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US Moves Cautiously Toward Military Cooperation with Indonesia - 2002-03-23

The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Dennis Blair, says military cooperation between Indonesia and the United States depends a lot on the pace of internal reforms in the Indonesian army. Admiral Blair spoke in New York Friday to the Council on Foreign Relations, a private foreign policy group.

The United States, in its quest to strengthen the Asian part of its alliance against terrorism, is moving cautiously toward Indonesia. Indonesia is considered by some U.S. officials and experts as potentially critical in the war on terrorism. It has the largest Muslim population in the world. And U.S. intelligence officials have suggested possible links between Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida organization and terrorist cells already operating in the country.

However, Admiral Blair said U.S. cooperation with Indonesia, for now, will focus primarily on intelligence and police support. He said Washington does not think the Indonesian army is ready for stronger ties. "We're not going to have a full military relationship with Indonesia that includes exercises and free exchange the way we do with other countries until the reforms that are on-going in the Indonesian armed forces are more mature," he said. "There has to be a better code of conduct by their troops so they act more professionally as to accountability, when they do the wrong thing."

The Indonesian army's international image worsened in the late 1990's after reported atrocities in now independent East Timor.

At the same time, the United States is hoping to strengthen even more its security relationship with the Philippines, which has accelerated since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th. Admiral Blair said terrorists looking for a base of operations can find fertile ground in the Philippines among several extremist Islamic groups that emerged from a decades-long Muslim insurgency in the south. "There's another group, partly spun off from one of those groups, but was also sponsored by an Islamic charity organization run by a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden, which is called the Abu Sayyaf group historical ties with al-Qaida, some current ties," he said. "It's generally a criminal organization, as well as a terrorist organization. It's just the kind of place where if you're a terrorist from outside of Asia looking for a group to work with, that's a good group to work with."

Admiral Blair believes extremism in Southeast Asia is still far less deadly than the violence perpetrated by Middle Eastern groups. But he sees no room for complacency, as terrorists from a variety of countries increasingly link up in camps run by al-Qaida and return home trained to carry out even more horrifying plans on a grander scale.