The American Seahawk chopper descends toward a one-lane road near the ruined village of Lam No. Before the skids have even touched the pavement, a mob rushes toward the craft in hopes of grabbing food, drinks and medicine. The throng is mostly children. Navy airmen and an accompanying NEWSWEEK correspondent aboard the chopper offload bundles of wheat, protein biscuits and strawberry yogurt as rotor blades whirl overhead. In less than two minutes, the helicopter is again aloft. "They're all so hungry," shouts 22-year-old Nathan Minear, an aviation warfare systems operator from Washington state, as the chopper roars away.

Minear's mission--in the disputed Indonesian province of Aceh--is purely humanitarian. But the mammoth international relief effort, including the largest American military deployment in Southeast Asia since Vietnam, entails far more complex tasks than airlifting food to displaced people. The tsunami took its worst toll in Aceh: more than 100,000 dead, more than 500,000 homeless. Yet government agencies and relief organizations answering Indonesia's S.O.S. are also landing smack in the middle of a low-grade civil war. Will the rescue teams simply feed and treat survivors, then leave? Or will the international community become embroiled in the volatile politics of the conflict? Diplomats face similar questions in hard-hit Sri Lanka, where the tsunami wrecked areas under the control of the Tamil Tigers, regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government (sidebar).

One immediate challenge for aid outfits in Aceh is to keep their personnel safe. Relief workers are operating alongside radical Islamic groups and paramilitary youth gangs, as well as Acehnese rebels who hijack food convoys. Looters have been swarming the flood wreckage: in at least one instance, a scavenger was seen opening body bags and stealing jewelry off bloated corpses. Rescue teams also have to deal with the Indonesian military, which has committed gross rights abuses in Aceh, and has a well-earned reputation for corruption. "There's clear evidence that Army and police are stealing food aid and selling it in the market," says outraged religious leader Muslim Ibrahim, chairman of an association of Islamic clerics called the Aceh Ulama Assembly.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. leaders are hoping the rescue missions will showcase American compassion and improve Washington's image in the Islamic world. Among Aceh's Muslims, that will likely prove true. But more broadly, intervention could cut many ways. "I think they're walking into a political minefield," says Sidney Jones, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflicts. If the West nudges Jakarta to make concessions for peace in Aceh, that could aggravate a key ally in the fight against Al Qaeda's jihadist supporters, who see Indonesia as a good recruiting ground and target for anti-Western attacks. (Aceh itself rests along the Strait of Malacca, a vital shipping lane that Washington fears is vulnerable to terrorism.) Indonesian Army officers could come to resent the presence of American soldiers.

The people of Aceh have been fighting outside forces for more than a century--first the Dutch, then the Japanese, and eventually Indonesian rule from Jakarta. Frustration with the central government spiked in the 1970s when Jakarta began extracting natural gas and oil from the province. As Indonesia grew richer from oil dollars, Aceh remained impoverished. The Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, was formed in 1976, and received support from Libya. Indonesian soldiers routinely tortured and executed civilians, and raped thousands of women. GAM rebels killed suspected collaborators and military families. In the 1990s alone, an estimated 10,000 people died in the civil war. Most were civilians.

At the time the tsunami hit, Aceh had become a virtual fiefdom of the Indonesian Army. Commanders ran business empires, and oversaw smuggling, illegal logging, protection rackets and extortion schemes. GAM exported drugs, kidnapped for ransom and taxed villages under its control. "Both [the military and the rebels] are happy to keep the war going because they're making money," says a senior religious leader in Aceh.

The military's initial response to the tsunami was, by many accounts, apathetic. NEWSWEEK's first reporters in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, saw groups of armed soldiers loafing in the shade, smoking cigarettes as relief planes lined up on the tarmac at the capital's small airstrip. Their commander occupied an air-conditioned VIP lounge where he waited for senior visitors from Jakarta. Rotting bodies littered the streets, yet the most pressing concern for the brass was protocol. Commanders refused to coordinate relief efforts with the first official sent by the Welfare Ministry, deeming him too junior. Minister Alwi Shihab himself flew north to do the job, but not before a critical day was lost.

Profiteering is rampant. On a New Zealand military cargo flight from Aceh to Jakarta, about half the "refugees" being carried out were well-dressed people who paid up to $80 to Indonesian military screeners to be allowed on the plane. Gas prices, rental-car fees and housing costs have spiked. When a NEWSWEEK reporter passed through Medan (the main hub into Aceh) and found all flights to Jakarta fully booked, a scalper appeared and asked, "Do you mind buying someone else's ticket?" The correspondent paid a 30 percent premium and caught the flight--traveling as John Lennon.

Other black-market traders are more predatory. At least two people have been arrested and another is being questioned for allegedly stealing children, according to the U.N. children's agency UNICEF. The problem is so serious that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (popularly known as SBY) issued a decree banning refugees under the age of 16 from leaving the province. "There are children that are being moved, and because the situation up there is so chaotic they don't know what's going on," says John Budd, UNICEF's spokesman in Jakarta. "Medan is a serious and quite notorious area for child trafficking for adoption, underage labor and the sex trade."

Until the wave hit, Aceh was closed to most relief and development outfits (and to foreign reporters). Now women's groups, human-rights organizations and Indonesian journalists previously bullied out of the province are back. Wardah Hafidz, a prominent activist for Jakarta's poor, says progressive groups are eager to re-enter Aceh under the banner of humanitarian relief, while downplaying their agenda to end military rule there. "We don't want to wake the sleeping lion," she says.

Sinister figures have also set up shop. Pemuda Panca Marga, a thuggish Jakarta-based youth group with links to the military, rode in trucks through Banda Aceh last week, making menacing gestures at people on the streets. The group gained notoriety in 2003 after it ransacked the offices of a prominent human-rights organization. The Islamic Defenders Front, famous for smashing up nightclubs in Jakarta as affronts to Islam, rushed hundreds of vol-unteers to "guard Muslim society because there are so many infidels here," one member told reporters. Hizbut Tahrir, which advocates a global Islamic state and is allegedly linked to terrorists, is doing volunteer work in Aceh.

These extremists might sound scary, but the most ominous force in Aceh remains the Indonesian military. It's unclear whether it will surrender its lucrative fiefdom without a fight. Suspicious generals are convinced that the insurgents cynically support peace initiatives only to buy time to rebuild; they think the arrival of foreigners, naive to the intricacies of Acehnese politics, could bolster the rebels. Some rabid nationalists suspect the West harbors a secret agenda to break up Indonesia. Retired Gen. Agus Widjojo, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, warns that even well-intentioned foreign assistance could rankle "conflicted" midcareer officers who regard themselves as the ultimate guarantors of Indonesian sovereignty. Some officers may feel envious and resentful of American capabilities. "They see foreigners doing things that they want to do but are not capable of doing," says Widjojo.

Optimists hope that Indonesia's rapid move toward democracy, which culminated in the country's first-ever direct presidential election last fall, will ensure a peaceful outcome. President Yudhoyono, a retired four-star general, led peace talks as Security minister in late 2002. Those negotiations brought a brief respite to Aceh's bloodletting before the process collapsed in May 2003. Some in Yudhoyono's government would like Washington to get involved now. (The president himself has watched DVDs of "The West Wing" to better understand the U.S.-style cabinet system, according to aides.) Welfare Minister Shihab, Jakarta's point man in Aceh, told NEWSWEEK that "international pressure" is now needed to bring rebels to the negotiating table, and that a peace deal should be a top priority for foreigners who want "Aceh rebuilt in a prosperous way."

American officials insist that they're focused on relief, but they don't rule out a peace effort. "Our people, both military and humanitarian, will be looking for opportunities to help the political crises [in Aceh and Sri Lanka]," says a senior administration official managing the U.S. response to the tsunami, adding: "I'd describe it more as openness, not really an agenda." A senior State Department official says that "if things fall into place, there may be some way to solve political crises, but there is no reason to assume they will."

Is it possible to start fixing a place, then just leave? By the State Department's own reckoning, Aceh is plagued by "unlawful killings, beatings and torture by soldiers, police and rebels." "If peace does not come to Aceh within one or two years, I'm afraid we will be destroyed worse than by the tsunami," says Rufriadi, a prominent Acehnese human-rights attorney whose home was ruined in the flooding. "Everything here begins with peace."