Terrorism and RI’s Military Effectiveness

| Evan A. Laksmana | Jakarta, 7 September 2009 |

Following public debates about how to best tackle terrorism in Indonesia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently stated that it is perfectly normal for the Indonesian Military (TNI) to engage in fighting terrorism – which was not only mandated by law, but also apparently by other countries that are doing the same thing.

Although his last point may seem bizarre to some, pundits argue that as long as proper specific regulations are issued and there is close public scrutiny, the TNI could play a role in combating terrorism. However, these arguments overlook the potential long-term detrimental effect of fighting terrorism – which in our case is historically homegrown despite of its global links – to our military effectiveness.

Military scholar Risa Brooks argues that, in the absence of the ultimate test of battle, a highly effective military should possess high levels of integration, skill, responsiveness, and quality – all of which are determined by specific activities that the military plans and executes, such as strategic assessment, officer promotion, or force development.

In this respect, fighting domestic terror could harm the TNI’s long-term effectiveness by, first, eventually inducing institutional confusion and decreasing the level of integration – the degree of internally-consistent and mutually reinforcing activities within the strategic, doctrinal, operational, and tactical levels.

For the TNI, such confusions might arise when we spend finite resources and investment in refocusing our military for counter-terrorism at a time when the state of our military readiness is decaying rapidly and when regional tensions are high. Furthermore, when our strategic outlook continues to be underpinned by a Total Defense System presuming an inferiority in facing conventional aggression, would counter-terrorism not further conflate strategic guidance with operational practices and entrench what Andi Widjajanto calls a “weak state” strategic culture that hinders our modernization efforts?

Second, a “war against terror”, as a rule of thumb, will usually lack a clearly defined strategic objective – without which, strategic assessment and defense planning will always be elusive. For example, how do we know we have “won” the war? Is it when the entire terror network is dismantled, or is it when radical ideologies are gone?

If however we strategically aim to comprehensively counter terrorism, which would entail inter alia countering radical ideologies, then eventually, the military would have to address the local social, economic, and political grievances that provide the “breeding ground” for such radicalism. One consequence of this operational need is that the military would have to be involved, directly or indirectly, in local developments to ensure “local resilience.”

When such “mission creep” occurs and officers began to exercise functions that are not their primary tasks, then as a result, our military’s ability to respond efficiently and effectively to change regional and global threats, to generate high levels of skill and morale, and to efficiently provide highly capable weapons, would gradually diminish – not to mention the fact that militaries could develop a tendency to be fractured along local fault lines of conflict when locked in local development issues. Eventually, less attention will be given to improving military skill and quality while troop morale would also be low.

Third, reorienting the military’s focus to counter-terrorism could likely exacerbate inter-agency tensions and over-burden the military.

Considering the “uneasy truce” between the police and military, and the fact that the details surrounding their institutional relations have not been fully regulated, can we be sure that reorienting the military to fight terror would not create unnecessary “turf wars”?

Furthermore, when finite resources are eventually diverted away from the police, hindering their overall effectiveness in handling internal security – which oversees not only terrorism, but also other social disturbances and even separatisms – wouldn’t the military then “need” to take over some of those functions? If so, wouldn’t this give the military less time and leeway to improve training, modernize hardware, and further develop skill and quality to respond effectively to regional and global threats – all of which were the stated goals of separating the two entities in 1999?

Finally, fighting terror would, at best, disrupt TNI’s ongoing force development – geared to reach a Minimum Essential Force, and to subsequently develop sufficient capacity to join the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) bandwagon.

When it comes to military hardware, a domestically-oriented military fighting terrorism might eventually prefer to invest in troops or Human Intelligence (HUMINT), rather than high-tech weaponry. This would further halt our military modernization and continue to suffocate our domestic defense industry.

On the “software” side, military modernization and innovation requires highly-educated officers with forward-thinking mindsets and a good international network to widen our defense relations. A domestically-oriented military fighting terror however would instead strengthen conservative views within the high-command and prefer officers with Special Forces or Intelligence credentials – who spent most of their careers domestically.

If the military’s hardware and software are gradually decreasing, then the overall skill, quality, and responsiveness would decline as well.

Thus, if our main strategic challenges today are to face potential foes that are increasingly sophisticated, to safeguard our maritime security, to deter foreign militaries from making incursions, to help disaster relief and management, and increase our global peacekeeping operations, then it is doubtful that we could address them by refocusing our military to tackle domestic terrorism.

The writer is a researcher with the Department of Politics and International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.

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This article was originally published by The Jakarta Post.

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