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When Australia should send its troops to foreign lands

An Australian soldier with young East Timorese boy. Photo by Department of Defence.
18 September 2014
An Australian soldier with young East Timorese boy. Photo by Department of Defence.

Fifteen years on, the Australian-led intervention into East Timor shows that its overseas military action is at its best closer to shore. It also offers some sobering lessons before embarking on another Iraq ‘adventure’, writes JOHN BLAXLAND. 

Here we go again.

It seems as though a crisis, of its own making, in a far-away land will possibly see Australian soldiers’ boots hit the sand, and the real possibility their blood may soak it.

But while the Abbott government weighs up the relative merits of answering Obama’s call and jumping into Iraq for a second time in a decade, it would be well-placed to remember the lessons from a far more successful expedition 15 years ago.

Commitments since then in the Middle East have eclipsed the Timor intervention in the public consciousness. There Australia has made niche, calibrated contributions to coalition campaigns, with casualty aversion paramount. But being far from Australia’s shores this involvement has never commanded full attention. It should not come as a surprise therefore that Australia has had little real sway in the turn of events there.

East Timor was different. The UN-mandated International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) which deployed to Dili on 20 September 1999 was a remarkable success largely because it was close by and the outcome mattered directly to Australians. Australia therefore made the effort. Having patiently built regional capacity – with investments in relationships that could be called on when in need. The contrast suggests Australia should be wary of entanglements remote from its neighbourhood.

Importantly, understanding what happened there and the implications of that intervention is crucial for Australia as it prepares another Defence white paper. This is more urgent as Australia seeks to foster greater understanding of and closer ties with regional partners, especially Indonesia and Timor-Leste, in this ‘Asian century’.

Hindsight has an interesting effect on perceptions. Today, East Timor is accepted as a natural part of the regional order. Yet 16 years ago, no one seriously thought that Australia would lead an intervention force there or that Indonesia would willingly cede control over East Timor, after decades of hard-fought campaigns to control the territory.

The speed of developments which led to independence demonstrates just how quickly strategic circumstances in Australia’s near neighbourhood can change. While no one today is envisaging a repeat scenario, the crisis and intervention illustrated why the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has a responsibility to maintain forces at high levels of readiness for unexpected contingencies in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

The experience also exposed the limits of the ADF’s capabilities. After years of efficiency reviews, defence reform programs, commercialisation initiatives and budget cuts, the ADF was in a surprisingly precarious position on the eve of the intervention. Force commander for INTERFET, Major General Peter Cosgrove, declared afterwards that ‘we were good and we were lucky’.

When Australia struggled to find a partner from ASEAN for the intervention, Thailand volunteered, sending a battalion group and offering up the deputy force commander. The confidence in Australian leadership that led to that decision reflected decades of relationship building that laid the foundation for success in East Timor.

Today there are many distractions far away from Southeast Asia. It is difficult to see an equivalent partner country in the Middle East – a part of the world few Australians, apart from some recent migrant groups, have any real understanding about.

Cosgrove’s masterfully restrained use of force in East Timor also helped ensure that what could have turned into a disastrous and bloody confrontation was handled with finesse, tact and remarkable restraint, yet with steely resolve. It was a moment Australians can truly be proud of.

Surprisingly enough, no official history of the intervention in East Timor has yet been commissioned.  Conscious of the fading memories and of the need to harness the corporate reflections of key participants, a conference is being organised on the weekend of 20-21 September to coincide with the fateful intervention.  With a new Defence white paper expected to be published in 2015, reflection on the significance of the INTERFET experience is all the more pressing.  

The force commander, now Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, will be a keynote speaker. He will be joined by independence leader and now Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, His Excellency Xanana Gusmao, and a range of other international participants.

The 15th anniversary is an appropriate point to pause and record what happened, while reflecting on the ramifications.

But one thing is certain. When it comes to troops on the ground, our region is the place we should be looking to.

Dr John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. Together with Military History and Heritage Victoria, SDSC is hosting ‘INTERFET: Reflections on the 1999 East Timor crisis’  which will be held in the Pavilion Room at the RACV Club in Melbourne on Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 September 2014.

For more details see http://bit.ly/INTERFETconference


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