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Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/November 2019/Op-ed

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East Timor

By Hawkeye7
Australian members of International Forces East Timor (INTERFET), talk to a citizen in Dili in February 2000.

On 17 September, I attended a symposium on the Australian-led intervention in East Timor, which occurred twenty years ago.

A little background history. Portugal established a settlement on Timor in 1561, and in East Timor in 1633. The island was formally divided between the Netherlands and Portugal in 1637, and the first Portuguese governor of East Timor was appointed in 1702. For most of the next three centuries, the island was a Portuguese colony. There were revolts in the 17th and 18th centuries, and a major one in 1911. During the Second World War, East Timor was occupied by Australian and Dutch forces, and then invaded by the Japanese on 19 February 1942. Australian commandos and Dutch troops on the island waged a guerrilla campaign until they withdrew in January 1943. This created a mythical sense of fellowship between Australia and East Timor.

After the April 1974 Carnation Revolution, Portugal initiated a gradual decolonisation process. East Timor descended into civil war between supporters of the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) and Fretilin, and the Portuguese authorities withdrew from the capital of Dili to Atauro Island. In October 1974, Indonesia began military operations to incorporate East Timor. The Indonesian annexation of East Timor was recognised by Australia, but not by Portugal or the UN, and the 1991 Dili massacre drew international attention to a continuing struggle for independence in East Timor. For many years, East Timor's struggle for independence was a cause célèbre among the Left in Australia.

The 1997 Asian financial crisis led to the fall of Suharto and his replacement by B. J. Habibie, who saw East Timor as a burden. This led to UN-brokered agreement between Indonesia and Portugal on 5 May 1999, and a referendum was held on 30 August 1999 that offered a choice between autonomy within Indonesia and full independence. The people overwhelmingly voted for full independence. A violent "scorched-earth" policy was then carried out by pro-Indonesia militia supported by elements of the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI), and an Australian-led and Indonesian-sanctioned peacekeeping force, INTERFET, was sent to restore order.

Since events are so recent, nearly all of the key participants are still living. Speakers at the symposium included the Prime Minister of Australia at the time, John Howard, the commander of INTERFET, General Sir Peter Cosgrove, and the Australian representative at the UN at the time, Penelope Wensley. Speakers had to give their presentations with Howard and Cosgrove sitting a few feet away in the front row of the small lecture theatre on Russell Hill, which was not always comfortable for them. They weren't afraid to challenge the speakers either. There were interesting perspectives from David Kilcullen, who fought in East Timor, and Craig Stockings, who is working on the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor. There was a lot of emphasis on lessons learned.

The operation was carried out in the shadow of the American intervention in Somalia and the Bosnian War. The former led to US reluctance to commit ground forces to another intervention in one of the world's poorest countries. This gave the operation the unusual aspect that is most interesting to historians: Australian diplomats managed to cobble together a coalition, but one that involved Australia taking the lead role instead of the US, which limited its forces on the ground to 250 personnel (sailors and marines in ships offshore did not count). Key nations of the coalition were Australia, New Zealand, the UK, France, the US and Japan. Japan was critical, as it had all the money; the others had votes on the UN Security Council. The Canadians were miffed at not being included. Later, the Canadian high command was taken completely by surprise by their prime minister's decision to join the coalition. Eventually 23 nations signed up.

This placed Australia in a wholly unfamiliar situation, for which it lacked doctrine and experience. (The US was also in doctrinally unfamiliar territory.) Put simply, a lead nation is the underwriter of a military coalition, providing all the capabilities that the others do not. Invariably, these are in combat support and combat service support areas. Most countries have little or no capability to conduct operations outside their own borders, and contingents from less developed countries are apt to arrive with little more than small arms and the shirts on their backs. The diplomats did draw up a declaration that each country's contribution to INTERFET was to be self-supporting, but this had little effect. The New Zealanders, the first to arrive, had expected that the Australians would assist them with their logistics. They found that, on the contrary, the Australians were looking for help. The assistance they gave was crucial.

The first INTERFET troops to arrive in East Timor were the INTERFET Response Force, consisting of members of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment, New Zealand Special Air Service and the British Special Boat Service, who arrived, not looking like Rambo, but in summer dress uniform, wearing their berets and aiguillettes so as not to alarm or offend the TNI garrison. After a period of urban warfare in Dili, Cosgrove had his forces rapidly occupy the country. This was extremely risky, but it worked; the pro-Indonesian militias were caught completely off-balance. Kilcullen recounted his experience in the "battle of the border", an exchange of gunfire between Australian and Indonesian troops. It was resolved by the two colonels consulting their maps to see who was on the wrong side of the border. By chance, the Australians were commanded by the only battalion commander in the Army who spoke fluent Indonesian.

In the end, the whole operation was very successful, but it was a near-run thing. The run-down logistics capability of the Australian Defence Force was stretched to breaking point, and for a time both Australia and Indonesia teetered on the precipice of national disaster. Stocking's upcoming official history is therefore eagerly anticipated.


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Great op-ed about a relatively unknown event in recent history. Did the logistics problems encountered by the ADF lead to changes post operation? -Indy beetle (talk) 00:28, 12 November 2019 (UTC)