NATO's Insecurity Forces in Bosnia

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:24

    Sarajevo?There was a big turnout at the NATO SFOR ("Stabilization Force") Press Center in downtown Sarajevo two weeks ago, where NATO's outgoing Secretary-General Javier Solana gave a press conference. Solana was a regular visitor here back in the day when the NATO peacekeeping operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina was the alliance's biggest chore. A few months of bombing Yugoslavia and the task of organizing NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, however, have left Bosnia on the back burner. This was Solana's first time back in town in months. Solana will soon 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 brokers the 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 still smarting from American dominance of the Kosovo campaign?without ripping NATO asunder 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 contemporary press conference: bland statements, unfocused softballs passing for questions and answers that often don't speak to the questions anyway. I could bore you with Solana's statement acknowledging "the constructive role" played by Bosnian politicians in the Kosovo mess. I could relate Solana's threat that NATO won't tolerate any funny business by Slobodan Milosevic in Montenegro. I can even attempt to dissuade you from perusing this article any further by citing Solana's observation that international aid for Bosnia requires a "two-way street." It was all much of muchness.

    Solana simply ducked 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, assisting Bosnia's civilian authorities in two essential areas of reconstruction: protecting the refugees, who are slowly returning to the homes from which they'd been ethnically cleansed during the war, and at last apprehending indicted war criminals who've been at large for years now. Indictees like former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, for instance.

    From SFOR's inception as IFOR ("Implementation Force") in late 1995, NATO's priority for these troops in Bosnia has been what's commonly known as "force protection." That means "no casualties under any circumstances." Almost four years after the Dayton Peace Accords, SFOR troops are still quite limited in their freedom 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 fund it (particularly in the U.S. Congress) just won't tolerate dead soldiers in the Balkans. Call it the insecurity in a security force.

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

    But with new cover provided by a simultaneous mission in Kosovo?a mission that has already resulted in the kinds of casualties NATO has never suffered in Bosnia or in bombing Yugoslavia?the SFOR here may have new license to risk the casualties that might accompany more exposure to flashpoints. Your average congressman will not be likely to discern whether an American soldier is wounded in Brusnica Velika or Velika Krusa. (One's in Bosnia, the other in Kosovo. Guess which is which.)

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

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

    Last Tuesday, something did indeed "take place." Four days after Solana's visit?and three 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 in the war in Croatia's Krajina region, Radislav Brdjanin, was suddenly arrested in Bosnia. The SFOR press release cited both Solana and Clark's "direction and authority" in the arrest. It's too early to tell if this is the first sign of that more robust SFOR presence I asked about.

    Is it callous to 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 a single healthy Pomeranian grenadier. (Of course, one has to think this wasn't exactly a hymn to Bismarck's regard for Poland's Pomerania region.) And when NATO forces are already in Kosovo, where they are being forced into highly risky encounters with a heavily armed and inflamed population, why should they be pushing their luck in Bosnia?

    Because somebody has to be looking out for the civilians. The former warring sides here?Bosniak, Croat and Serb?are far more concerned with staying ready for war again and pocketing large amounts of cash from international "patrons" than in protecting civilians. There has been so little progress in reducing the 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 celebrated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Bosnia as a big deal?even though the OSCE couldn't really say whether the info these governments exchanged was even accurate.

    What was that info? According to the OSCE, the Bosniaks and the joint Bosniak-Croatian Federation army have received $152 million from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Malaysia and Brunei. The same army got $231 million in equipment from the United States in 1998. The Bosnian Croat part of the Federation Army had neighboring Croatia as its sugar daddy, with $63 million last year, and a promise of $54 million this year. And the Bosnian Serbs? Well, Yugoslavia can't be that destitute: Milosevic's government paid $5 million for salaries for Bosnian Serb military officers, and provided another $10 million in free training.

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

    The people with the most reason to be insecure here are the civilians all these weapons are supposed to be protecting. Civilians still can barely move around the country without 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 of the entire country and highlights the known and suspected land mines with dark red dots. The other details the Sarajevo area. At first glance, both look like they've been stained with intricate blood splatters, but then, as the eye adjusts and traces the patterns of mines along former front lines, they begin to look like deep, contiguous scars.

    Those mines circumscribe life here in a palpable way. At a press conference the other day, SFOR spokesman Maj. Gordon Welsh noted that while civilian casualties from mines are 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 who blew 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. Welsh also 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 still more 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 an insecurity that dogs you everywhere you go.