Subject: SMH: How Cosgrove led his warriors for peace

Sydney Morning Herald January 31, 2000

How Cosgrove led his warriors for peace


By the time Major-General Peter Cosgrove finally got the green light to lead an international force into East Timor, he faced the possibility of a divided country with militia leaders, covertly backed by sections of the Indonesian military, trying to hold the west of the country. A guerilla war resulting in Australian casualties could not be ruled out.

A Defence Intelligence Organisation analysis on September 16, four days before Interfet landed, reported that a senior officer of the Indonesian military (TNI), Major General Syafrie Syamsuddin, had visited the West Timor town of Kupang for discussions with militia leaders, "leading them to believe TNI support to the militia movement will continue into the period of any UN administration".

Looking back on his first weeks in East Timor, General Cosgrove said he was determined that a division of the country would be immediately ruled out. "It was not something the UN mandate sanctioned," he said, "and accordingly, I was not going to permit it to occur."

But he agreed a threat was there: "I think it would [have been] serious enough had we been blase about it. I think we'd have probably had to end up ejecting militia who, by occupation and usage, had presumed to establish a certain quasi-ownership."

As General Cosgrove prepares to leave East Timor, the military threat to the country has been isolated to pockets of resistance in the western region of Oecussi. Widespread praise for his leadership of the Interfet forces is voiced from Canberra to the UN.

There is little doubt that the performance of the Australian Defence Forces and its 6,000 or so personnel in East Timor turned around massive public criticism over the Howard Government's Timor policy in the first weeks of September.

The success of the Interfet mission relied on long-term contingency planning by Australian and US forces. But those plans could not be put into action until the UN, and in particular the US, exerted sufficient pressure on Indonesia to agree to the international force.

As the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Downer, reiterated: "We made it clear throughout those two weeks [in September] Australia wasn't going to war with Indonesia."

While the US State Department was sympathetic to Interfet, Mr Downer said, the Pentagon was "pretty unenthusiastic" about getting involved because of the Kosovo crisis.

According to Mr Jose Ramos Horta, deputy leader of the National Council of Timorese Resistance, pressure from America's NATO allies, especially Portugal, and from the Congress, played a vital role winning President Clinton's support for Interfet.

In Australia, the US was publicly criticised for not putting "boots on the ground" in East Timor, but America's role in its success was, in reality, critical.

Although the Pentagon may have been unenthusiastic, Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii had been working on contingency plans with Australia for months.

In his bunker at Darwin's RAAF base, US Brigadier General John Castellaw told the Herald that US involvement in the Timor crisis began early in 1999, long before Interfet went in: "We had been involved in contingency planning with the Australians for some time prior to the event."

The US general attached to Interfet arrived in Darwin well before September 20 and flew into East Timor "on D-Day" with General Cosgrove. "I would say we've been here since the beginning, and we're still here," he said.

While US ground forces were limited, the aim was to provide "a force multiplier", the general explained. This included logistical support for the heavy lifting of troops and equipment and bolstering intelligence collection.

As he put it: "We have intelligence capabilities, technical elements, that are unique and that add an element that is hard to obtain."

EP3 intelligence aircraft gathered collected signals off the Timor coast while US warships with intelligence capability and military back-up anchored offshore.

Two weeks after Interfet arrived, the US moved one of its most powerful warships into Dili Harbour. The 40,000-tonne assault vessel Belleau Wood served the practical purpose of providing heavy lift helicopters for Interfet troops, but it was also, according to General Castellaw, a demonstration of American resolve in the crisis. "We meant for it to send a signal."

The Belleau Wood arrived just four days after the US Defence Secretary, Mr William Cohen, met General Wiranto, then still defence minister and military commander, in Jakarta.

Mr Cohen put immense pressure on General Wiranto and the TNI, warning that international economic aid and any resumption of military aid would depend on Jakarta reining in the militia.

On the ground in Timor, General Cosgrove engaged the TNI commander, Major General Kiki Syanakhri, to prevent contact between the TNI and the militia.

For General Cosgrove, the crisis turned around by late November with East Timor militarily secured. This co-incided with a change of government in Jakarta, but General Castellaw believes it was General Cosgrove's military strategy that was the determining factor.

Capitalising on the TNI's backdown and the disorganisation of the militias, General Cosgrove pushed forward the timetable to secure the western provinces and the border, taking the militias by surprise.

"That was the key decision that led to the rapid and successful accomplishment of Interfet's mission," General Castellaw told the Herald. "My hat is off to General Cosgrove for seeing that and moving up his timetable to take advantage of the situation."

General Cosgrove won't comment on the now highly political question of TNI complicity in the atrocities in East Timor.

Instead, he says he was "disappointed that the TNI did not prevent the sort of civil disorder and the murder and arson of the kind that occurred".

On the impact of the atrocities on Australian troops, he says they feel "a sense of indignation and outrage", but "in the end we were able to help".

Back to January Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter V3.5.8, is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from