After nearly 20 years out in the cold, the once-notorious Indonesian Special Forces, or Kopassus, is about to resume combat training with its American counterparts, leveraging a need for better medics to break the ice left by a long-held US military embargo.

Only after that non-lethal exchange next year will the two elite units resume war-fighting exercises that until now have been forbidden under the so-called Leahy Amendment, a measure forbidding US military assistance to foreign security force units which violate human rights with impunity.

Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy, a six-term congressman who has almost single-handedly dictated US policy towards Indonesia since the sanction was first imposed, introduced the punitive amendment with a particular eye on Kopassus as part of the 1998 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act.

It will be the final step in the normalization of a relationship which now involves more than 200 exercises and other military-to-military engagements a year, underlining the strategic importance Washington attaches to Southeast Asia’s largest nation as its rivalry with China enters a new heated stage.

US officials say they are looking at aid projects in the Natuna islands, the small archipelago in the southern reaches of the South China Sea where China claims the right to traditional fishing grounds in waters inside Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Washington recently announced it was supplying Indonesia with eight Boeing Scan Eagle unarmed drones, equipped with electro-optic, infra-red and high resolution cameras, to improve its surveillance over the newly re-named North Natuna Sea.

Kopassus troops prepare for the opening ceremony of a joint anti-terror drill in Kelapa Dua, Depok-West Java. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

Kopassus commander Major General Nyoman Cantiasa says he wants his non-commissioned officers to achieve a level of competence to which they can keep a grievously wounded special forces operator alive for three days in the field if necessary before evacuation.

The Bali-born Cantiasa, 51, whose early experience in Kopassus was with the elite Detachment 81 counterterrorism unit, was previously regional commander in Papua, the only province in the country with an active, albeit low-level, insurgency.

The US embargo on military exchanges was imposed after Indonesian soldiers killed scores of Timorese protestors in a Dili churchyard in 1991 – though training with the Okinawa-based US 1st Special Forces Group continued under the radar until East Timor’s bloody referendum eight years later.

Military relations were finally restored under George W Bush’s Republican administration in 2005, but Kopassus remained an exception because of its egregious human rights record in East Timor and the other rebellious provinces of Aceh and Papua.

It took a reluctant Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) until 2010 to weed out the last of 18 Kopassus officers accused by the United Nations and the US of rights violations, a condition for Indonesia’s highly trained red berets to win back American acceptance.

Indonesia's Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and visiting U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis are seen during a welcome ceremony in Jakarta, Indonesia January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside
Indonesia’s Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and then US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis at a welcome ceremony in Jakarta, January 23, 2018. Photo: Government Handout

More importantly, even some of its harshest critics acknowledge that the 5,000-strong regiment’s record has improved significantly since it introduced internal reforms and began taking human rights courses with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The only recent blemish came in March 2013 when a squad of rogue special forces soldiers raided a prison on the outskirts of Jogyakarta and summarily executed four detainees who had stabbed to death an off-duty colleague in a nightclub altercation.

Then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono acted swiftly to quash efforts by the army to use “spontaneous revenge” and comradeship for what he called an act of “street justice.” Nine of the soldiers were later sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 months to 11 years.

Although the Indonesia-US special forces relationship was normalized in 2010, the training since then has only focused on education and high-altitude parachute insertion, with senator Leahy and the State Department ensuring that joint combat exercises stayed off the agenda.

Ironically, when then US president Barack Obama visited Indonesia for the 2011 East Asia Summit, Kopassus and army regulars occupied the two inner rings of the security cordon at Bali airport, leaving the police, who are normally in charge of internal security, on the perimeter.

It wasn’t until early 2018 that then US defense secretary James Mattis promised to re-examine the issue during a visit to Jakarta, where he was treated to a bizarre display of Kopassus soldiers drinking the blood of snakes they had killed.

Indonesian Kopassus forces in a snake ritual performed for then US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, January 2018. Photo: Twitter

Now, following acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s recent visit, the door appears to be open to a resumption of full ties, though Kopassus and its training partners have wisely chosen to test the waters first by seeking to improve the unit’s first aid and trauma management capabilities.

US Ambassador to Indonesia Joseph Donovan this week indicated that the advanced level of engagement will at this point only apply to Detachment 81 in its role as a counterterrorism force, and that the US would take a cautious approach to next steps.

While there is no explicit distinction between lethal and non-lethal military assistance, modifications to the Leahy Amendment allow for exemptions if the Defense and State Departments agree that a country has taken all the necessary corrective steps.

Washington sources say they believe joint combat training can proceed without actually changing the law.

“All this will be consistent with our legal obligations, including the Leahy Amendment,” Donovan told Asia Times. “I don’t know whether it will require the law to change in the future. What we are doing now does not require a legislative fix, but we have consulted with Congress on this.”

US Senator Patrick Leahy as almost single-handedly determined US policy towards Indonesia for several years. Photo: Twitter

Leahy, 79, the Senate’s most senior member, and his foreign affairs aide, Tim Rieser, reputedly one of the most powerful staffers in Congress, dictated US military policy towards Indonesia through the 1990s and into the democratic era without ever setting foot in the country.

While they were well-justified in pressuring Indonesia over its culture of impunity, their persecutory influence remained long after the fall of president Suharto, often to the frustration of American diplomats who wanted to reward Indonesia for its rapid transition to democracy.

Despite the restoration of military ties in 2005, it was three years before Leahy had a change of heart on the whole issue, largely because of his endorsement of then presidential candidate Barack Obama, who still felt a strong emotional tie to a country where he had spent part of his childhood.

Echoes of the past linger, however. Several retired Kopassus officers have been linked in past weeks to the violence that followed former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto’s failure to win the April 17 presidential election.

Among them is Fauka Noor Farid, one of the eleven members of the so-called Team Rose, the undercover unit responsible for the kidnapping and torture of pro-democracy activists in 1997-98 which led to Prabowo being cashiered from the armed forces.

US and Indonesian troops in a joint exercise in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Despite being sentenced to 16 months imprisonment for his role in the abductions, Farid was never discharged from the military, rising from captain to colonel and even serving in Aceh before he was eventually forced to retire in 2009 under sustained US pressure.

Still only 49, Farid is a 1992 military academy classmate of presidential security force chief Major General Maruli Simanjuntak, son-in-law of influential Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan, who commanded the soldiers behind the 2013 Jogyakarta jail raid.

Maruli escaped censure from the army leadership at the time because he had only taken over the coveted Kopassus Group 2 position at midnight that same evening.