November 30, 1995 | Backgrounder on Europe
The recent conclusion of a Bosnian peace accord is a welcome development in a brutal conflict that has raged unchecked for four years. However, there are very serious questions that need to be answered about the political viability of the accord and the effectiveness of the American military intervention to implement it.
In his nationally televised address on November 27, President Clinton stated that he will request congressional support for the deployment of over 20,000 American ground troops to Bosnia. The President will also have to convince a very skeptical U.S. public that the sacrifice of American lives and resources is worth the short-term results he hopes to achieve. Most important, the President will have to convince both Congress and the American people that he has not committed American troops to an open-ended and ill-defined military mission in the midst of a volatile civil war.
To assess fully the tough political and military issues involved, Congress should be prepared to ask the President specific questions about the practicalities of the Bosnian peace plan and about the risks and costs associated with an American military intervention that would implement such a plan.
Questions About Political Viability
Q. Is a bifurcated Bosnian state a realistic and sustainable political entity?
The Bosnian peace accord proposes a Bosnia-Herzegovina that has the appearance of a single state, but is in fact based on two separate political entities -- the Bosnian Muslim/Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serb Republic. For the central organs of Bosnia to function as intended, the two separate entities will have to show the most extraordinary goodwill and cooperation toward each other, qualities that have never been in evidence in Bosnia.
Many experienced diplomats have expressed skepticism about the political viability of this Bosnian state and the realistic chances of its survival as a centrally governed and coherent nation. Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has stated that the accord is a contrived peace that actually creates "two and a half states."1
Much of this skepticism is rooted in the fact that the accord does not address fundamental issues of sovereignty and ethnic self-determination. Instead, it freezes those unresolved issues in place and offers up an elaborate power-sharing agreement for a Bosnian central government. However, it will be difficult for a contrived central government to replace the bonds of loyalty, authority, and legitimacy that currently exist between Bosnian Croats and Croatia and Bosnian Serbs and Serbia. These bonds are rooted in centuries of political, ethnic, and cultural identity and are sure to prove stronger than bonds to a hastily fabricated central government.
This central dilemma was noted recently by Swedish diplomat Thomas Gur, who wrote that this "peace plan has many built-in contradictions and weaknesses. Many of the proposed arrangements lay the groundwork for possible new conflicts between different minorities, and for future interventions by Serbia as well as Croatia. If the arrangements for peace in Bosnia are carried out according to the peace plan, new conflicts will be triggered by old ones."2
If history is any guide, this agreement stands little chance of lasting. In Cyprus in 1964, international negotiators reached a similar agreement between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. Much like the Bosnian agreement, the doomed Cyprus accord attempted to replace bonds to the "parent entities" for both sides (Greece and Turkey) with an unworkable central executive and ethnically aligned parliamentary blocs. This ensured continued intractability. This structure never worked because it never addressed the fundamental fears and aspirations of the warring factions and was predicated on a diplomatic fantasy: hopes for a degree of cooperation that had never been present in Cyprus. After 10 years of sporadic fighting and instability under this makeshift arrangement, Turkey invaded the island in 1974, partitioned Cyprus, and put an end to the ephemeral peace -- an imposed peace that was never locally supported. United Nations peacekeepers have been in Cyprus for over 30 years.
The same pattern can be expected in Bosnia. How can an imposed peace that does not reflect political realities or the basic concerns of the warring factions hope to survive except by the continued enforcement of thousands of NATO and American troops? The recently concluded Bosnian peace accord is inherently weak because it fails to address the fundamental issues that caused the parties to go to war in the first place. It is, at best, a cease-fire that can work only under the continued stewardship of 60,000 heavily armed NATO combat troops.3
Q. Is the Bosnian Muslim/Croat Federation itself a politically sustainable arrangement?
The entire peace accord is predicated on the notion that the Muslim/Croat Federation is a solid political entity that can be endowed with more political and military resources and that will continue to grow in cohesiveness as an uneasy counterweight to the Bosnian Serb Republic. There is considerable doubt about the solidarity of this alliance, which came about as a marriage of convenience in 1994.
Before that federation was formed, the Croats and Muslims fought a brutal war for control of cities such as Mostar in Bosnia. Contentious territorial and refugee issues remain to be settled between the two groups. Many observers believe that the Muslim/Croat Federation started to come apart as soon as there was no imminent Serbian threat to hold it together. A U.N. official in Zagreb recently noted that "the American plan rests on the assumption that the Muslim-Croat federation is solid. Maybe that plan is built on sand."4
Q. Is this peace accord locally supported?
While Slobodan Milosevic purports to speak for the Bosnian Serb leaders, local support is far from guaranteed. Since 1992, the Bosnian Serbs have reneged twice on deals backed by President Milosevic. If anything, initial signs have been distressing. All three Bosnian Serbs present at the Dayton peace talks refused to sign the peace accord, and Bosnian Serb leaders denounced the accord within hours of its initialing. Since then Bosnian Serbs in Sarajevo have staged protests and their leader, Radovan Karadzic, has insisted that the Sarajevo provisions of the peace accord doom that city to the fate of Beirut and must be renegotiated. The leader of the Bosnian Serb Parliament stated that "the agreement that has been reached does not meet even the minimum of our interests."5 In addition to these and other signs of a possible split between Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leaders, there are many different factions within the Muslim and Croat camps, all with local ambitions and aspirations. It must be remembered that there is very little central control over many paramilitary elements ostensibly connected with one of the three sides. These include, among others, the 1,000 Mujahideen militia fighters from Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere who recently have attacked British forces in Bosnia and are suspected of murdering an American working for the U.N. near Tuzla.6
Q. What issues remain unresolved, and how does the Bosnian peace accord address those problems?
It is not a good sign that some of the thorniest issues raised at Dayton were left unresolved. In particular, the dispute over the Serbian corridor around Brcko was left to be submitted to binding arbitration by a panel made up of Muslims, Serbs, and Europeans. The content, character, method, and authority of the arbitration were not specified. Also not addressed were specifics about how to integrate the two (or possibly three) rival armies into one that would serve the foreign policies of the central government, and specific measures to ensure that indicted war criminals would be brought to trial.
Q. What long-term commitment has the U.S. made to the continued security of Bosnia-Herzegovina in its planned form?
Even if the bulk of U.S. ground troops leave within 12 to 18 months, the United States will incur some form of continuing security obligation to Bosnia. President Clinton not only must define clearly the exact nature of that commitment, but also must identify the strategic resources he intends to allocate to that commitment and the contingency plans he will ask the military to prepare. The commitment of the United States to the continued existence of this state of Bosnia-Herzegovina will certainly go beyond the initial use of American troops on the ground in Bosnia. This was very much the case, for example, after the liberation of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. Since 1991, the United States has been heavily engaged in defending Kuwait, undertaking operations such as "Vigilant Warrior" in October 1994, which sent thousands of American soldiers to Kuwait on almost no notice. In addition, President Clinton just announced an extension of the U.S. military presence in Haiti. A similar commitment to Bosnia needs to be factored into the strategic, operational, logistical, resources, and fiscal planning of the military.
Questions About the Implementation Force
There also are serious questions about the military feasibility of NATO's Implementation Force (IFOR).
Q. What are the defined and measurable military objectives for this peace implementation mission?
The military mission in Bosnia will be so-called peace implementation. This is a term invented by the Clinton Administration to describe a dangerous and ambiguous mission that will be improvised on the ground and made up as it goes along. In 1994, after an intensive study of the dynamics of post-Cold War peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations, the U.S. Army released a comprehensive doctrinal manual entitled Peace Operations. This manual describes how the U.S. military will operate in various peace support missions, including support for diplomacy, peacemaking, peace building, preventive diplomacy, peacekeeping, and peace enforcement. "Peace implementation" is not addressed.
When the U.S. military is given a task, it must be one which it understands and one for which it has trained. Clearly defined, decisive, and attainable military objectives must be identified, and these objectives must contribute directly to the political goals of the operation. There are significant doubts about the existence of such objectives in the Bosnia peace implementation force. The United States must be able to measure the success of operations and formulate an exit strategy that leaves something sustainable behind. It brings to mind the confusion felt by Marines in Lebanon when they were asked to go ashore in 1982 and "establish a presence." That is not a defined military mission. It is merely a deployment of troops without a realizable mission.
Q. Why will American forces work under self-imposed restraints?
Peacekeeping, peace enforcement, or even peace implementation are missions that depend ultimately on the goodwill of the warring factions in order to succeed. There is no question of trying to coerce all factions into a pattern of behavior with only 60,000 NATO troops (of whom fewer than 20,000 will be "trigger pullers"). The bottom line for the American armed forces is that they will be in a mission that places U.S. troops in a strategically passive posture.
After the Vietnam war and the 1983 disaster in Lebanon, American political and military officials formulated a comprehensive doctrine ensuring that when U.S. troops are deployed into imminent hostilities, it is with a coherent strategy and every conceivable operational advantage. One condition guaranteed to the military is that they will receive a mission that allows American forces the operational freedom and resources to keep the initiative of action -- to dictate the terms of battle to their advantage. This allows American military forces to create the conditions they need to succeed. It is a formula that worked brilliantly in Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, and even in peace operations like the initial U.S.-led humanitarian relief effort by President Bush in Somalia.
The Bosnia peace implementation plan does the opposite. It strips any advantage from American ground forces and places U.S. troops in a passive and reactive posture. It gives the initiative of action to the warring factions and ensures that, regardless of U.S. action, the warring factions will be the sole determinants of mission success.
Secretary of Defense William Perry has tried to pre-empt the inevitable criticism of this static and passive military role for American forces by insisting that the U.S. will be "the meanest dog in town." This gives the U.S. the opportunity to respond to tactical attacks, but still within a strategically passive mission. It raises again the specter of strategic incoherence that was so prevalent in U.S. strategy during the Vietnam war. While the U.S. may "win" all the little fights on the ground in Bosnia, the entire effort may have nothing to show for its "victories" at the end of the mission.
Being the "meanest dog in town" is no advantage in Bosnian terrain that negates the U.S. superiority in armor and maneuver. It is no advantage against a foe who, in the words of strategist Andrew Krepinevich, will be more likely to attack U.S. forces as "fleas, and not another dog."7 It is no advantage when the U.S. is kept chained by a passive and static strategy that deprives the U.S. of the operational advantages of effective military doctrine. This mission will give the U.S. forces all the political constraints and liabilities of traditional peacekeeping, but with all the dangers and expenses of an enforcement operation -- and with no control over the results. Peace implementation combines the worst of both worlds, with no guarantee that the benefits of American intervention will outweigh the costs.
Q. How will American forces know when they have accomplished their mission and are ready to leave?
In order for the U.S. to avoid "mission creep" -- the unintended and unanticipated acceptance of new missions and new mandates -- it must stick to a comprehensive and clearly articulated strategy that lays out military objectives and a clear exit strategy. President Clinton stated in his national address that the mission in Bosnia would be clear, limited, and achievable. For that to be true, clearly defined and easily measurable military criteria must be identified at all levels of the military effort: strategic, operational, and tactical. The prospects and costs of achieving these criteria also must be clearly stated.
The American and NATO forces deployed to Bosnia have very broad powers that extend to disarmament, refugee resettlement, election security, and even nation-building. A workable military campaign plan must reconcile those sweeping and comprehensive powers with the President's wish to keep the mission clear, limited, and achievable; it is inconsistent to state that the mission will be limited and at the same time plan for the forces to accomplish something politically sustainable. President Clinton has maintained all along that this deployment will be limited in scope, but the peace accord opens the door for NATO peacekeepers to perform many nation-building activities such as ensuring the free movement and resettlement of refugees, aiding humanitarian workers, resolving boundary disputes, creating secure conditions for free elections, and responding to violence against civilians.
Having multiple missions requires the military to have different criteria for success in these many tasks. In addition, the criteria for success at lower levels must add up to success at higher levels. The U.S. should not repeat the mistakes of the Vietnam war, in which criteria for success such as body counts and ammunition expenditure were ultimately irrelevant to the strategic and political outcome. Criteria should be easily measurable and must lead ultimately to an exit strategy. The exit strategy for a successful Bosnian peace implementation force must be driven by events, not by time as the President has suggested. It also cannot just reflect a "checklist" of tasks for American forces to accomplish. The exit strategy must be constructed with the intention of leaving behind a locally supported peace that does not require an open-ended commitment of American troops. In addition, in the very likely event that something does not go according to plan, several different exit strategies must be included in contingency plans. All possible eventualities must be planned for in military operations.
Q. How do American forces intend to avoid "mission creep?"
Even with clearly defined, limited, achievable, and measurable objectives, U.S. forces can be subject to mission creep and escalatory fighting. The broad authority granted to NATO troops is a well-intentioned attempt by military planners to give the passively postured U.S. troops some measure of control over their environment and to help them minimize their risks and casualties. However, it also plants the seeds for mission creep and open-ended commitments. Ironically, the dynamics of mission creep and escalation will be most likely to take root when U.S. soldiers do the smart thing in response to aggression.
For instance, responding to attacks with "robust" rules of engagement will necessarily mean offensive combat operations. Vice President Al Gore noted recently that "if challenged, [American troops] will respond with brutal and overwhelming force... not just to provocations, but to evident intent."8 This aggressive attitude is in keeping with successful military doctrine, but it also presents a hazardous dilemma to American forces. If U.S. forces respond only to the immediate source of low-level attacks or threatened attacks (snipers, mortal teams, small paramilitary units), they run the risk of expending considerable resources in an attempt to swat a fly with a sledgehammer. If, however, as the Vice President implies, the U.S. commander chooses the far more effective option of responding to the primary source of the attack (local command headquarters, larger units, or leaders), then the action could easily deepen U.S. involvement. Robust rules of engagement are truly a double-edged sword in an intervention that is supposed to remain "limited." By being tough and going after the "source" of the attack, the U.S. could escalate the conflict and lead to retaliations which require even harsher responses from the U.S. side.
The most poignant example of this occurred in Somalia. In June 1993, 24 Pakistani peacekeepers were killed by a mob of Somalis that included women and children. Instead of attempting to ferret out the responsible parties from within a surging street mob, the U.N. commander asked the U.S. to help him hit the source of the attack -- General Mohammed Farah Aideed. The U.S. then launched a series of limited offensive attacks to cut down Aideed's military power base and capture Aideed himself. This drew the U.S. deeper into the Somali conflict and gave American troops a new status as one more local faction in the Somali wars. All of this was brought on by robust rules of engagement. Although President Clinton talked tough in his November 27 speech, there are considerable risks and costs involved with "fighting fire with fire, and then some." As James Webb, former Secretary of the Navy and a highly decorated Vietnam combat veteran observed, the Bosnia rules of engagement are "a formula for confusion once a combat unit sent on a distinctly noncombat mission comes under repeated attack."9
American troops will want to respond with disproportionate force in order to deter or discourage further attacks. However, the use of force always tends to draw all sides into further confrontation. Recent history provides unambiguous evidence of this. Attempts to undertake coercive disarmament or use robust rules of engagement in a peacekeeping-type operation failed in U.N. operations in the Congo in 1960-1964 and the former Yugoslavia and in U.S. missions in Lebanon (1982-1983) and Somalia (1992-1994). NATO's Implementation Force will be caught in a dilemma: The more aggressively it operates, the better its chances of success and force protection, but also the more it will get drawn into the conflict and be seen as yet another warring faction.
Q. Will the early withdrawal of American forces be supported by European allies, or will it cause the mission to collapse?
Clinton has anticipated that American troops will be withdrawn within one year. In fact, the peace accord opens the possibility that the redeployment of American forces could begin as early as six months into the operation. European allies have universally condemned President Clinton's proposed timetable for American forces in Bosnia. President Chirac of France has predicted an armed NATO presence that could last up to 20 years. The United States intends to leave within 12 months because American public support would never tolerate a protracted and costly intervention in an area of marginal strategic interest to America. However, this action could damage U.S. credibility even further.
In addition, local belligerents from all three factions who stand to gain by a continued American military presence are very likely to try to prevent U.S. withdrawal. In the past two years, U.N. units in Bosnia have been attacked by "friendly" factions opposed to their withdrawal or redeployment. The history of peacekeeping or peace enforcement does not offer many instances in which heavily involved forces have been able to make a quick and graceful exit. This brings to mind the Duke of Wellington's classic admonition that "Great nations do not fight small wars." This reflects the fact that great powers cannot skip blithely in and out of conflicts. Once the prestige, honor, blood, and treasure of the United States are engaged, the U.S. will have to see the intervention through to its conclusion.
Q. What are the American contingency plans to deal with resistance to the efforts of the Implementation Force?
Military commanders with experience in the Balkans have emphasized that U.S. forces are certain to encounter resistance from armed elements in Bosnia.10 President Clinton has stated that should the peace accord break down, U.S. troops would withdraw rather than stay in the midst of renewed civil war. A complete breakdown is not likely to happen because all parties benefit in the short run from the opportunity to rest and re-arm. It is far more likely that there will be sporadic and local levels of resistance and intransigence, in which case the United States will have only three bad options: the "Northern Ireland option," in which the U.S. struggles on with the original mandate of the mission, accepting the casualties and continued commitment to the operation with no easily achievable end-state in sight; the "Vietnam option," in which the U.S. reinforces its forces and expands its mission and rules of engagement in order to try to force a solution through a more significant military effort; or the "Lebanon or Somalia option," in which the U.S. simply gives up and goes home. Any prolonged resistance could force the U.S. military in Bosnia into one of these options. There is no easy way out in Bosnia, especially in light of the resistance that can be anticipated.
Q. How does the U.S. plan to assume a peacekeeping role, train and arm the Bosnian Muslims, and supervise or enforce a "build-down" of Serbian armaments all at the same time?
The implementation plan calls for the Bosnian Serbs to "reduce their military potential to the level where it is no longer a threat to the federation. If the Bosnian Serbs do not disarm, the United States has given assurances to the Bosnian government that it will level the playing field by equipping and training the Bosnian army."11 There are many questions still to be answered about the modalities of this mission and what role U.S. forces will play. The IFOR has broad powers under the agreement, including the power to remove or relocate certain units or weapons that it feels may threaten the mission. This will entail an active and most likely coercive role for IFOR. In addition, it remains to be seen how Bosnian Serb military potential will be measured, who will do the measuring, and exactly what types of coercive action will be taken against factions that refuse to disarm.
In Somalia the U.S. discovered that the same force cannot act as a neutral peacekeeper and conduct coercive disarmament at the same time. It is a proven formula for disaster. Another lesson was that coercive and comprehensive disarmament very rapidly draws the coercer into the conflict. The initial American-led operation in Somalia gave American forces circumscribed and localized rules of engagement that allowed U.S. troops to disarm Somalis who immediately threatened U.S. operations. However, the nation-building mandate of the U.N.-led operation in Somalia greatly increased the mandate for disarmament, and in 1993 U.N. forces began aggressively to seek out the arms caches of warring factions in Mogadishu. This led directly to the disastrous street battle of October 3, 1993, in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed and over 75 wounded.
The only other option for a disarmament plan such as the one written into the Bosnian peace accord is to ignore those factions that refuse to disarm and hope that they choose to remain passive. This is what the United Nations did in Cambodia in 1992-1993. When the Khmer Rouge refused to honor the disarmament provisions of the Cambodian peace treaty, the U.N. commander knew it would be folly to try to coerce over 50,000 Khmer Rouge guerrillas into disarmament. The U.N. commander's plan instead was to "ride his luck"12 and hope the Khmer Rouge did not disrupt the Cambodian elections or peace process. He knew that to pursue reluctant belligerents could draw his troops into a long, bloody, and fruitless contest. The same dilemma will confront the IFOR in Bosnia: Pursue disarmament at great cost and risk escalating the fighting, or ignore intransigent belligerents and "hope" for their goodwill and cooperation.
In addition to these problems, any perception of American evenhandedness will be compromised by the plan to arm the Bosnian Muslims or Croats. European allies have strongly resisted the U.S. plan to arm and train the Muslims. However, the key to lasting peace in the Balkans is a local balance of power, and it is doubtful that this can be achieved without lifting the arms embargo (scheduled to be lifted 90 days after the peace accord is signed in Paris) and training the Muslims. Either way, the mission to "level the playing field" is fraught with difficulty for an outside party trying to create and sustain the subtleties of a local standoff in Bosnia.
Q. Will the command and control structure worked out with the Russians stand up to the pressures of the mission?
Command and control structures must be responsive, authoritative, rehearsed, and legitimate. Most important, they must be organized to handle the stress and strain of a "worst case scenario." An authoritative command and control structure can offer a framework for action and response when military missions are faced with dangerous and contentious situations. The arrangement worked out with Russia looks reasonable on paper, but is likely to break down under pressure. Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev has stated that the Russian commander and the national authorities in Moscow have veto power over orders issued to the Russian contingent by the U.S. commander. This sort of arrangement can elevate tactical disagreements to a political level and exacerbate friction between the U.S. and Russia. The Administration would do well to heed an old military aphorism: "If you cannot explain the command and control structure in less than 10 seconds, it isn't going to work."
Because goals and objectives are hard to define in a peace enforcement operation of this sort, European, American, and Russian policy could diverge to a great degree, as it has in the recent past. Much the same happened in Somalia. In the absence of clearly defined and measurable military goals, peace enforcement forces from different nations approached their mission in very different ways. This divergence caused the U.S. to insist on the removal of the Italian commander in Somalia. Imagine the imbroglios that could develop among the U.S., Russia, and the Europeans after NATO and Russian troops start dying in Bosnia. Peace enforcement is yet to be proven as a viable military concept, and its lack of conceptual and practical clarity means that when the shooting starts, everybody interprets the mandates in different ways. Failure to address these issues within a workable command and control framework could cause a further deterioration of alliance solidarity.
Very serious questions remain about the recently concluded Bosnia peace accord. The political plan is admittedly tenuous, as evidenced by the fact that its implementation requires some 60,000 NATO combat troops. The fact is that this accord cannot succeed without clearly evident local support. Among the many questions that remain to be answered are those concerning the political viability of a hastily cobbled-together Bosnian state whose planned structure does not clearly address the fundamental political aims and concerns of the previously warring parties. A peace accord does not necessarily make the peace, and it must be remembered that some Nobel Prize-winning accords, such as the 1974 Vietnam peace settlement, have collapsed in ignominy because they did not address the basic issues at hand.
In addition, the military strategy of the peace implementation plan must undergo a rigorous examination to determine whether the objectives and modus operandi of the Implementation Force represent a sound and coherent plan for NATO. There is an inherent contradiction between the President's stated desire to keep the mission "clear, limited, and achievable" and the sweeping authority given to the NATO force in areas such as disarmament, refugee resettlement, and nation-building. In addition, contingency plans to address all manner of resistance must be addressed categorically. Calculations about costs, benefits, and the probability of success must be applied to all possible circumstances and discussed fully.
The Bosnian peace plan is a tremendously risky enterprise. All of the factors involved in its implementation must be fully understood and debated before American lives and prestige are put on the line in Bosnia-Herzegovina.