The global war on terrorism has placed Southeast Asia, and Indonesia in particular, on center stage in the international policy agenda of the United States. Secretary of State Colin Powell is the latest in a line of senior U.S. officials to visit Indonesia when he holds talks in Jakarta this Friday. Indonesia has all of the characteristics that would make it a hospitable environment for international terrorism.
It is a sprawling archipelago with porous borders, weak government and law enforcement, economic distress, communal strife and a political climate that inhibits official repression of extremists.
Despite such obstacles, the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri is showing signs of resolve to combat terrorism. It has reportedly arrested and turned over to the United States at least two Al Qaeda members, and in May it detained the leader of the notorious Laskar Jihad radical Islamic militia and charged him with inciting religious violence. But beyond Indonesia's importance to counterterrorist objectives, profound changes are under way in the country that could have an enormous impact on the political evolution of Asia and the Muslim world.
Since the fall of the authoritarian Suharto government in 1998, Indonesia has embarked on a fragile experiment with democracy. If it succeeds in consolidating a pluralistic democracy, it will be the third largest democracy in the world and the largest one in the Muslim world. It will provide a model of the coexistence of democracy and Islam to counter the theocratic ideologies and intolerant and anti-Western Islamic state concepts that emanate from other quarters in the Muslim world.
But if the democratic experiment falters and Indonesia becomes more unstable or fragments, it could become a haven for extremists of all stripes. The role of the military, one of the few institutions that cuts across the many divides of Indonesian society, will be critical. Unfortunately, military relations between the United States and Indonesia have been plagued by tensions over East Timor and human rights issues and by congressionally mandated sanctions.
U.S. funding of military training for Indonesia has been suspended since 1992. The result has been a lost decade in which a generation of officers, many of whom are now reaching senior rank, have no experience with American military values and practices. Critics say that a few months of training in the United States does not change ingrained authoritarian values. This may be true, but living and studying alongside Americans help to develop personal relationships and trust. The value of these relationships is real, as has been demonstrated in the ability of the U.S. military to influence counterparts in political crisis in Thailand and the Philippines.
The adverse effects of the lost decade are now being felt in the struggle over military reform. U.S.-trained senior officers formed the core of the reformist wing of the military that sought to carry out reforms after the downfall of Suharto. During the last year or two, many of these officers have retired and are being replaced by officers with a more conservative outlook. As a result, the military reform movement has begun to lose steam.
Rebuilding this core of U.S.-trained officers is a critical need. Closer military cooperation would give America the means to encourage the Indonesian armed forces to move forward with reform and deal constructively with the challenge of rebuilding civil-military relations on democratic principles, as well as to strengthen capabilities to combat terrorism.
The reported decision of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee to remove some of the restrictions for military assistance to Indonesia in the next fiscal year, if approved by the full Congress, will go a long way toward the resumption of a normal military relationship with Indonesia.
Meanwhile, there is a great deal more that the Bush administration could do. Congress has appropriated funds for regional counterterrorism training. This money is available for Indonesia, but the decision to release it has been tied up in the Defense and State Department bureaucracies. Freeing the funds now would signal support for Indonesia's secular and democratic government and strengthen the hand of those in the Indonesian government who are serious about combating terrorism.
The writer, a senior policy analyst and Indonesia specialist with the Rand Corporation, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on August 2, 2002. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.