- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

JAKARTA, Indonesia — From Manado on the northern tip of this sprawling Indonesian archipelago to Banda Aceh on its western edge, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific and Asia has been out inspecting a front line in the war on terror.

“I wanted to see for myself,” Adm. William J. Fallon said after a long flight from this capital to the far end of the island of Sulawesi next to the Celebes Sea. The islands surrounding that sea have become highways, or what some Americans call “rat lines,” for terrorists moving men and materiel to and from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Adm. Fallon also flew to the island of Sumatra that stretches alongside the vital and vulnerable Strait of Malacca to look at Indonesian defenses.

Strait heavily traveled

More ships pass through that strait and the South China Sea every year than through the Panama and Suez canals combined, making those sea lanes crucial to the economies of East and Southeast Asia and, indirectly, to the rest of the industrialized world.

Piracy has been rampant in those waters for more than five years, although American and Indonesian officials say it has dropped recently. U.S. and Southeast Asian intelligence services have been watching for links between the pirates and politically driven terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah that may seek to close the strait to cause political and economic disruption.

Terrorists struck the island of Bali in 2002, Jakarta in 2003 and 2004, and Bali again last October. Moreover, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. U.S. and Indonesian officials worry that it may have become a source of terrorist recruits.

Came to boost ties

Adm. Fallon began his journey in Jakarta, where he conferred with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and senior defense officials. “I came to solidify our relationship and to see where we go from here,” he said in an interview.

The United States recently restored military-to-military relations with Indonesia, lifting restrictions imposed several years ago to protest human rights violations by Indonesian forces.

In Manado, Adm. Fallon conferred with political, military and police leaders and was piped aboard an Indonesian frigate just before it went back on patrol in the Celebes Sea.

“I was surprised,” he said later, “at how much security they have up here. The police chief told me that if anyone comes ashore in that area, the police will know about it within 24 hours.”

Visit shows U.S. concern

Even so, Adm. Fallon’s presence underscored his concerns about terrorists in this region. The Celebes Sea is remote from the capitals in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila and therefore seems to escape the attention of regional leaders.

The admiral’s subtle message was that they should pay more attention to the threat of terrorists from the Celebes Sea.

In Medan, on Sumatra, naval and police officers asked for training and equipment, telling Adm. Fallon they had only 32 small boats and three larger ones with which to chase pirates. They were adamant, however, that they should do the patrolling themselves.

“Do not send U.S. ships to patrol here,” said an Indonesian officer.

‘Do it yourselves’

Adm. Fallon readily agreed, pointing out that the U.S. Navy has extensive commitments elsewhere and that he seeks only to help the Indonesians acquire the capabilities they need.

“It’s your neighborhood,” he said, “and you should do it yourselves.”

Critical to defending the strait against pirates and terrorists will be the success of a peace agreement between the Indonesian government and separatists in the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, which fought each other for more than a decade. A memorandum of understanding between them was signed last August.

In Banda Aceh, which was devastated by the tsunami of December 2004, Adm. Fallon met with local officials of the Indonesian government, leaders of GAM, and the international mission that is monitoring the peace agreement.

It includes provisions for disarming GAM and reducing the number of Indonesian troops and police in this region.

The admiral encouraged them to continue working together, saying that in today’s complicated world, “little is ever settled by force of arms.”

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