NATO's Insecurity Forces in Bosnia

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:23

    Sarajevo-Therewas a big turnout at the NATO SFOR ("Stabilization Force") Press Centerin downtown Sarajevo two weeks ago, where NATO's outgoing Secretary-GeneralJavier Solana gave a press conference. Solana was a regular visitor here backin the day when the NATO peacekeeping operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina was thealliance's biggest chore. A few months of bombing Yugoslavia and the task oforganizing NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, however, have left Bosnia on the backburner. This was Solana's first time back in town in months. Solana willsoon leave his NATO post to take the job of defense czar for the European Union.It's more a tightrope walk than a change in jobs. At present, Solana brokersthe often competing and conflicting desires of NATO members. In his new role,he must create a more autonomous defense capability for a Europe that's stillsmarting from American dominance of the Kosovo campaign-without ripping NATOasunder and driving American influence and military power from the continent.Good luck. Unfortunately,his appearance was just another case study in the abject bankruptcy of the contemporarypress conference: bland statements, unfocused softballs passing for questionsand answers that often don't speak to the questions anyway. I could bore youwith Solana's statement acknowledging "the constructive role" playedby Bosnian politicians in the Kosovo mess. I could relate Solana's threat thatNATO won't tolerate any funny business by Slobodan Milosevic in Montenegro.I can even attempt to dissuade you from perusing this article any further byciting Solana's observation that international aid for Bosnia requires a "two-waystreet." It was all much of muchness.

    Solana simplyducked my question to him. I'd been told recently by a number of SFOR sources(speaking on background) that SFOR would soon become more active here, assistingBosnia's civilian authorities in two essential areas of reconstruction: protectingthe refugees, who are slowly returning to the homes from which they'd been ethnicallycleansed during the war, and at last apprehending indicted war criminals who'vebeen at large for years now. Indictees like former Bosnian Serb President RadovanKaradzic, for instance.

    From SFOR'sinception as IFOR ("Implementation Force") in late 1995, NATO's priorityfor these troops in Bosnia has been what's commonly known as "force protection."That means "no casualties under any circumstances." Almost four yearsafter the Dayton Peace Accords, SFOR troops are still quite limited in theirfreedom of movement when off-duty. It's one of the bigger complaints I've heard.The trend has been to play it safe, because the politicians back home who fundit (particularly in the U.S. Congress) just won't tolerate dead soldiers inthe Balkans. Call it the insecurity in a security force.

    IFOR/SFORhas had remarkable success in this force protection. The operation's minimalcasualties over its four years have been what you might term "accidents":vehicular mayhem on Bosnia's narrow twisting roads, or happenstance run-inswith war detritus like land mines or unexploded ordnance.

    But withnew cover provided by a simultaneous mission in Kosovo-a mission that has alreadyresulted in the kinds of casualties NATO has never suffered in Bosnia or inbombing Yugoslavia-the SFOR here may have new license to risk the casualtiesthat might accompany more exposure to flashpoints. Your average congressmanwill not be likely to discern whether an American soldier is wounded in BrusnicaVelika or Velika Krusa. (One's in Bosnia, the other in Kosovo. Guess which iswhich.)

    So I askedSolana: Was there anything to the speculation that SFOR would become more activehere, and if so, when? He heard the implied barb in the question ("SFORhasn't been active enough") and deftly bent it straight.

    "Itis my understanding," he replied, "that SFOR will continue complyingwith their obligations at the same pace, at the same rhythm, with the same energythat has been done from the very beginning. You will have news when it takesplace. It will take place."

    Last Tuesday,something did indeed "take place." Four days after Solana's visit-andthree days before NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, Gen. Wesley Clark,also made a Sarajevo pitstop-one of the more heinous Croatian Serb figures inthe war in Croatia's Krajina region, Radislav Brdjanin, was suddenly arrestedin Bosnia. The SFOR press release cited both Solana and Clark's "directionand authority" in the arrest. It's too early to tell if this is the firstsign of that more robust SFOR presence I asked about.

    Is it callousto suggest that SFOR troops should be put in a position to take more casualties?Bismarck, after all, famously valued the Balkans as not worth the bones of asingle healthy Pomeranian grenadier. (Of course, one has to think this wasn'texactly a hymn to Bismarck's regard for Poland's Pomerania region.) And whenNATO forces are already in Kosovo, where they are being forced into highly riskyencounters with a heavily armed and inflamed population, why should they bepushing their luck in Bosnia?

    Becausesomebody has to be looking out for the civilians. The former warringsides here-Bosniak, Croat and Serb-are far more concerned with staying readyfor war again and pocketing large amounts of cash from international "patrons"than in protecting civilians. There has been so little progress in reducingthe size of the former warring armies here, not to mention their military budgets,that the simple exchange of information among them a few weeks ago was celebratedby the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Bosniaas a big deal-even though the OSCE couldn't really say whether the info thesegovernments exchanged was even accurate.

    What wasthat info? According to the OSCE, the Bosniaks and the joint Bosniak-CroatianFederation army have received $152 million from Saudi Arabia, the United ArabEmirates, Kuwait, Malaysia and Brunei. The same army got $231 million in equipmentfrom the United States in 1998. The Bosnian Croat part of the Federation Armyhad neighboring Croatia as its sugar daddy, with $63 million last year, anda promise of $54 million this year. And the Bosnian Serbs? Well, Yugoslaviacan't be that destitute: Milosevic's government paid $5 million for salariesfor Bosnian Serb military officers, and provided another $10 million in freetraining.

    That'sa lot of money for armies supposedly put on ice by SFOR's presence here.

    The peoplewith the most reason to be insecure here are the civilians all these weaponsare supposed to be protecting. Civilians still can barely move around the countrywithout fear of being blown up. Before I wrote this article, I took a good look at maps that the Sarajevo-based Mine Action Center put out in May. One is ofthe entire country and highlights the known and suspected land mines with darkred dots. The other details the Sarajevo area. At first glance, both look likethey've been stained with intricate blood splatters, but then, as the eye adjustsand traces the patterns of mines along former front lines, they begin to looklike deep, contiguous scars.

    Those minescircumscribe life here in a palpable way. At a press conference the other day,SFOR spokesman Maj. Gordon Welsh noted that while civilian casualties from minesare falling, they still average 40 a month. He didn't mention the horrible anecdotes,like one that a Bosnian reporter told me once over coffee about the guy whoblew off his own legs when he returned to his house after the war was over.He'd forgotten that he booby-trapped his place with a land mine.

    Maj. Welshalso told us that the demining effort by local governments is making progress,but admitted that Bosnia won't be mine-free for quite some time. There are stillmore than 750,000 in the ground here. I can step out from my front door here, walk for about two minutes and find myself on the edge of a minefield.

    That's aninsecurity that dogs you everywhere you go.