What began as an operation - sanctioned by Indonesia's Defence Minister and Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief, General Wiranto - to abort the UN- supervised poll, has spun totally out of control. Pro-integrationist militias - sponsored and directed by the Indonesian special forces (Kopassus) who have run East Timor as their private fief since the Indonesian invasion in 1975 - have engaged in an orgy of burning and bloodletting. Virtually every town and urban centre in the territory has been burnt. At least 130,000 people (out of East Timor's total 800,000 population) have been removed to camps in West Timor run by the same militiamen who have sought out and hacked to death thousands of pro-independence supporters, particularly the student intelligentsia and community leaders. Unprecedented attacks have also taken place against members of the Catholic church, with at least 14 nuns and priests having been murdered, along with the entire 40-strong local staff of the Caritas relief agency.
When the 2,500-strong advance contingent of the Australian-led international force enters the territory today it will be confronted by a devastated society and an internal refugee crisis of unimaginable proportions. The surviving population (some 600,000 people) is sheltering in East Timor's parched mountains where they are eking out a miserable existence on roots and leaves. Most have only the clothes they stood up in when they were forced from their burning homes. Already the most vulnerable - especially the old and the young - are succumbing to starvation and disease (fresh water is hard to find at the height of this East Timorese dry season so gastroenteric disorders are rife). There are also reports that the retreating militias have mined and booby-trapped roads and bridges.
Just how out of the control of Jakarta army headquarters the situation has become can be seen from the imposition of martial law on 7 September. Wiranto appointed one of his most trusted staff officers, Major-General Kiki Syahnakri - an erstwhile East Timor district commander, 1994-95, and a fluent speaker of Tetum, the lingua franca of East Timor - as martial law commander. Yet even Syahnakri, who brought three Java-based battalions of the Strategic Army Reserve (Kostrad) with him to help restore order, has had only a limited impact on the situation.
When Wiranto visited Dili with the five ambassadors delegated by the Security Council on 11 September, he was visibly shocked by the degree of devastation he witnessed in the burning capital. He spoke later of the "psychological problems" of getting Syahnakri's Kostrad forces to fire on the locally raised pro-Indonesian East Timorese battalions (Batt. 744 in Dili and Batt. 745 in Baucau), and the pro-Indonesian militias, still less on their fellow Indonesians in the special force units who were directing the mayhem.It was only Wiranto's realisation of the scale of the military mutiny then under way which convinced him that an international force should be invited into the territory - something that President BJ Habibie had wanted but Wiranto had opposed.
On Wiranto's instructions, Syahnakri ordered the pull-out of all 17,000 Indonesian troops in the territory, along with the estimated 12,000 pro- integrationist militias, ahead of this weekend's deployment of the multinational force. Under the force's tough terms of engagement, it has wide authority (and adequate fire-power) to engage any renegade Indonesian army units or militias that prevent it carrying out its peace enforcement mission. The indications are that most of the Indonesian regulars and pro-autonomy formations are withdrawing by C-130 Hercules transport planes to Kupang in West Timor. But, given the volatility of the situation, there is always the possibility that some units may remain in the territory and try to confront the multinational force.
The Australians are most at risk here. They are seen in Jakarta as having been linked to the pro-independence camp. Moreover, they are perceived as harbouring their own designs on East Timor's resources, in particular the offshore oilfields of the Timor Gap area, which were divided with Indonesia by the infamous "Timor Gap" treaty of 10 December 1989, and other parts of Indonesia which might be acquired in the event of an Indonesian break-up.
President Habibie's foreign policy adviser, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, has already warned of the dangers of attack, and anti-Australian feelings are running high in Indonesia with assaults on Australian diplomatic personnel and property. The Australian consulate in Surabaya, Indonesia's second city, was trashed last Monday. Any New Zealanders, Canadians and Americans will also be targeted - these three countries having been singled out, along with Australia and Portugal, by Indonesian politicians as being unwelcome in any multinational force, given their pro-independence sympathies.
Ultimately, however, the pro-integrationist militias are expendable as far as the Indonesians are concerned. They have played their role in the Indonesian endgame in East Timor, carrying out the murder of the pro-independence intelligentsia, then wider acts of genocide dictated by their Kopassus masters. Many may be liquidated in order to avoid them falling into the hands of the multinational force. The fear is that they may implicate Indonesian special force officers. Chief among these is the man who has masterminded the killings, deportation and scorched- earth policies, General Zaky Anwar Makarim. Others may be used as a fifth column in Indonesian-controlled West Timor to further destabilise the UN operation and prevent the emergence of an independent East Timor. With a war crimes tribunal looming, the Indonesian officers involved in the East Timor operation may wish to cover their tracks.
The wider repercussions on Indonesia of this East Timor debacle are incalculable. If Indonesian soldiers do begin to be killed in fire fights with the multinational force, especially if the Australians can be held responsible, a nationalist backlash will be inevitable. This will take two forms: it will make it more likely that the opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri will emerge, with army backing, as Indonesia's next president. Internationally, it could involve Indonesia in a military stand-off with Australia which could hasten the break-up of the Indonesian republic.
Even if such a doomsday scenario is avoided, the current leadership in Jakarta is finished. President Habibie will be dumped by his ruling Golkar party at their conference on 18 October in favour of a more viable presidential candidate. A long and lucrative retirement in Germany (where he still retains his vice-presidency of Messerschmitt) is Habibie's most likely prospect.
As for Wiranto, he, too, has been fatally compromised by distant East Timor, being shown to be indecisive and lacking authority. His hopes of emerging as a kingmaker or even de facto ruler (as executive vice-president in a Megawati-led administration) are dim. After a quarter of a century of death and destruction, East Timor is continuing to cast its baleful spell. Now an international pariah, Indonesia is tasting the final bitter fruit of failure.
Peter Carey is a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, specialising in the history and politics of Indonesia and East Timor.