Mon, 12 May 2003

Low-cost military engagement for Aceh settlement sought

Imanuddin Razak, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta,

By the time this newspaper reaches readers on Monday, the two- week deadline set by the government for the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to accept special autonomy for Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam province and voluntarily disarm also ends.

The Indonesian government's chief negotiator for the settlement of the Aceh conflict, Wiryono Sastrohandoyo, has indeed argued that as the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) provides for a five-month period during which the placement of arms is to be accomplished, and theoretically the government should wait until after July 9 before it can be justified in carrying out a military operation in the province.

But as the government has publicly given the go-ahead for a military campaign, it is highly improbable that the planned military operation to quell the separatist movement in Indonesia's easternmost province immediately after the May 12 deadline passes will be canceled.

It is therefore hardly possible to ask the government, or in this case, the Indonesian Military (TNI), which has lost patience with dialog and with pursuing a peaceful settlement to the Aceh issue, to cancel the attacks on the separatist movement's bases.

The only remaining possible thing to do is ask whether the government can avoid a full-scale military operation, but instead conduct a limited one in Aceh, considering that the country does not have such a vast amount of money to finance a military operation, including post-operation restoration and rehabilitation programs.

A rough budget calculation for a conventional military operation, involving 50,000 troops plus several jet fighters and other combat equipment, and the cost of subsequent restoration programs in the province could reach hundreds of billions of rupiah. The required budget for the planned military operation would be huge, especially when the whole military campaign could take months to complete.

There are some unexplained reasons for the TNI to hastily deploy 50,000 troops and immediately start the military campaign in Aceh.

There remains questions of why the TNI has readied two F-16 and four Hawk-200 jet fighters, besides other military aircraft, for the military operation. It is difficult to understand the logic behind using jet fighters to quell GAM, which according to the TNI has 5,000 members.

Is it because the TNI anticipates possible external threats to the province in the wake of the military campaign?

It is also questionable why the TNI has to deploy the Navy's elite troops, the marines, and the Air Force's elite Paskhas troops to Aceh as they are not familiar with land combat.

Speaking about their specialties, both the marines and Paskhas have been trained for combat in their respective specific fields -- respectively securing and taking control of sea areas and securing and taking control of air space -- and not for land combat, which is what the Army's Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) and Special Forces (Kopassus) are for.

A similar question is whether both the marines and Paskhas troops are really being deployed to secure the water and air space surrounding the province from possible external threat.

Military presence in Aceh is relatively as old as the Republic of Indonesia itself.

So, it is not understandable if the military does not know every inch of Aceh land, including GAM strongholds and bases, as well as the hiding places of its leaders.

It would save much money if the TNI launched a limited operation focusing on only seizing and taking control of GAM strongholds and bases, as well as "capturing" its top leader and regional leaders.

In the majority of battles, once the key leaders are captured or killed, the war soon comes to an end as their followers' resistance ebbs in the absence of their leaders.

A limited operation would not need as many as 50,000 troops and would avoid the use of a vast sum of money if compared with the amount needed for a conventional military operation.

And a conventional military operation, including possible air strikes if the jet fighters are used to attack GAM guerrillas, would be sure to more claim civilian lives than a limited operation.

One recent example of this is when many civilians were killed during air strikes at the beginning of the Iraq war, despite the sophisticated weaponry and detection systems of the U.S.-led allied forces.

Here at home, the TNI does not have the sophisticated weaponry and detection systems of the U.S. and its allies and the possibility of civilian casualties is far greater.

An obvious lesson from the Iraq war is that the United States and Britain, as the initiators of the war, have to bear the responsibility of restoring peace and, most of all, reviving the war-battered Iraqi economy.

As for the Aceh case, it will be the Indonesian government that will have to restore security and peace after the military campaign, as well as revive the province's ruined economy.

The question will then be whether the government or the state has ample money to pay for all the damage and all the post-attack expenditures.

Or, perhaps the government can save a huge amount of funds and prevent a great number of civilian casualties by avoiding a conventional military operation and instead stage a limited one.