The Pentagon is looking to boost counterterrorism cooperation with an elite Indonesian special forces group, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Jan. 23 during a visit to Jakarta.
The special forces unit, known as Kopassus, has been accused of a range of human rights abuses, including killings and torture, mostly in the 1990s. Mattis says the group has since reformed.
“That was upwards of 20 years ago, and we’ll look at it since then,” Mattis said after meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, and other leaders.
Mattis’ visit aims to expand overall military cooperation with Indonesia, which is modernizing its military and has shown an increased willingness to push back against China’s territorial claims.
Indonesia is also dealing with the possible return of hundreds of Indonesians who fought with the Islamic State terror group in Syria and Iraq.
“We are out to expand in ways that respond to any requests from Indonesia on counterterrorism to include the special forces units,” Mattis said alongside his Indonesian counterpart.
Following those talks, Ryacudu said he would like Mattis to help relax the legal limitations on closer U.S. ties with the elite special forces group.
Kopassus’ alleged abuses include massacres in East Timor, the abduction and forced disappearance of student pro-democracy activists, and a torture campaign in Aceh during a now-ended insurgency. Rights groups say many of those responsible have not been held accountable.
Amid those concerns, the United States severed ties with Kopassus in 1999. In 2010, the Pentagon took initial steps toward reestablishing cooperation, but the ties have been limited and non-lethal, consisting of staff exchanges and low-level subject matter dialogue.
Mattis says he believes the group has reformed and would now stand up to the scrutiny of the so-called Leahy Law, which prohibits the United States from providing military assistance to foreign security forces that violate human rights.
Joseph Felter, the top U.S. defense official on Southeast Asia, said the Pentagon sees “real value and potential in working with Kopassus as a partner in counterterrorism,” if the State Department were to loosen restrictions.
“They are a very, very effective counterterrorism unit,” Felter said.
The United States already has very close ties with the Indonesian military. Since 2013, Felter said the United States has sold more than $1.5 billion to Indonesia under the foreign military sales program, including the Apache helicopter and the F-16. And Felter says Jakarta is considering buying more F-16s.
“Anytime we can help a partner uphold a free and fair rules-based order in a free and open Indo-Pacific, that’s what we’re here for,” the deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia said.
On Jan. 24, Mattis heads to Vietnam, where China is likely to be a major focus.
The Pentagon last week unveiled a new National Defense Strategy that prioritizes the U.S. geopolitical rivalry with China and Russia.
Vietnam is one of the most vocal critics of China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea and has repeatedly clashed with Chinese ships in the area.
During his visit to Indonesia Tuesday, Mattis repeatedly spoke about the importance of the “rule of law” and “freedom of navigation” – comments apparently aimed at China.