On Friday (Saturday Morning NZT) in Washington the US Pacific forces commander Admiral Blair gave the attached special media briefing concerning US involvement in 'Operation Stabilise' in East Timor.
In the briefing he addresses in some detail issues relating to US military ties to Indonesia. He also answers questions - albeit hesitantly - on his meeting with Indonesia Defence Minister and Armed Services Chief General Wiranto in April.
Admiral Blair's meeting with General Wiranto was reported by The Nation journalist Allan Nairn and has since caused considerable controversy as Nairn claimed the meeting was evidence of US complicity in the violence and killings in East Timor.
Scoop discussed the affair recently in the news analysis piece ...Scoop Opinion: Fire In The Sky.
The following transcript was supplied to Scoop by the United States Information Service.
Transcript: Special US Defense Briefing on East
(Order restored in Dili, peacekeeping effort underway) (3230)
OFFICE OF THE ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE (PUBLIC AFFAIRS) WASHINGTON, D.C. 20301
DoD News Briefing Admiral Dennis Blair, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command Friday, September 24, 1999 - 12:25 p.m.
DOD SPOKESMAN KENNETH BACON: Good afternoon. I'm sorry we're a little late.
We have two briefings. First, Admiral Dennis Blair who is the Commander in Chief of our Pacific Forces is going to talk about East Timor. He has to leave precisely at 12:45. Then he'll be followed by a Senior Defense Official who will brief on background about the Secretary's upcoming trip to the region. Admiral Blair is here for the CINCs Conference, the Commander in Chiefs' Conference, and he's agreed to spend 20 minutes with us here.
Just let me say that at the CINCs Conference this morning Secretary Cohen gave a surprise citation, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal to General Clark for the good work in OPERATION ALLIED FORCE. We will have a picture and a copy of the citation soon, in the next hour or so.
ADMIRAL BLAIR: Good morning.
The operation in East Timor is going well in my estimate. The Australians are doing a superb job in leading the effort. They moved in very quickly after the UN Resolution. The day before they moved in there was an agreement with the local Indonesian armed forces, the TNI, as to how that turnover would be conducted. Since then the TNI on scene has been carrying out their part of the agreement.
For our part, the U.S. armed forces, the Pacific Command are proud to support our Australian allies and all the other nations that are participating in this endeavor. The most important of them are the Thais, New Zealanders, the Singaporeans the Republic of the Philippines, the Malaysians, and there is a list of others.
What we in the United States armed forces are contributing is what we do uniquely and what is important to the overall operation. There's not a big footprint of U.S. personnel on the ground. The flow so far has been about right from my point of view. We've been sending units and individuals to integrate into the force as the Australians request them.
As of today we have in the mid-200 of folks down there; most of them in Darwin, a handful of them in Dili. I anticipate that more of them will be moving into northern Australia and into East Timor with the follow-on multinational forces as the mission expands.
We'll provide these additional forces as we receive, understand, work the multinational force requirements as given to us by the lead country, Australia, and of course we'll be announcing those forces as the decisions are made and as the forces are deployed.
As far as the success of INTERFET itself, it has restored a measure of order in Dili, although the job is not yet complete. Its job of establishing a secure environment takes time and it's working on it. The trend is positive. And it's moving quickly into the next important step, which is providing humanitarian assistance to the many refugees and displaced persons in the East Timor area. In that regard we have sent a team of experts who are experienced in working with non-governmental relief organizations to set up what's called a Civil/Military Operations Center, a CMOC, in Darwin. This will build that close working relationship between the INTERFET force and the relief organizations. The lead elements of that arrived today and they'll be setting up within the next day or two.
So from my point of view this has been a solid operation and unique. We are not leading the effort. We are supporting it in the ways that we can do and cooperating with others as they each make their own unique contributions. I think this is exactly the right thing to do when you have an ally like Australia that's close to the situation, that has a strong interest in seeing it solved, has the people and the planning ability to take the lead, for the other nations in the region and those of us from outside the region who have an interest like the United States, to do the kind of mission that's involved there in East Timor.
That's a quick look from my point of view and I'd be glad to answer questions about it.
Q: Is the Civil/Military Operations Center, are the Americans going to move into East Timor, or is this to teach the Aussies and the others how to deal with civilian organizations?
BLAIR: No. This will be a part of INTERFET. It will be set up by American forces because the Australians asked us to do it and we have the people who have the experience and training to do it. It starts out in Darwin because that's where the relief organizations are organizing their headquarters. That's where most of the humanitarian supplies are right now. Whether it moves forward into Dili or stays in Darwin will be General Cosgrove's decision.
Q: How many people will that be?
BLAIR: There are about 20 Americans there. And usually the way it's set up is each of the main relief organizations will have a workstation in that same center. Maybe they have one person there, maybe they have two. It's this center that compiles common databases, hosts the meeting, calls the plays -- World Food Program, you'll do this; INTERFET, you'll do that. We've found over the years that this sort of a center really helps us to get the military and the civilian effort going along well.
Q: You talked about the possibility of additional U.S. forces going. What type of forces are you talking about and do you have any estimates of how many might go and when?
BLAIR: I don't have an estimate of how many and when, but the types of forces are the ones that you've heard announced by the President and others. It's planning support, which we've had in there for a long time and is continuing. It's communications expertise to both planners and I anticipate that we'll be providing some of the gear. It's lift, strategic lift. We have airplanes; we have C-130s that are part of the air bridge right now as well as strategic lift, which are bringing forces like our own CMOC into place. It's other logistics planning support. And of course we have a maritime, we have a couple of ships down there as well. So it's this sort of support that we anticipate providing. That's what we can do that others can't do as well, and that's what really adds to the team effort.
Q: Do you anticipate that we're going to have to deploy some force protection troops if the U.S. footprint grows enough on the ground in East Timor?
BLAIR: We'll have to see. Right now the Australians have the responsibility for that headquarters and their units. They've got the force protection responsibility, and we just have to evaluate as we go along. I anticipate that the Australians will certainly keep the lead for force protection, and I anticipate that our forces will be within that umbrella.
Q: Admiral, partly on force protection and partly on the question of combatants even though nobody's talking about combatants here. Do you have any plans to move the 31st MEU closer to East Timor after OPERATION CROCODILE or even before? Or any other combatant troops into the area?
BLAIR: I'm not going to talk about moving forces in the future. We'll be responding to the requests as they come up.
Q: Could you tell us what benefit you think the U.S. military got out of the military-to-military contacts in reference to this crisis? What were you able to do with Indonesia that you wouldn't have been able to do otherwise? Admiral Blair: Well, we were able to talk to people in a common language and use terms that we all understood based on our contact in the past, so I think it was useful.
That gets into this whole question, which has been a lively one lately, which is U.S. military engagement with various countries. I think what you have to understand about TNI is that there's a long history here coming from the Suharto years to the departure of President Suharto here a couple of years ago.
The TNI operated at the time of the President's departure in a very good fashion, saying that it was supporting the constitution not an individual. Then there was an election in which the TNI as it was then called provided the security for what was seen as, what was in fact judged as a very free and fair election throughout the country. The TNI separated itself from the police, which is an essential step in the professionalization of an armed forces.
Then in East Timor in particular the record was much more mixed, and frankly, there were some pretty bad chapters of it. In the lead-up to the referendum order was barely maintained, and then after the referendum there was a bad breakdown of order with some elements of TNI contributing to it and not helping it.
Accountability for the TNI, there have been unprecedented investigations into things that have happened in the past, although some of them are not, have not been as thorough and as far-reaching as many think.
So when you look across the spectrum of what TNI has done it's a mixed picture. Our involvement with it has been also mixed. There were officers coming to train, coming to be educated in the United States before 1992, and it's many of those officers who did have training and education in the United States who are leading a very strong reform movement within TNI.
It was interesting, I was talking with an Indonesian general the other day, about two or three weeks ago there was a meeting of all Indonesian military flag and general officers and they handed out a questionnaire: "Do you think that TNI needs a, no change; b, some change; c, radical change?" Ten percent thought it needed no change; 65 percent thought it needed major change; and 15 percent thought it needed radical change.
So there is a feeling in the Indonesian armed forces that they need to form a new, more professional outfit. Our engagement is designed to encourage those tendencies within TNI and while not encouraging and in fact punishing those who are acting badly.
Right now we have the contacts suspended, as you know, and it's really up to the Indonesian armed forces, in fact the leadership of Indonesia, to get back on the right track so that we can continue a good relationship.
So that's the sort of mixed picture that we're working. It's really not a black or white one. It's one you have to work. But I don't see how we can work it, from our point of view, unless we have tools and unless we keep in contact over the long term.
Q: What about your involvement with General Wiranto? You went to meet with him on several occasions. You've called him on the phone. There's a story that's been written for The Nation that says that those contacts publicly were described as being very forceful and urging the TNI and others to restrain the violence in East Timor. But the piece for The Nation says that in private the message was much softer.
Q: What actually happened, sir?
BLAIR: My interactions with the Indonesian armed forces across the board and in fact with the other Indonesian leadership has been very consistent. On the one hand, if the Indonesian armed forces continue on a professional path, the good things that they've done are continued and reinforced and we can have a productive military-to-military relationship in which we can work with the Indonesians towards the sort of armed forces that I think 75 percent of the general officers that I talked about want, and it can be part of a productive overall U.S./Indonesian relationship -- economic, cultural and military. If they act badly as certain elements within the TNI have certainly done, and if that is sustained and if that's the way the TNI is going to conduct itself, then we won't, we can't, and it will not only be the military-to-military relationship but it will be the entire relationship between our two countries, and Indonesia will end up in an isolated international position which is not good for Indonesia.
That's been the message that I've carried publicly, privately. I'm not going to characterize what was said between two people in a room, but that's been the story that I've carried and that's really our overall policy of which we're...
Q: Can I follow up? Could you at least tell us whether his response was, General Wiranto, was one of denial? Did he say they lost control...
BLAIR: I'm not going to characterize a private conversation.
Q: Are you confident that the peacekeeping force has a clear strategy for what it hopes to achieve in East Timor, and an exit strategy?
BLAIR: I think it has a clear strategy for what it needs to achieve, and I'd say the exit strategy, as in most of these operations, is completing the military tasks which primarily revolve around resolving the initial situation, establishing a secure environment, and then having a UN operation, UNAMET Phase 3, Phase 2, the numbers are changing around, take over the really important nation-building tasks when the MPR gives the formal sanction to the results. So I think it's got to be that sort of a transition that we've seen in other places in which civil order has really fallen apart.
Q: ...Prime Minister is saying that this could go on for years. That our commitment to East Timor could. They haven't actually put a timeframe on it. Admiral Blair: That's outside my area to comment on, but I think civil order can be, I think a secure environment and order can be restored much quicker that years and will have to be in fact.
Q: ...what you think the level of involvement of the Indonesian military was in the violence? Whether it was something that came from the top down, whether it was rogue units? How exactly was the military involved?
BLAIR: I think the evidence on the ground was clearly that Indonesian units who were in East Timor were both aiding the militias and taking part in bad actions themselves. I think that's what we have to deal with. We expect military forces to be under the control of military leadership. So the TNI has to deal with the behavior of their troops in East Dili. I'm not going to go into theories about whether it's, who it is or what it is.
Q: Can you say whether you believe that they were out of the control of the leadership?
BLAIR: I'm not going to say.
Q: A follow-up on that. There was confrontation I think two days ago between Australian troops and the TNI people in, I believe it was in Dili. These people that are in Dili, the TNI people, are they under the control of the element that you would call not well disposed? Or can you say?
And secondly, can you say what about, what does all this have to do, bear on the stability of the government generally speaking?
BLAIR: You really don't want to get, look at one individual action in East Timor. I'd say over the period of the week or so that that force has been deployed it seems to me that the INTERFET forces have been establishing a logical, secure area and expanding it. And that the TNI by and large has been cooperating as their leader, General Syahnakri said. So individual actions I don't think have upset that.
As far as East Timor's affect on the overall stability of Indonesia, I think that it is a factor but not a determinative one. East Timor is not Indonesia. As you know, there are lots of problems that that country has to address throughout its 212 million people and 17,000 islands and East Timor is one piece but not the whole piece.
Q: Admiral, following up on that, are you worried that, some pundits here in the States have been saying that Indonesia could fragment like Yugoslavia. Long range are you worried about that?
BLAIR: The nationalist tradition in Indonesia is pretty strong. They think of themselves as a people. That's the policy of our government, is that that is one country. So I think that's how it's going to continue.
Q: Admiral Blair, since the United States does have special responsibilities for intelligence, can you give us an idea of how long you think it will be before the militias themselves are under control? That seems to be the source of most of the violence right now.
BLAIR: That's right. I think it will be within weeks.
Q: Within weeks?
PRESS: Thank you very much.