February 03, 2008

Afstan vs East Timor: a comparison

The NDP leader is saying the Afghanistan mission should be more like the UN mission in East Timor. The Torch says much of what needs to be said about that. A couple more things it misses.

I'm sure Layton wasn't actually thinking of the 2005-06 crisis that occurred after the UN pulled out for the second time, apparently prematurely, which has resulted in 1,000 soldiers from New Zealand and Australia being redeployed to the country (for a Timorese population of 900,000, those are roughly equivalent per capita numbers to NATO's in Afghanistan, interestingly enough). No, he was certainly peering back through rose-coloured glasses at the independence movement of the 1990s, and the foreign support for those Timorese freedom fighters.

Only one thing. The UN sort of failed there, too. The UNAMET mission in 1999, set up to oversee a peaceful referendum that everyone expected would result in independence, was driven out of Timor by force by local irredentists after the vote was lost. UNAMET was not a military mission, so no shame in them leaving once the shooting started, but it forced the UN to commission INTERFET (ie, Australia with some help) to go in shooting and stabilize the situation (much like NATO in Afghanistan). Only once the shooting stopped did the UN come back. (Of course, when it left again, the shooting started again, and Australia had to intervene again, which is where we are now, but never mind.)

There's four useful historical lessons from the experience in East Timor, none of which Mr. Layton seems to have grasped. One is that nation-building takes a long time: over eight years so far in East Timor's case, with an armed stabilization force still in country. Two is that the only effective response to an attempt to subvert both the UN's will and a fair election by force is with some force of your own. Three would be that there are some people, like Suharto hatchetman Eurico Guterres, that you simply can't negotiate with. Fourth and finally would be that Mr. Layton's "enormous impact" did very little for the up to 200,000 Timorese who died in the 24 years of Indonesian occupation while the West stayed out of it. If you could ask them, they'd probably have preferred a more forceful response, sooner.

A lot of us in the military and out are old enough to remember the Timor experience. The four lessons we learned, above, the lessons that elude Mr. Layton, have a lot to do with why we're supportive of the Afghanistan mission now.

Posted by BruceR at 02:58 AM