International Force East Timor (INTERFET)

International Force East Timor (INTERFET)


Following the vote on self-determination of 30 August 1999, there were a series of attacks throughout Timor by militias created, trained and directed by the Indonesian military. The International Force East Timor (INTERFET) was the United Nations-mandated multinational force formed to address the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation.

INTERFET troops entered Timor in September 1999 under the command of Australian Defence Force officer Major-General Peter Cosgrove, before the handover to the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) in March 2000.

The ADF component of INTERFET was named Operation Stabilise – an operation that was a major turning in transforming Australian policy on intervention in neighbouring states, and a precursor to other ADF operations in Solomon Islands and Tonga.

Government sources

International Force East Timor, Archived website, Department of Defence, Australian government

This archived website contains details of the 1999-2000 INTERFET operation, including statements, media releases and operational reports.

Final INTERFET handover, 23 March 2000.

At a signing ceremony at UNTAET HQ, Major General Cosgrove officially brought to an end INTERFET, with the United Nations Temporary Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) assuming total control of East Timor in the lead up to independence in 2002.

Commentary and analysis

Legal aspects of Australia’s involvement in the International Force for East Timor, Michael J. Kelly, Timothy L. H. McCormack, Paul Muggleton and Bruce M. Oswald, International Review of the Red Cross No. 841, p. 101-139

Although the figures varied throughout the INTERFET deployment, 22 contributing nations were represented in INTERFET with a total force strength of approximately 12,600. Australia provided the largest contingent of 5,521 ADF personnel.

“The INTERFET concept of operations was for a four-phase operation with a preliminary phase involving preparation in Australia prior to deployment to East Timor. The four phases were as follows:

Phase 1 — Control: during this phase, INTERFET control was established over air and sea points of entry in Dili on 20 September 1999 and an air point of entry in Bacau on 23 September 1999;

Phase 2 — Consolidation: this phase occurred in the period September 1999 to January 2000 and involved INTERFET establishing and maintaining control progressively throughout East Timor, including the Oecussi enclave in West Timor and Atauro Island;

Phase 3 — Transition: INTERFET objectives were to hand over control of East Timor to UNTAET, having maintained security for three months without a serious incident, set up a border security management system, established an internally displaced persons (IDP) return plan and reduced the risk of militia activity. The transition from INTERFET to UNTAET took place progressively from east to west. Sector East was handed over on 1 February 2000, Sector Central, including Dili, on 14 February 2000, the Oecussi enclave on 15 February 2000 and Sector West on 21 February 2000;

Phase 4 — Redeployment: INTERFET formally handed over authority to UNTAET on 23 February 2000 with INTERFET troops either moving to the UNTAET command structure or redeploying to home locations.

Strength through Diversity: the combined naval role in Operation Stabilise, David Stevens, Working Paper No.20, Sea Power Centre Australia

US forces in Operation Stabilise (INTERFET), Global

East Timor and Australia’s Security Role: Issues and Scenarios, Dr Adam Cobb (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group, Parliamentary Library), Current Issues Brief 3 1999-2000, 21 September 1999

Analysis of the threats facing INTERFET forces written at the time of the 1999 intervention

Primary responsibilities and primary risks – Australian Defence Force Participation in the International Force East Timor, Alan Ryan, Australian Army Land Warfare Studies Centre, Study Paper 304, November 2000

This monograph examines the process that the ADF played in helping to form and manage the Coalition and deploy troops to East Timor. It concludes that INTERFET was successful but that, to provide for Australia’s security in an unstable region, the ADF needs to improve its ability to engage in multinational operations.”

Information-era manoeuvre: The Australian-led Mission to East Timor, John Blaxland, Australian Army Land Warfare Studies Centre, Working Paper 118, June 2002

Information Operations during Operation Stabilise in East Timor, Major Kent Beasley, Australian Army Land Warfare Studies Centre, Working Paper 120, 2005

The Road to INTERFET: Reflections on Australian strategic decisions concerning East Timor December 1998 – September 1999, Hugh White, Security Challenges, Volume 4, Number 1 (Autumn 2008), pp. 69-87.

“This essay… considers especially the questions of Australia’s overall strategic aims in 1999, and how well they were fulfilled, and Australia’s attitude towards the need for a full-scale peacekeeping force in East Timor before the ballot. On the former it concludes that, notwithstanding INTERFET’s operational success, the Australian Government completely failed to achieve the strategic objectives it had set itself at the start of 1999. On the latter it argues that ambivalence about the need for a pre-ballot peacekeeping force prevented the Government lobbying as hard as we could have for one to be deployed, which may have contributed materially to the tragedy in September.”

Secretary, Department of Defence Nick Warner, Speech to the Lowy Institute for International Policy, 10 June 2008

“The intervention in East Timor in late 1999, led by Peter Cosgrove, showed the skill, courage and professionalism of the ADF in dangerous circumstances.  It was by any measure a brilliantly executed operation.  But look a little deeper and you find the success of the operation came in spite of some real weaknesses, weaknesses that continue to bedevil the Defence establishment today. There are numerous examples I could point to, some large and fundamental.  But instead let me focus on just one small and seemingly inconsequential issue – 256,800 paper hand towels.

“The towels were purchased in 1999 for the troops deploying to East Timor. Sounds reasonable:  peacemaking can be a messy business.  Only they didn’t get to East Timor in 1999 or in 2000.  For some reason lost in time they were found to be superfluous to requirements, and remained at the ADF’s main warehouse facility at Moorebank.  Nor were they found necessary for the troops that deployed to Iraq in 2003; nor those I worked with in the Solomon Islands in 2004 and 2005; nor those sent to Afghanistan from 2001; nor those who deployed again to East Timor in 2006. 256,800 surplus paper hand towels.  So what? They matter because they are indicative of a much broader and deeper problem in Defence.  Important parts of the business are ailing.  The paper towels are just one tiny part of the broken backbone of Defence.”