Thinking Beyond Kopassus: Why US Security Assistance to Indonesia Needs Recalibrating

Foreign security assistance, in particular the International Military Education and Training (IMET), Foreign Military Sales, and other programs under the auspices of the US Pacific Command’s Theater Security Cooperation, is a keystone in America’s engagement strategy with Asia. Primarily administered by the US Departments of State and Defense, these assistance programs have funneled several billions of dollars worth of equipment, education, and training, along with other forms of “local capacity building” to partner militaries across the region.

Indeed, given the growing strains on the American economy as well as US commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for burden sharing among American allies and partners in Asia is becoming more critical. As such, the United States is increasing its reliance on foreign security assistance to help regional partners tackle their own security challenges. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argues in the May/June 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, “the effectiveness and credibility of the United States will only be as good as the effectiveness, credibility, and sustainability of its local partners.”

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Re-engagement with Kopassus

The recent announcement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the US will begin “a gradual, limited program of security cooperation activities” with the Indonesian Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) sparked an immediate controversy.

While the ban restricting the Kopassus from training on US soil or receive funding for lethal combat training is still likely to be in place for a while, the symbolic statement of opening formal lines of communications — beginning with “staff level discussions”— speaks louder than the actual deed.

Human rights groups from within the country and abroad were furious with this development. In their view, the Kopassus had done little to fully account for its past abuses and torture across Indonesia in the last few decades. Such impunity, they believe, means that military reform is still superficial.

On the other hand, government officials and Western pundits seem to believe that the move was a great gesture in not only beginning full, normal military-to-military relations between Washington and Jakarta, but also in deepening the two country’s strategic partnership — especially given Indonesia’s incredible democratic progress.

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