Military, not Police

Comments Comments

The ADF has done the best job in East Timor that its rules of engagement made possible - the lesson here is that constabulary duties need policemen, and lots of them.
The current operation in Dili demonstrates that the Australian Defence Force can now deploy into the region with astonishing speed but that Australian troops are not especially good at nor keen on performing policing work.

Even the task force commander Brigadier Mick Slater admitted just that, lamenting that he found it hard to believe no-one was taking his soldiers seriously.

A police presence, he indicated, was sorely missed as street gangs torched houses and staged gang fights, seemingly oblivious to the presence of soldiers whose rules of engagement meant they weren't about to shoot anyone.

"What we need are police who know how to do policing activities so that we can get these people off the streets and lock them up until we can get them before a judge and let the judge take care of it," he said. "We are not about kicking ass. It is about getting criminals off the streets and police do that better than soldiers."

That came as the nature of the troubles shifted from groups of East Timorese police and soldiers shooting at each other with assault weapons to the gangs of street thugs and idle youth shooting at each other with slingshots.

These fleet-footed hooligans demonstrated a quite remarkable ability to set fire to houses virtually under the noses of soldiers then vanish into the alleyways of Dili well ahead of the heavily laden diggers.

It's to the credit of the soldiers that none resorted to applying a good biffing to any of the thugs on apprehension. It must have been tempting as the military detention system evolved only slowly and to all intents and purposes the East Timorese civil justice system was non-existent at all pertinent times.

The frustration was evident from both the East Timorese, whose homes were getting burned down, and from the soldiers. One memorably asked visiting Defence Minister Brendan Nelson just what were the rules of engagement for use of teargas and batons.

There was even a curious enthusiasm from the East Timorese populace for the arrival of 200 Portuguese para-military police, colourfully described by one reporter as mean looking men in black uniforms and carrying black guns.

These guys reached Dili two weeks after the ADF but their reputation long preceded them and there was much anticipation that they would get out and kick hooligan butt in a manner not dissimilar to Parisian riot police. It may not be wholly coincidental that their arrival - but not their actual active deployment since their vehicles came days later - coincided with the near end of Dili's gang problems.

More likely was that the ADF finally achieved critical mass with troops deploying in the most efficient manner to respond speedily to trouble outbreaks. One example was the establishment of a checkpoint at the Comoro bridge, venue for much early trouble.

Those commenting from the sidelines on the seemingly slow pace of the restoration of law and order didn't seem to appreciate that 1,300 troops wasn't many for a city of a quarter million. Back in 1999 the Australian task force peaked at 5,000 with the bad guys withdrawing almost completely in the first fortnight. This time they stayed.

Every operation is different and what happened in Dili in May was essentially a constabulary task and quite different from 1999. Had major anti-government protests turned violent, as could easily have occurred, then maybe the ADF would have been truly challenged. This would certainly be noted in the post operation lessons learned process.

Just why East Timor, regarded by nearly everyone as a success story in nation-building, went to hell so comprehensively in such a short time, is the subject of much deep thought. Ostensibly it all started with the military revolt but the underlying causes had more to do with deep fissures in East Timorese society.

There is resentment and rivalry between those from East Timor's eastern (Lorosae) and western (Loro Monu) districts and between those who stayed in East Timor under Indonesian rule and the diaspora.

Exemplifying the latter is the deeply unpopular prime minister Mari Alkatiri, variously accused of being arrogant, out of touch, high handed as well as of handing out guns to his supporters plus setting up his own death squad to get rid of pesky rivals.

There have been breathless reports of a mass grave containing up to 60 bodies. Maybe it's out there somewhere but there was much cynical commentary in Dili about a complete absence of grieving family members whose loved ones had gone missing.

Alkatiri has so far resisted intense pressure to go. He isn't about to lightly let go of the best job he is ever likely to hold.

All this is for the East Timorese to solve but a consequence is that the United Nations and Australia will have a role in East Timor far longer than anyone ever expected.

The deployment to East Timor was conducted with impressive speed and efficiency thanks to a variety of factors. In the first instance, the force was significantly smaller than last time, there were no major issues in forming a coalition and the expectation was that there would be no need to extend beyond Dili, much simplifying the logistics.

We now have kit that makes all this come together, in particular the landing ships Manoora and Kanimbla which were still being refitted in 1999, necessitating charter of the fast catamaran Jervis Bay.

Maybe more troops and vehicles could have been placed on the ground more quickly in C-17s - assuming Dili's dodgy airstrip is C-17 capable - and that will always be an option for next time.

But the key factor in getting troops into East Timor smartly appears to have been the government's decision to place ships and personnel on standby more than a week earlier. At that time your correspondent thought this was a major over-reaction and what was happening in Dili was unexceptional civil strife which would settle down without any need for intervention. Some UN people in Dili apparently thought the same. Wrong call.

It is to the great credit of those who saw the situation differently and had the ability to press their case to the government.

By A Special Correspondent, Canberra
comments powered by Disqus