Wed, 21 May 2003

Winning the battle may cost Indonesia the Acehnese

Kusnanto Anggoro, Senior Researcher, Centre of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta

Martial law has taken effect in Aceh. Under Presidential Decree No. 28/2003, signed by the President on Sunday night, newly installed Iskandar Muda Military Commander Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya is named the military ruler -- assisted by the Aceh governor, provincial police chief and the chief of the provincial prosecutor's office. Heavy emphasis on a military solution will dominate the "integrated operation" for months to come.

Interestingly, the government imposed martial law instead of a state of civil emergency. Also interesting is that the rule is applicable to the whole of Aceh rather than to only the most conflict-ridden areas: Pidie, Bireuen and North and East Aceh. The government should strike a balance between what is necessary and what is sufficient with regard to intensity of conflict and the jurisdiction of the use of force.

The government confronts many dilemmas. From the military point of view, for example, it would be well-nigh impossible for the government to send in a vast number of troops to Aceh while imposing only a civil emergency there.

Besides, the decision may also reveal the central government's distrust, if not disappointment, in the Aceh administration. The decision may also be a preventive strategy to anticipate a worst- case scenario of conflict escalation.

Whatever the case, a political solution has not gone astray. Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has stated clearly that martial law could be relaxed if the rebels stopped fighting and started disarming within a week of the Tokyo meeting. Yet GAM leader Malik Mahmud in Tokyo has already stated the movement's preparations for war.

The windows of peace are closing. Nonetheless there is still flexibility in the next six months, depending very much on what happens on the ground and, perhaps, also in the Paris Club. The President, as supreme commander of the military, should formulate a comprehensive policy on counterinsurgency. Unfortunately, this is perhaps the weakest link, as the government has been unable to devise a clear policy on Aceh.

Meanwhile, Aceh's martial law authorities must ensure that the operations be carried out professionally. Not only should this operation be in line with political objectives devised by the government but they also should adhere to a number of principles -- minimum use of force, unity of command and flexible tactics.

For these matters, the military rule in Aceh may provide legal bases for military operations, but it does not resolve serious problems in a counterinsurgency strategy. Perhaps, we have all returned to square one. In a matter of days, there will be great demand for the government to devise a clear policy to respond to what the military personnel may achieve on the ground.

The regional commander in Aceh, as regional authority of the military rule, has enormous power. According to the draconian 1959 State of Emergency Act, especially article 25 to article 34, he may curtail public space and take tough measures, starting from controlling postal equipment, regulating the export and import of goods, confiscation of goods, to arresting and detaining people.

However, the commander should be extremely cautious. Jerome Napoleon of Westphalia -- Napoleon Bonaparte's brother -- reminds us, "one can do anything with bayonets -- except sit on them." The commander must be aware of his mandate, defined ambiguously as restoring public order and security in Article 24(1)), to win back the hearts and minds of the Acehnese, the key to which is establishing a responsive local government. It remains to be seen whether the commander is capable of all this without using brute force.

The question of the military's credibility is even more serious. In the last four decades, there has emerged a saying that the Indonesian Military (TNI) is capable of anything but winning a war. It lost in East Timor. It made things worse in Papua and was trapped in a stalemate in Aceh. The reasonable success in weakening GAM in the late 1970s did not last long.

Indonesian generals must not be too optimistic. They cannot be a Sun Tzu, who believed that "a general can penetrate the mist of the immediate future sufficiently well to know if he will be victorious". They have to be as cautious as Karl von Clausewitz, who argued that "the fog of war" and "human fallibilities" allow for no certainty of victory. Thus, political and military intelligence should take the lead before military operations.

As an asymmetric war, in which two opposing parties run a similar strategic objective but possess unequal military strength, insurgency wars have their own logic. First, agility is even more crucial than bayonets and bullets. Second, right is much more important than might. Third, and more importantly, in a strategic sense, military force is necessary, but a "political buckshot" could well be decisive to win the war.

Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the TNI is capable of brazening out GAM's hit-and-run strategy. Conventional counterguerilla warfare, simply by emphasizing an offensive strategy, will never work. Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser lost in Yemen to a few thousand barefoot Yemeni guerrillas, despite the support of 40,000 modern troops, Russian tanks and Russian jets.

Everybody knows that might is no substitute for right. More importantly, in counterinsurgency, strength appears to be an irrelevant instrument to win battle, let alone restore peace. The Dutch were unable to defeat Indonesian patriots. The Russians failed to seize the Chechens. The great Indian army failed to overcome the Naga -- a backward people of 500,000 on the northeastern frontier of India.

Indeed, there are no easy shortcuts to solving insurgencies. By definition, everybody would seek a military solution to such problems. The insurgency problem is military only in a secondary sense, and a policy addressing complex political and social aspects in a primary sense. Using excessive force has always been precarious.

After all, what is needed is a well-conceived counterinsurgency policy. In the Philippines, success emerged in the early 1950s, once defense minister Ramon Magsaysay presided over the reorganization of the Philippine security apparatus. In Thailand, Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond adopted a broad political strategy to neutralize the communist insurgents and reclaim remote areas and the people from their control.

The military should change its own hearts and minds first. It must rely on a defensive strategy, instead of an offensive one that would more likely produce excessive civilian casualties. The net effect of the Manuel Roxas government's "iron fist" campaign in the Philippines during the late 1940s was that the rebel Huk movement probably more than doubled in size.

Moreover, the tactical objectives of the military operations are to neutralize the insurgence and/or reclaim territory and the people. All of these are aimed to provide room for maneuver for the government to run its policy effectively and return to a political solution, such as an offer to promise to accord them respect and security, and unconditional amnesty.

Anything can go wrong in a military operation. The TNI is restoring its image and will not go for a defeat in Aceh. But the generals should learn from the French army, who were capable of defeating the Algerian guerrillas -- at the expense of the French being the second-most hated country in the world in the 1960s.

No reasonable Indonesian would meet the cost of winning a military operation that loses the people of Aceh. A responsive government hardly sells out its credentials to the continuous use of brute force.

The writer lectures in Strategic and Security Studies at the postgraduate studies program, University of Indonesia.