East Timor is a failed state and has reverted to being our responsibility again, report Editor-at-large Paul Kelly and National security editor Patrick Walters
| May 27, 2006
THIS week Australia assumed responsibility for a new state: the poor, unstable and violent nation of East Timor. Our 1300-strong troop intervention has been triggered by the failure of East Timor's political system, a crisis within its armed forces, an internal ethnic rift between east and west regions and the combination of an inept Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, and an immobilised President, Xanana Gusmao, who cannot work together but who have made a joint appeal for Australian help.This is Australia's largest ground force intervention since the 1999 Interfet operation, the international force authorised by the UN Security Council that stabilised East Timor after the independence vote.
It has bipartisan support across John Howard and Kim Beazley and is sure to be supported by the Australian public. This is a mission to restore order, drawing on the growing expertise of the Australian Defence Force in regional intervention. The speed of its arrival was possible only because of the cabinet national security committee's decision on May 11 to pre-deploy.
As Australian Defence Force Chief Angus Houston said yesterday, Australia was neutral between the combatants, impartial and an honest broker. It would use force in a "very measured and restrained" way. An unstated vital hope is that Australian forces impose calm by their presence and are not forced to shoot East Timorese. That would become a threshold event in political terms.
With elements of East Timor's military and police shooting each other, Howard and his senior ministers decided on Thursday afternoon on Houston's advice to authorise full deployment even without the rules of engagement being finalised with Dili's political leaders. The fear was that East Timor might descend into mass killings. So the Prime Minister pressed ahead without the formalities.
Some Australian forces (not 1300) will be in East Timor for a long time, probably until the August election or beyond. This is now conceded by senior ministers. All the signs are that East Timor will need outside military assistance on a sustained basis until after its next election. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has begun a diplomatic campaign to renew the UN mandate and get more UN civilian staff on the ground in Dili to assist its civil infrastructure.
Howard wants to strip away any illusions. "It's a very foolish, shorted-sighted thing to pull them out before their job is completed," the Prime Minister said of Australia's forces. "These tasks always last longer than you expect at the beginning."
Howard's criticism of East Timorese political leaders was utterly undisguised.
"The country has not been well governed," he told Sydney's 2UE radio yesterday. "I do hope that the sobering experience for those in elected positions of having to call in help from outside will induce the appropriate behaviour from inside the country."
This is an optimistic view given East Timor's abject failure since independence.
The Howard Government is privately pessimistic about East Timor's political outlook. Downer described the crisis as "more of an insurrection" and not a civil war. On Thursday Downer, pressed by 3AW's Neil Mitchell whether Australian forces would be involved continually through the years, said: "I hope not. Do I think so? I simply don't know."
By week's end, Downer was leaning towards a longer-run commitment of some forces.
The truth is Australia is hostage to East Timor's unpredictable politics. Howard, in effect, concedes this point. The military intervention, as Howard told parliament, aims to create a secure climate for a "successful dialogue" and political negotiation. Here is Australia's dilemma: its core objective is political yet Australia cannot dictate the politics of East Timor.
This military intervention brings to its zenith Australia's new role as security protector and nation builder within the region.
The hallmarks of this role are that Australia, not the US, takes the lead and chief responsibility; that Australia requires a defence force with the capability to deploy on several fronts simultaneously; that Australia must develop better nation-building skills to assist states such as East Timor and Solomon Islands; that Australia must avoid a sole responsibility and involve other nations, in this case, Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal, in providing forces; and, finally, that an essential condition for success in East Timor is a sound relationship with Indonesia.
A hostile Jakarta could derail this entire endeavour. Downer reports that Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda was "fairly relaxed" when briefed about the situation nearly a fortnight ago. Downer spoke to him on Thursday night and says Wirajuda was comfortable. But watch Jakarta; its position is critical. In this sense, Malaysia's involvement is a big dividend.
Downer spoke to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday and the US will provide heavy lift aircraft. Otherwise the US endorses this intervention as an Australian responsibility.
Its legality rests on the formal request by East Timor. Downer wanted and obtained a written request from East Timor's Prime Minister and President as well as the Speaker of the parliament. The point, however, is that the legitimacy of the intervention rests on such ongoing consent. While likely, this cannot be guaranteed in the future.
Downer and our UN ambassador, Robert Hill, have informed the UN Security Council and Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The Security Council has supported Australia's response to Dili's request. As Howard says, Australia's intervention is based on its national interest, its "special responsibility" as the main regional power and its "particular obligation" to East Timor given Australia's decisive role at its birth as a nation.
The risk is that Australia is stuck. It has returned to East Timor. It cannot leave if that precipitates another crisis. Yet it cannot manipulate East Timor's politics to solve the problem. And Australian ministers believe no solution is likely while Alkatiri stays Prime Minister.
The roots of East Timor's destabilisation - with its own army turning on the police force - lie in the traditional divide between the east and west regions in which Dili is the fault line. The 595 troops sacked earlier this year in an army of 1500 were mainly drawn from disgruntled westerners or Loromonu, part of the country with the easterners or Lorosae firmly in control of East Timor's army, the F-FDTL. The core of the army still consists of Falantil fighters from the east who kept the resistance struggle alive during long Indonesian occupation.
After independence Australia advised East Timor not have both an army and a police force. That advice was rejected. The fledgling Government established a 3000-strong force with 1500 regulars in addition to a separate police force with its own ready reaction force and border police units. The army has been a source of chronic instability. Its role was never clearly defined and it competed with Home Affairs Minister Rogerio Lobato's police force for political preferment and scarce budget resources. With many police having served in the pre-independence Indonesian armed forces, tensions between the two security arms were institutionalised from the creation.
This week's debilitating struggles between elements of the military and police should dictate a fundamental rethink of East Timor's security apparatus. No solution is possible without such a rethink.
"We need to use this crisis to reassess the whole structure of the security forces," the Lowy Institute's Alan Dupont says. "I would see a much smaller defence force with the police essentially disarmed."
The Australian National University's James Fox, an expert on East Timor, says: "In any solution it is essential to take into account the east-west divide.
"It's not ethnic or linguistic but it remains basic to social identity."
The source of Australia's pessimism, however, lies in the hopelessly divided political structure, tensions within the country's ruling elites and divisions within the governing Fretilin party led by Alkatiri.
East Timor remains the poorest nation in Southeast Asia with a per capita income of about $600. It has the world's highest birthrate of 7.1 per cent which means its one million population will double within 18 years.
More than half the population is unemployed, with youth unemployment more than 50 per cent, a factor contributing to the random violence.
Operation Astute has seen the dispatch of seven naval vessels, C130 helicopters and four Blackhawk helicopters to Dili. A total of 1800 defence personnel, including a battalion-plus ground force, are involved in the operation. Superimposed on deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Solomons, this will fully stretch the army's infantry manpower.
Australia has 3600 personnel deployed in overseas operations, but Houston argues that Australia retains a capacity to do more, if required, in East Timor. He says the Australians will pursue a policy of disengagement to separate the warring factions.
"We have gone in there with sufficient combat power to create a stable environment in Dili," he insists. The aim is to see the return to barracks or the cantonment of rebel forces, such as the group led by Australian-trained Alfredo Reinado, and create the conditions for a negotiated peace.
"We want to be the honest broker, somebody that everybody trusts," Houston says. "We will be completely neutral in that endeavour." But, in the event of further trouble, the "very robust" rules of engagement for Australia's intervention - hammered out with Gusmao, Alkatiri and East Timor Defence Minister Taur Mata Ruak late on Thursday night - will see Australians able to respond with force. But Houston says the Australians can deploy lethal force. "If someone has a go at us we will respond," he promises.
The speed with which East Timor fell into civil chaos has surprised veteran East Timor watchers. On Thursday the RAAF VIP plane carrying Vice-Chief of the Defence Force Ken Gillespie and senior defence and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials was turned back in mid-flight by Houston because of concerns at the rapidly deteriorating situation in Dili.
Gillespie's plane later landed in Dili in company with special forces troops ferried in Blackhawk helicopters and C130 aircraft who secured the airport.
The Australian public now faces another huge commitment to East Timor. At the height of the Interfet operation, 5700 Australian defence personnel were stationed in East Timor, and when the last troops departed two years ago more than $2 billion had been spent on military deployments. The saga is repeating itself.