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Bosnia’s future could hinge on U.S. commitment — July 25, 2001

July 25, 2001

Copyright 2001 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
The Macon Telegraph
July 25, 2001, Wednesday

KR-ACC-NO: K5330
LENGTH: 1698 words
HEADLINE: Bosnia’s future could hinge on U.S. commitment
BYLINE: By Drew Brown
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina _ The United States is, in the words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “the indispensable nation.”

Albright made the remark three years ago, as leaders in Washington debated whether to launch air strikes to force Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to comply with U.N. weapons inspectors.

But nowhere in the world, perhaps, is the validity of Albright’s statement more apparent than in this mountainous land of 4 million people, struggling to recover from the worst of five civil wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Bosnia’s future hinges on a number of factors: Economic investment, the arrest of war criminals, and the commitment of the NATO-led Stabilization Force, or SFOR, to see the country through to lasting peace. The United States is by far the most crucial player in SFOR. “The presence of U.S. troops is what makes SFOR strong,” said Alija Behram, general manager of Radio Television Mostar. “Their presence is what gives strength to the liberal forces who want to build and maintain peace.”

About 18,000 troops from 33 nations serve in SFOR, down from 60,000 in December 1995, when the Dayton Peace Agreement ended the Bosnian civil war. The 3,200 American soldiers in Bosnia have a reputation as the most professional and effective peacekeepers in the country. The 1,200 soldiers of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade make up more than a third of the U.S. force.

“The important thing is not how many Americans are here,” said Avis Benes, a spokeswoman for High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch, the international community’s top official in Bosnia. “The important thing is that the Americans are here. They lend credibility to the peace process. What is important is that the Americans are involved, because when push comes to shove, the Americans are the only ones who get things done.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced in May that the military mission in Bosnia was over and U.S. troops should be pulled out. The remark sent jitters through the country.

An American withdrawal could shatter SFOR and lead to renewed war, some observers fear.

“Anyone will tell you that if SFOR leaves, then who knows what will happen,” said a Western diplomatic source in Sarajevo who asked not to be identified. “There are still plenty of guns around.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell later reassured Washington’s NATO allies that American troops would stay in the Balkans “for years,” though at lower levels.

“You can continue to reduce the troop levels, but it will be some time before those countries are free-standing, on their own, and able to handle their own affairs,” Powell told NATO foreign ministers.

Current plans call for American troop strength in Bosnia to drop to 2,800 in October when the 48th Brigade returns home. U.S. military officials have mapped out Army troop assignments in Bosnia through at least 2005.

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Thomas Miller says fears that the United States will withdraw unilaterally are overblown. “Bosnians know that we are not going to be here forever,” Miller said.

“But … we’re not going to cut and run. We’re not out of here tomorrow.”

Withdrawal has its supporters outside the Bush administration.

Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., who voted to send troops to Bosnia, says he has “real concerns” about the mission expanding and supports Bush’s efforts to reduce the U.S. presence.

“I supported the initial year-long commitment, but I wasn’t signing up for what has grown into a six-year engagement, with additional troops in Kosovo and Macedonia,” Cleland said.

Miller and other Western diplomats say their focus is to encourage local authorities to take “ownership” of the peace process.

“Increasingly, this is about Bosnians taking control and responsibility,” Miller said. “We’re not quite at the stage where they can do it all on their own. They do need help, but it’s increasingly about a partnership where we support them rather than order them around.”

Bosnia needs economic investment if peace is to last, most domestic and international observers say.

International donors have poured about $6 billion into Bosnia to rebuild infrastructure destroyed during the war. Bosnia remains largely dependent on foreign aid, but the money is beginning to dry up. Unemployment hovers around 40 percent.

“We need to create jobs. We need to create a modern economy,” the diplomatic source said. “And we need to make a real attempt to build an open political system free of nationalist parties. But more than anything else, we need economic development. That will make peace in Bosnia sustainable.”

But the stable environment required for economic investment remains impossible as long as extremists continue to sow discord and hate.

The 1992-95 Bosnian civil war was the most savage conflict in Europe since World War II. More than 200,000 people died after ethnic warfare erupted among Serbs, Muslims and Croats, the country’s three main ethnic groups. The conflict was the worst of the five civil wars spawned by then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s attempt to carve a “Greater Serbia” from the six republics of the former Yugoslavia.

U.S. peacekeepers have served in the country since 1995. Moderate political parties won the Bosnian Federation presidency and a majority of the parliament for the first time last fall. Many observers consider the election the most significant advance in years to a lasting peace.

Still, sporadic unrest continues.

In recent months, for example, Bosnian Serbs in several towns have rioted as Muslims tried to rebuild mosques destroyed in the war. About half the Croat troops in the Federation army deserted their posts for about 45 days, after Croat nationalists pulled out of the coalition government.

Arresting war criminals who remain at large would be the quickest step toward weakening the nationalists and ensuring the long-term stability that will enable an American withdrawal, some Bosnian and international officials say.

“If we really want peace and the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement, then (Radovan) Karadzic and (Ratko) Mladic must be arrested,” said Mirza Hajric, an adviser to the three-man Bosnian presidency. “The sooner, the better.”

Karadzic is the former president of the Bosnian Serb entity known as the Republic of Srpska, which controls 49 percent of Bosnia. Mladic was his military commander. Both have been charged with genocide and other crimes against humanity.

With Milosevic now awaiting trial in The Hague, Netherlands, expectations are high in Bosnia that Karadzic and Mladic will soon be arrested.

Milosevic fell from power in October. Serbian authorities extradited him this month. He faces charges stemming from the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict, and prosecutors likely will indict him for incidents in Bosnia and Croatia. One hundred people have been charged by The Hague for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. About 37 remain at large.

But who has responsibility for arresting Karadzic and Mladic?

“SFOR will tell you that they will arrest them if they come across them in the course of their patrols,” said the Western diplomatic source. “This puts the onus on local authorities to make the arrests, but the local authorities, especially in the (Republic of Srpska), have been slow to cooperate. Unofficially, there is a sense that SFOR doesn’t want to take the risk of a confrontation or, heaven forbid, send someone home in a body bag.”

Miller, the outgoing ambassador, dismisses criticism that the United States and its allies are not doing enough to bring the indicted to justice.

The U.S. government has offered a $5 million bounty each for information leading to the arrests of Karadzic and Mladic. The issue remains “an extremely high priority,” Miller said.

“I can’t get into operational details. I can just tell you that there’s a lot of information out there by people who don’t know what they are talking about,” he said. “War criminals are like the weather. Everybody’s got an opinion on them, but no one knows a lot about it.”

Some American military officers, however, address the question more bluntly.

“That’s not our mission,” said Maj. Michael Birmingham, a spokesman for the American military task force at Eagle Base.

Some lower-ranking U.S. troops confirm that they have been warned to steer clear of confrontation.

“In fact,” said one soldier who asked not to be identified, “we’ve been told that even if we see them, do not try to apprehend them.”

Many Bosnians, particularly Muslims, wonder how peace can be achieved as long as war criminals go unpunished.

“How would you feel about returning home if you knew that the person who expelled you or murdered your family was still in power or living next door?” said Emir Suljagic, a journalist with Dani, Bosnia’s largest news magazine.

During the war, Suljagic worked as an interpreter for Dutch peacekeepers at Srebrenica and was guaranteed safe passage as a “protected person” when the Dutch pulled out under U.N. orders before the 1995 massacre there. His younger brother is missing and presumed dead.

During a July 10 visit to Washington, Bosnia’s foreign minister pledged a renewed effort to apprehend Karadzic and Mladic.

Zlato Lagumdzija admitted that Bosnian police had not done enough in the past and vowed that Bosnia “would not become the last country in the region to be the shelter for war criminals.”

But some doubt that Bosnia is strong enough now to go it alone.

“We still need SFOR to help get rid of these guys,” Suljagic said.

Hajric, the Bosnian presidential adviser, compared his country to someone who has suffered a terrible car crash.

“For a long period of time, Bosnia was in bed,” he said. “Right now, Bosnia is on crutches, but basically it’s on its way to a safe recovery. If you take away the crutches, Bosnia will go back to bed. … But don’t give up on Bosnia. Bosnia is a safe bet.”


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