John Mcbeth, Jakarta – Under consideration for over four years, the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) is finally moving ahead with the formation of an American-style Special Operations Command (KOPASSUS) tasked with mounting operations against terrorist networks at home and abroad.
Mandated under the revised 2018 Anti-Terrorism Law, the move has predictably alarmed civil society activists, who see any perceived military encroachment into the arena of internal security as a retrograde step for the country's still nascent democracy.
The police Detachment 88 counterterrorist unit has so far done a capable job in capturing and decapitating more than 1,600 Islamic militants since it was formed in the wake of the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, which claimed 202 lives, most of them foreign tourists.
Handing the military a new role in fighting terrorism, while long in the making, comes amid rising threats from Islamic State and other regional terror outfits in the world's largest Muslim nation.
Reforms introduced at the birth of the nation's democratic era in 1999 separated the police from the military chain of command and left the 400,000-strong civilian force in sole charge of internal security, though with the army's pervasive territorial structure still intact.
The new 500-strong command brings together company-sized elements of the elite Army special forces (KOPASSUS) Detachment 81, the Air Force special forces (KORPASKHAS) Detachment Bravo 90, along with a unit of Navy SEAL and Marine Corps reconnaissance operators, known as DEPJAKA.
Although the newly revised anti-terrorism law lays out an expanded role for the military, Widodo still must issue a regulation defining what it will do and how it will complement the work of Detachment 88 and the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT).
Retired police general Benny Mamoto, who played a leading role in identifying and tracking down members of the Jemaah Islamiyah terror network, told the Jakarta Post that deploying a joint special task force is necessary to combat non-traditional threats to national security.
Now head of the University of Indonesia's Center for Police Science and Terrorism Studies, Mamoto says it is important, however, for the government to devise a comprehensive standard operating procedure for the military and the police in tackling an issue that goes back to the church bombings of Christmas 2000.
Tjajanto says as much as 80% of the new command's operations will focus on surveillance as part of its deterrence function, but when called upon it will also be tasked to perform special operations across Indonesia and abroad, all under direct presidential authority.
As in many other countries, it has always been widely accepted that KOPASSUS and other specialized military units will take over from Detachment 88 if Indonesia is faced with a hijack or siege situation that is beyond the capability of the police.
The only time Indonesian troops have conducted an anti-terrorist operation abroad was in 1980 when a KOPASSUS strike team flew to Bangkok to free hostages aboard a Garuda jetliner which had been hijacked by Islamist militants on an internal flight.
Three of the five terrorists were killed in the initial pre-dawn takedown, but what has always concerned human rights activists was the fact that the two survivors subsequently died under unexplained circumstances on the flight home to Jakarta.
So-called Operation Woyla hasn't been the military's only overseas mission, however. In May 2011, a combined Indonesian task force launched a long-range operation to free 20 sailors aboard an Indonesian bulk carrier hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia.
Although a US$3 million ransom was paid in the final hours before the troops went into action, something commanders were very unhappy about, seaborne special forces operators killed four pirates attempting to seize back the ship after the original group of hijackers had left with the cash.
The only time troops have been deployed in an anti-terrorist role at home has been against the East Indonesia Mujahadin (MIT), a small Islamic State-affiliated militant group which was effectively crushed in 2016 after holding out for years in the jungles of Central Sulawesi.
The new KOPASSUS will be led by Major-General Rochadi Diperjaya, a 1986 classmate of TNI commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, who appointed him to his previous job as director for internal affairs at the Armed Forces Intelligence Agency (BAIS).
A career KOPASSUS officer, Rochadi joined Detachment 81 in 1989 when the battalion-sized counterterrorism unit was commanded by Luhut Panjaitan, now the maritime coordinating minister and reputedly President Widodo's closest political adviser.
Rochadi has not been a high flier, but Tjahjanto clearly needed loyalists in BAIS after a purge of key officers close to previous TNI chief Gen Gatot Nurmantyo, who was removed three months ahead of retirement in late 2017 for publicly airing his political ambitions.
The KOPASSUS concept appears to be similar to that of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the elite component of America's Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which the US formed in the wake of the ill-fated 1980 attempt to rescue hostages at the US Embassy in Iran.
Although SOCOM has the special operations units of all four services under its umbrella, JSOC is in direct charge of so-called Tier One units, including the army's Delta Force and Task Force Orange, SEAL Team 6, the 75th Ranger reconnaissance company and parts of the Special Operations Air Regiment.
Military analysts point out that SOCOM was created to overcome inter-service rivalries that led to the botched Operation Eagle Claw debacle in the Iranian desert. The Indonesian military, they point out, has the same acute problems which could ultimately doom the new command.
As a newly minted major-general, Rochadi will not have any authority over KOPASSUS and its air force equivalent, both of which are headed by two-star officers who are nominally senior in rank and may be unwilling to assign their best men to the new unified command.
The air force is also regarded as the junior service and anything put in place now could well be undone when Hadi, 55, is replaced next year – or perhaps even earlier – by what is widely expected to be Army chief General Andika Perkasa, 54, the son-in-law of former intelligence guru A M Hendropriyono.
Analysts recall that following the 2008 Mumbai incident, in which Pakistan-based Islamic militants killed at least 165 people in 12 coordinated attacks across the coastal city, security chiefs staged a series of exercises to test Indonesia's preparedness for a similar event.
But that's about as far as it went. Certainly, the police and the military never came up with the sort of action plan that would enable them to operate together in a crisis situation where they would have to deal with multiple threats in a capital also open to the sea.