Sorry, the Boys Should Darn Well Stay in Bosnia
International Herald Tribune, 25 May 2001
Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld wants the boys home, and he doesn't mind who knows it. Within weeks of the inauguration, 750 troops were taken out of Bosnia. And the 3,300 remaining U.S. personnel "didn't come into the military to be policemen," he told The Washington Post in an interview published this week. "It's difficult for families. And I darn well intend to do something about it." All very understandable. But if this translates into a unilateral U.S. withdrawal - or, more likely, a push at forthcoming NATO ministerial meetings for an overall drawdown - it won't be very helpful to a peace process which is now at an extremely fragile stage.
The job that the U.S. and other troop contributors went in to do is not yet done, and if there are significant force reductions now, it can't and won't be. Gutting the stabilization force (SFOR) would send precisely the wrong message to Croatian and Serbian extremists who are presently testing the Dayton peace accords to the limit.
NATO went into Bosnia in 1995 with 60,000 troops, including 20,000 Americans. The United States still leads the operation, and has the largest contingent. With the initial military task long complete, the overall numbers have shrunk to 22,000. But what is not complete, or anything like it, is SFOR's stabilization task: to maintain a secure environment in which civilian agencies can carry out reconstruction, economic development and political institution building and create an "overall climate of reconciliation."
A viable multiethnic Bosnian state can be built. In the past 18 months the international community has finally mustered the will to tackle extremists opposed to a democratic society. Pro-Western governments exist for the first time at state level and in the Muslim-Croatian entity. But recent events attest to peace's fragility and the need for a credible SFOR presence. Last month international officials were beaten and taken hostage while auditing a bank with links to Croatian extremists. A few weeks ago ceremonies to mark the rebuilding of mosques destroyed in the war were broken up by Serbian nationalists. And as more refugees return home, violent incidents increase, and local police are often too weak or corrupt to help. Far from contemplating new reductions, NATO should focus on meeting the conditions it set when it reduced troop strength in Bosnia below 30,000. For example, barely half the Military Specialized Units (enhanced police) that were to replace soldiers are in place.
None of the troop contributors wants to be in Bosnia forever, but drawdowns and ultimate exits have to be based on credible benchmarks. The International Crisis Group has identified 12 of them in a report this week, covering institutionalization of the rule of law, enhancing the security environment and building Bosnian institutions.
The United States is not the only troop contributor looking to reduce deployments, but it is the most influential. It led the intervention that ended the war, and it brokered the 1995 Dayton settlement. The U.S. contingent is the superpower's pledge that a viable Bosnian state will be built.
Any security operation has its risks, but the only U.S. casualties to date have been due to traffic accidents or suicide. This excellent safety record may result in part from a "force protection" doctrine that has at times been the despair of both foreigners and Bosnians who want U.S. troops to be more active, especially in pursuing indicted war criminals. It is also due to the security conditions in Bosnia, where civilians, not soldiers, are the prime targets. The modest remaining U.S deployment pays high dividends. The U.S. role ensures Washington's political preeminence at the heart of the Balkans, a region now shaping the development of security structures in Europe.
The larger issue here is the U.S. attitude to post-conflict military missions. The new millennium will keep throwing up actual or potential conflicts requiring the sort of "messy" mandates being pioneered in the Balkans. It would be a very unhappy start to the new century if the United States abdicated its huge capacity for resolving or alleviating them.
The writer, president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, and a former Australian foreign minister, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune. The ICG report referred to, "No Early Exit," is available at www.crisisweb.org.