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Analysis: The Aceh Offensive - 2003-05-20

The new Indonesian military offensive into the restive province of Aceh is the latest chapter in a prolonged conflict between the central government in Jakarta and independence-minded insurgents. The government is gambling that it can quickly crush the rebels with a massive injection of force.

On the surface, at least, it appears as if the Indonesian government has looked to the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq for strategic inspiration in Aceh. Hoping that a massive strike will end the insurgency once and for all, the government has deployed thousands of troops to Aceh. President Megawati Sukarnoputri has imposed martial law, giving the military sweeping powers in Aceh to root out the rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM.

As Ed McWilliams, former political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, says, it marks a major change from previous campaigns in Aceh, when the Indonesian military used a relatively small number of troops. "This one is strikingly different. Something in the range of 50,000 troops are being deployed, or have been deployed," he says. "We're seeing the use of air-to-ground aircraft, the OV-10 Bronco which, by the way, is a U.S. provided aircraft and apparently even naval ships drawing up off the coast of Lhoksaumawe to use their naval guns against GAM positions. So this is going to be a very large offensive possibly the largest offensive since the Indonesian invasion of East Timor back in 1975."

GAM has been fighting for full independence for Aceh for nearly 26 years. The strength of the GAM rebel force cannot be determined with great accuracy, but estimates are that they have between two to five-thousand fighters. The long conflict has already cost some 10,000 civilian casualties and sparked human rights abuses by both sides.

Having lost East Timor in a referendum, the Indonesian government remains determined not to let Aceh slip from the fold as well. But GAM has just as adamantly refused to renounce its dream of independence. A cease-fire reached in December collapsed, and last-minute efforts to salvage it failed.

Catharin Dalpino, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says President Megawati had a clear advantage when it came to the dealing with GAM. "It's an interesting situation because she could have won either way. She could have won if peace accords had succeeded. And yet, I do not think she will be harshly criticized if she can wage an effective campaign in Aceh," says Ms. Dalpino. "That will bring this issue to a close in the short term. So really in many ways the government always had the upper hand in this negotiation."

But Mr. McWilliams disagrees. She may have the advantage now, he says. But, just as President Bush worried what might happen in Iraq, Ms. Megawati must fear a protracted conflict with high casualties. The TNI as the Indonesian armed forces are often known must win, he says -- and win quickly. "The point is, she's going to have to win, the TNI is going to have to win in Aceh, and in relatively short order," says Mr. McWilliams. "If, on the other hand, we see significant civilian casualties, thousands of people displaced which I think is quite likely and an unending conflict which extends on for months and months, then I think this will not be obviously a win for Megawati, nor for the military."

There is concern among Indonesia watchers that with world attention focused on other, more pressing issues - like Iraq and international terrorism - Aceh will be another forgotten war. But the United States, Japan, and European Union were very active in brokering the now-failed cease-fire, and hopes are that the diplomatic efforts to end the conflict will continue, even if the media spotlight is focused elsewhere.