for the attack from members of the Indonesian military. He has also said that these officers knew that he was about to carry out an attack in the Freeport concession. The TNI routinely uses proxies to stage attacks, in hopes of covering up their role. Furthermore, for the first six months after the indictment was unsealed, Indonesian police did not update U.S. investigators, nor has Wamang been indicted or apprehended in Indonesia. Nonetheless, Indonesia claims to be cooperating with U.S. authorities in the case. Given this lack of progress, rights organizations say the State Department’s certification of cooperation is false and misleading.

In announcing the restoration of IMET, the State Department said it “expects that Indonesia’s resumption of full International Military Education and Training will strengthen its ongoing democratic progress.” It is hard to see how bolstering Indonesia’s least democratic institution can do this. Even Indonesia’s “reformist” Minister of Defense Juwono Sudarsono told the New York Times Feb. 7, 2005 that the military “retains the real levers of power” and “from the political point of view, the military remains the fulcrum of Indonesia.” On June 23, 2004, while serving as Jakarta’s ambassador in London, Sudarsono wrote in the Jakarta Post, “Six years of civilian-based party politics has not resulted in any measurable degree of effective ‘civilian supremacy,’ much less ‘civilian control.'”

Revolt in Aceh

Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, is the site of one of Asia’s longest-running wars. For three decades, the GAM has fought for independence from Indonesia. On Dec. 9, 2002, an internationally-brokered cease-fire agreement was signed between Indonesia and the GAM, but it collapsed on the following May 19, when then-Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law in Aceh. A few hours later Indonesia launched its largest military operation since the 1975 invasion of East Timor. Aceh’s status was changed to “civil emergency” one year later, but the TNI remains in charge, and the reality on the ground has not changed. Hercules C-130 military transports, OV-10 Broncos, F-16 fighters, and other U.S. equipment have all been used during military operations in Aceh.

Support in Aceh for independence from Indonesia is widespread and growing because of the brutality of Indonesian security forces, as well as the desire for a fair share of Aceh’s vast natural resource wealth. The TNI generally assumes the average Acehnese is pro-independence and supports the guerrillas. For the notoriously corrupt TNI, the tsunami is an opportunity to assert further its control, as well as make some money–by pilfering aid, charging fees at road checkpoints, et cetera.

Despite the natural disaster, Indonesia has continued the civil emergency and offensive operations. Prior to the tsunami, Indonesia severely restricted the presence of foreigners in the territory. After the disaster it delayed for several days allowing foreign aid agencies in. The government regularly sets deadlines for most of them to leave. While so far, it has backed down from these threats, Indonesia did force out the UN’s refugee agency in March, arguing that there are no “refugees,” only “displaced persons.”

Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who has worked in North Korea, gave a strong sense of the repressive atmosphere in Aceh in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which he wrote, “I feel almost as if I am back in North Korea again. The military road blocks, heavily armed police tanks at every street corner and thousands of soldiers everywhere all remind me of the 18 months I spent in the Stalinist state.”

Abuses of humanitarian assistance by the TNI–including withholding food and other relief from civilians who lack proper identification or are alleged to support independence–are regularly reported. Reports also describe the TNI as creating obstacles to local organizations and volunteers who are trying to distribute humanitarian assistance. The Indonesian government says it has killed hundreds of rebels since the tsunami hit. Human rights groups say most of the dead were unarmed civilians. The GAM says that they have seen little let-up in military activity, despite declared post-tsunami ceasefires by both sides.

The Indonesian military also transported fundamentalist Islamic militias into Aceh, ostensibly to help with the relief effort. The groups, the Islamic Defenders Front and the Laskar Mujahidin (the military wing of the Indonesian Mujahidin Council), have a history of attacking opponents of the military, threatening foreigners and exacerbating conflicts, including the Christian-Muslim inter-religious conflict in Indonesia’s Moluccan Islands.

Lessons Learned

Most Acehnese have welcomed the foreign help, civilian and military. Many see the outsiders as far more efficient and less corrupt than the oppressive Indonesian government and military they so distrust. They also hope that the outside presence will temper the TNI’s worst abuses and shed light on the brutal repression in the province.

Most of the US, Australian and other foreign militaries allowed into Aceh after the disaster are now gone, except for a brief return after a massive aftershock hit in March. What remains is an intense debate over who will control the reconstruction and how long outside aid agencies will be allowed to remain, as the TNI awaits a full return to business as usual.

As Aceh moves from the disaster relief phase to reconstruction, the struggle has begun over who will control the planning and the vast sums pledged internationally. Acehnese and Indonesians monitoring the effort fully expect any money given directly to the government to be stolen. They doubt the TNI will be shut out of the lucrative rebuilding effort. History tells them that much aid will be siphoned off, despite government pledges to the contrary. “Every disaster in Indonesia is always colored by corruption, with lots of aid disappearing,” one Acehnese corruption watcher told Australia’s Courier Mail.

The U.S. Navy sees their intervention as much more than a successful effort in helping the disaster-stricken people of Aceh. Rear Admiral Christopher Ames, the commander of the Expeditionary Strike Group that arrived so quickly off the coast of Aceh, told the New Yorker Feb. 7, “We’ve talked about this idea of sea-basing for several years, of being able to project power anywhere in the world without asking permission.” He added, “What we’re doing here validates the beauty of it.”

For the Bush administration, the campaign to restore military assistance to Indonesia clearly received a real boost from the relief effort. Added to their rotating arguments for re-engagement is the need to support the TNI in humanitarian missions. This comes even as some in Indonesia are questioning the dependence on the TNI in dealing with Indonesia’s frequent natural disasters–floods, forest fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare recently announced a plan to create an alternative capacity by creating a “a ready-for-dispatch team, such as the National Guard in the United States, whose members are trained like troops, so we don’t need to disturb the military.”

Despite renewed peace talks now underway, the Acehnese and others in Indonesia may end up regretting the long-term impact of the U.S. military help. The restoration of military training and the expansion of other contacts can only serve to embolden the Indonesian military and increase their suffering.


John M. Miller is Media and Outreach Coordinator of the East Timor Action Network and Treasurer of the War Resisters League. This article is adopted from a version appearing in the April edition of the Non-Violent Activist, the magazine of the War Resisters League


For more information on Aceh and Indonesia: East Timor Action Network (ETAN), (718)596-7668,; Opposes U.S. assistance to the Indonesian military. For news and analysis of the situation in Aceh, see Aceh Eye ( and AcehKita ( For information on human rights throughout Indonesia, see TAPOL ( and IndonesiaAlert! (

See also:

WW4 REPORT’s March 31 post on Indonesian army atrocities in West Papua

WW4 REPORT’s last updates on Aceh:







Adopted for WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, June 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution