Bosnian Peace Plan Poses Troop Dilemma for U.S.

The Washington Post
August 23, 1993

GENEVA – For the past 17 months, the United States and its European allies have watched in horror as fighting engulfed Bosnia, and they have tried to think of ways — short of military intervention — to stop the war. Now, with another peace plan unveiled here Friday, U.S. officials hope their prayers have been answered, and that an end to the war is at hand.

But there is a catch for the United States, potentially a huge one, over the issue of enforcing the accord.

The peace proposal drawn up by mediators David Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg divides Bosnia-Herzegovina into three ethnic ministates, with the Bosnian Serbs, who are largely viewed as the aggressor in the war and now control 70 percent of Bosnian territory, getting more than half of the country. Sarajevo, the capital, would be placed under United Nations control for two years, and the southern city of Mostar would be under European Community control. The mediators have asked Bosnia’s three warring sides — Muslims, Croats and Serbs — to consider the plan for 10 days and then return to Geneva to sign it.

But midway through a news conference Friday, U.N. mediator Stoltenberg dropped a diplomatic bombshell that has not yet detonated in most Western capitals. Enforcement of the peace plan, Stoltenberg said, would require at least 40,000 troops from the United Nations, and he pointedly noted that the Clinton administration has pledged to be an on-the-ground player once peace is declared. U.N. and European officials make no secret of their hope that the United States, as the world’s sole superpower, will provide the largest contingent of troops.

It would be one of the largest peace-keeping efforts in U.N. history, dwarfing the current effort in Somalia. Aside from policing the new borders and ensuring the free flow of road traffic, the U.N. troops would be assigned to take control of heavy weapons and ensure that refugees can return to their homes unharmed.

“You cannot look at any of these bits of paper without concentrating on the implementation force,” said EC mediator Owen. “We all know the difference behind fine words and real intentions, and we all know that some people’s intentions are to not fulfill the obligations in the {peace} document. . . . There has to be a credible implementation force, and that does mean major NATO nations contributing troops on the ground.”

Independent political experts agree that the plan could fall apart without a large number of troops willing to use force to make the three factions, particularly the Serbs, abide by the accord. Once an accord is signed, the fighting will probably die down, but not completely. The Serbs and Croats may refuse to hand over some territory; they may refuse to let displaced Muslims return home, or they may try to strangle the new Muslim-dominated republic economically.

In anticipating the immense troubles facing the Bosnian peace plan, experts look at neighboring Croatia, where a U.N.-supervised truce between Croats and Croatian Serb rebels has, by the admission of many U.N. officials, been a failure. The 1992 truce called on Serb rebels who controlled one-third of Croatia to disarm, permit Croat refugees to return home and respect U.N. authority.

But that has not happened. The Serbs have kept their weapons and refused to let any Croats reclaim their houses, and the approximately 15,000 U.N. troops there have opted not to confront them. Rather than enforcing terms of the truce, the U.N. troops are serving mainly as a front-line buffer force to protect the rebel Serbs from the Croatian army.

“The Bosnians are asking for lots of security guarantees because they know that this agreement on paper means nothing at the end of the day,” said Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It stands or falls on enforcement.”

Eyal, a Balkans expert, said he believes the accord will fail to translate into real peace or to fully protect the landlocked Muslim state because the United Nations will not come close to raising 40,000 troops. Currently, the world body has about 15,000 troops in Bosnia to escort aid shipments, but U.N. members have ignored calls from Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to provide several thousand more soldiers. The United States does not have any peace-keeping troops in Bosnia.

Experts say it is hard to imagine the United States and other countries suddenly becoming generous. Enforcement troops probably would be tied down in Bosnia well into the next century. Eyal notes that U.N. peace keepers have been in divided Cyprus for nearly two decades. The financial costs would be high, and if the peace keepers do their job properly, they may be engaged in combat.

These conditions seem to fit the American definition of a Balkan nightmare. Throughout the war, military planners in Washington have balked at the thought of sending U.S. soldiers to Bosnia under almost any conditions. Earlier this year, when it appeared that the Muslims, Serbs and Croats might accept a different peace plan, the Clinton administration wavered over providing enforcement troops.

Some officials, including Defense Secretary Les Aspin, suggested that troops would be sent once fighting had ceased and the peace accord was being respected. But this policy is a sort of Catch-22, because if the peace accord were being respected, there would be no need for enforcement troops. Since then, Secretary of State Warren Christopher has said the United States would join the enforcement effort if the accord were fair and the three sides agreed on it voluntarily. He did not make any concrete pledges, however.

Eyal said he believes that some officials in the administration, along with hawks on Capitol Hill who unsuccessfully called for military intervention to roll back the Serbs, view the current plan as appeasement of the Serbs. The officials may not want to have anything to do with such placating measures — even if that means exposing Muslim-dominated enclaves to further attacks by the Serbs and Croats. After spending more than a year arguing about military intervention, U.S. hawks and doves might now find some common ground.

“I think the United States is simply not prepared to sully its hands with this agreement,” Eyal said. “And without strong American support, this accord doesn’t go anywhere.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.