Civil War: Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995)

Steven Shewfelt. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


For the first time since the Middle Ages, Bosnia-Herzegovina (referred to as Bosnia in this article) became an independent nation in 1992, one of six states that would eventually emerge from the ashes of the former Yugoslavia. The price Bosnians paid for this sovereignty was a civil war in which hundreds of thousands were killed, millions displaced from their homes, and war crimes and atrocities committed on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. The Bosnian war was the severest of the four wars that (so far) have resulted from the demise of Yugoslavia, but it cannot be understood without reference to the broader context in which it occurred. At the same time, Bosnia has been fought over for centuries, and any decision about when the story should begin is somewhat arbitrary. This article begins with the Yugoslavian context from which modern Bosnia emerged, then devotes most attention to the particulars of the recent war.

Country Background

The second Yugoslavia was established after World War II, which coincided in the Balkans with a vicious civil war that claimed as many as 1.7 million lives. In Yugoslavia, the memory of this era was “politically almost as powerful as the history of the Holocaust is in Israeli politics today” (Denitch 1994, 31). Communist partisans led by Josep Broz Tito defeated both the Ustashe, a Nazi puppet regime based in Croatia, and Serbian nationalist Chetniks and ushered in an era of heavy-handed, antinationalist, Communist rule. Tito ruled largely through the strength of his personality and, to keep a lid on renewed disputes between ethnic or religious groups, forbade any expressions of nationalist sentiment. Until its collapse, Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia) and two autonomous regions (Kosovo and Vojvodina). Within these republics lived, in relative peace, people who classified themselves as belonging to at least ten different nationalities.

Most of the Yugoslav republics were dominated by their namesake ethnic group (Serbia by mostly ethnic Serbs, Croatia by mostly ethnic Croats, etc.). Bosnia was different. In 1991, it contained about 43 percent Muslims, 31 percent ethnic Serbs, 17 percent ethnic Croats, and a mix of other nationalities. Once the war began, this balance meant that the conflict over what should become of Bosnia was far more intense than in other republics. Ethnicity was generally an important cleavage, but a significant cultural divide also existed between conservative, often ethnically intolerant rural Bosnians and more cosmopolitan urban Bosnians who were less concerned with ethnicity. Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital and largest city, typified this cosmopolitan Yugoslav identity. It had been the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics and remained home to houses of worship from all the Yugoslav faiths. Throughout Bosnia, “[o]ne of the three ethnic groups usually predominated in any given area, but in most places there was at least some ethnic commingling at some level of dispersion. Before the war there were places in Bosnia where one could, for instance, find a Serb-majority street within a Croat-majority town in a Muslim-majority opstina (county or municipality)” (CIA 2002, 121).

The Bosnian Croat population was concentrated in the Herzegovina region in southwestern Bosnia, along the border with Croatia. Historically, the mostly rural Herzegovinian Croats have been more politically extreme than other Bosnian Croats; Serbs were known to say “nothing grows in western Herzegovina except rocks, snakes, and Ustashe” (Silber and Little 1996, 212). The Bosnian Serb population was spread out, with some majority Serb districts in eastern Bosnia and in the north and west along the borders with the Croatian Krajina. The majority of Serbs were rural, and although there was an urban-rural political divide among Serbs, most shared something of a martyr complex, a legacy of prior Serb victimization at the hands of the Ustashe. Unlike Bosnian Croats and Serbs, most of whom viewed Croatia and Serbia as their respective homelands, Muslims in Bosnia did not have an ethnic homeland. There had been Muslims in Bosnia since the Turkish occupation in the fifteenth century, and districts with majority Muslim populations were spread throughout Bosnia, with concentrations in the far northwest corner near Bihac and in pockets in central and eastern Bosnia.

By the late 1980s, three sets of issues were contributing to the tensions that would eventually lead to Yugoslavia’s disintegration and war in Bosnia (CIA 2002, 45). The first was economic. By the 1980s, unemployment had risen, foreign debt levels had become unsustainable, economic growth had slowed, and real income was dropping (Woodward 1995). These deteriorating economic conditions exacerbated existing tensions over uneven development between republics. Slovenia and Croatia enjoyed the most advanced economies of the republics, and many resented their disproportionately large contributions to the federal tax base and began to push for economic liberalization. Meanwhile, although Bosnia had enjoyed some economic improvements during Tito’s reign, it remained less developed than the other republics. “GNP per capita was 35 percent below the Yugoslav average in 1981” (Burg and Shoup 1999, 43).

Second, growing interrepublic political tensions and demands for increased political autonomy began to emerge after Tito’s death in 1980. Many believed that ethnic Serbs had too much power in the federal government. In fact, they made up the largest single group in the Yugoslav population and were dominant in the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) officer corps. Furthermore, the federal government was seated in the Serbian Republic. These types of concerns had led to a new constitution in 1974 that had transferred authority away from the federal center to the republics and autonomous regions and provided for an eight-member presidency that would rotate annually among them. In the early 1980s the plan seemed to be working, but without Tito’s as the galvanizing force, the republics had trouble remaining unified. By the late 1980s, the federal government “retained effective authority only within the spheres of foreign policy, the economy, and defense. Even these domains had begun to erode as some of the individual republics undertook their own foreign and economic policies independent of—and at times at odds with—the federal government’s” (CIA 2002, 45).

Finally, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought with it the deterioration of Yugoslavia’s most powerful unifying force: the Communist Party. Communists were largely replaced by (and often became) nationalists, further increasing interrepublic divisions. To these were added increased intrarepublic divisions in Bosnia, where the party had been multiethnic, made up in 1982 of 42.8 percent, 35 percent, and 11.9 percent ethnic Serbs, Muslims, and Croats, respectively (Burg and Shoup 1999, 45). The fact that ethnic Serbs and Croats in Bosnia were targets of nationalist appeals in Serbia and Croatia only exacerbated this dynamic. Multiparty elections held in Bosnia in November 1990 were decided exclusively along ethnic lines. The three parties that collectively gained nearly 90 percent of the votes were

  1. the Party of Democratic Action (Stranka Demokratske Akcije [SDA]), the Muslim party led by Alija Izetbegovic, an activist who had been imprisoned twice by the Communists for advocating a larger role for Islam in Bosnia;
  2. the Serb Democratic Party (Srpska Demokratska Stranka Bosne I Hercegovine [SDS]), the Serb party led by Radovan Karadzic, a former psychiatrist adamantly opposed to any move to lessen the connection between Bosnia and Yugoslavia; and
  3. the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica Bonse I Hercegovine [HDZ]), the Bosnian branch of the Croatian nationalist party, a branch that was divided internally between some who wanted to preserve the unity of Bosnia and others who wanted to annex the Croatian-majority areas of Bosnia to Croatia.

The pace of Yugoslavia’s deterioration had accelerated on April 24, 1987, when Slobodan Milosevic, then first secretary of the Serbian Communist Party, made an inflammatory speech in Kosovo, a predominantly Albanian Muslim autonomous region of great historical importance to Serbian nationalists, and began his ride to power on a wave of Serbian nationalism. This Serb nationalism, rooted in a martyr complex that asserted that Serbs were being denied their rightful role in Yugoslavia, threatened to upset the country’s balance of minorities and, in the eyes of most Slovenes, Croats, and Muslims, validated their discomfort with Serb domination of the federal government.

By May 1991, referenda in both Slovenia and Croatia had come out overwhelmingly in favor of secession. Negotiations between the republics on the future of the federation brought no solutions, and war began on June 25, when both Slovenia and Croatia unilaterally declared themselves independent. Milosevic acceded to Slovenia’s secession after a short and relatively bloodless war, but the large ethnic Serb minority in Croatia bristled at the idea of living in a Croat-dominated state, and Milosevic sent in the JNA to crush the rebellion and ostensibly to protect Serbs from attacks by Croat nationalists. Some in the army viewed their actions as an attempt to preserve Yugoslavia; although dominated by ethnic Serbs, the army was also the federal institution that, more than any other, realized Tito’s slogan, “Brotherhood and Unity” (CIA 2002, 46). That the mission in Croatia was pursued with the help of ultranationalist Serbian militia by murdering or evicting nearly all non-Serbs living in predominantly Serbian regions of Croatia suggests that many in the JNA also viewed their role in ethnic terms. Thus began the “ethnic cleansing” of the former Yugoslavia.

The summer of 1991 in Bosnia was filled with tense and acrimonious negotiations between the SDA, the SDS, and the HDZ over the future of Bosnia. As Nikola Koljevic, an SDS representative on the Bosnian Presidency, said, “Throughout 1991, even in the beginning of 1992, each side thought the other wouldn’t dare. And there was that terrible tense political game. Until finally we found ourselves at the point of no return” (Silber and Little 1996, 212). In October, over the fierce objections of its Serb members, the Bosnia parliament voted in favor of Bosnian sovereignty. The Serb members of the republic declared their own parliament in response, and it voted to remain part of the Serb-dominated rump Yugoslavia.

In mid-December 1991, Germany pressured the European Commission (EC) into announcing that former Yugoslav republics requesting international recognition would be granted such recognition in mid-January in the context of a global solution to the Yugoslav issue and if they met certain yet-to-be-specified human rights conditions. Several days later, Izetbegovic, president of the Bosnian Presidency, a rotating body with two seats each for Muslims, Serbs, and Croats and one for a Yugoslav, led a vote to seek EC recognition. Only the Presidency’s Serb members voted against the decision. Circumstances were exacerbated when, on December 23, against the wishes of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations, Germany unilaterally recognized Slovenia and Croatia as independent.

In January 1992, the EC ruled that Bosnian Serb hostility to the application for recognition was grounds for rejection and proposed a referendum to resolve the issue. Bosnian Serb politicians attempted to preempt any such referendum by declaring their own Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (later named Republica Srpska [RS]). When the referendum did occur from February 27 to March 1, it was decided almost exactly along ethnic lines, with Serbs boycotting it and Muslims and Croats voting in favor of independence. In what has been described as “a dry run for an eventual Serb takeover, orchestrated from Belgrade” (Burg and Shoup 1999, 118), Serbs set up barricades in Sarajevo. Popular protests in Mostar and Sarajevo repudiated the masked gunmen behind the barricades and demanded their removal, which Izetbegovic read as a political defeat for the Serbs. He declared Bosnia independent on March 3, and the declaration was ratified by the Bosnian parliament (minus the boycotting Serb members) later that evening.

Conflict Background

In a sense, then, the war that began in Bosnia in the spring of 1992 is best characterized as an ethnically driven attempted secession within a secession. At the outset, the war pitted the Bosnian Serbs, whose first wish was to remain part of Yugoslavia, against the newly independent Bosnian government, which was at the outset a shaky alliance mostly of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, both of whom wanted to secede from Yugoslavia.

Between Bosnia’s declaration of independence and the EC’s April 6 recognition of that independence, all sides prepared for the imminent war. “This first phase of the struggle was characterized by the breakdown of law and order, the takeover of power throughout the republic by the national parties and their “crisis staffs” (krizni shtabovi), and local confrontations, mostly between Serbs and Croats, in anticipation of major battles to come” (Burg and Shoup 1999, 119). When Izetbegovic issued a call for the mobilization of reservists on April 4, the SDS called on Serbs to evacuate Sarajevo. Shelling of Sarajevo began on April 6, and Serb paramilitary troops, along with Serb JNA reservists, crossed the Drina River the next day to begin claiming eastern Bosnia for the Serbs. Full-scale war had begun.

The Vojske Republike Srpske (VRS [Army of the Serb Republic]) began the war comprised of about 250,000 men and had a huge advantage over its opponents in weapons, including tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, and mortars. This advantage in armaments was to be the single biggest factor in the early Serb victories. The VRS’s weakness, as the war developed, was its manpower disadvantage. By the end of the war, the VRS could field only about 155,000 men. The Bosnian government, on the other hand, was almost entirely unprepared for war. The VRS had inherited most of the weaponry from the JNA in Bosnia, and “[on] 15 April 1992, when the Bosnian Government in Sarajevo declared the establishment of a military force, the Bosnian Army [ARBiH] consisted of little more than the text of the announcement” (CIA 2002, 143). By the end of that month, the Bosnian government could probably field somewhat more than 100,000 men, fewer than half of whom had small arms and virtually none of whom had heavy weapons. In Herzegovina, Bosnian Croats had assembled about 25,000 reasonably well-armed paramilitary troops and had the added benefit of ongoing support from the Croatian Army.

The Bosnian government was vulnerable at the outset of the war; its main objective was to survive and retain as much territory as possible. The poor preparations for the war meant that there was little in the way of a central strategy and that “for the first year of the war, both the government as a whole and each government-held region essentially fought its own battle for survival” (CIA 2002, 142). Sarajevo became the war’s most visible symbol. After the government, with the help of a host of local gang members, turned back a Serb attempt to divide the city in early May, it remained in the government’s hands for the rest of the war. The VRS decision to lay siege to Sarajevo and shell it from the surrounding hills, hoping to coerce concessions from the government, did much to turn the international community against the Serbs.

Outside Sarajevo, 1992 marked the beginning of the ethnic cleansing campaign. Muslim towns along the Drina River, in the east of Bosnia, and along the Sava River in the north were overwhelmed by VRS troops, often with the help of Serbian irregulars and reservists. The Serbs also made significant inroads in central Bosnia. However, the areas around the eastern towns of Gorazde, Zepa, and Srebrenica and the northwestern town of Bihac withstood Serb attacks. “The Serbs also failed to establish a secure corridor in the north between Banja Luka… and Serbia” (Burg and Shoup 1999, 133). In Herzegovina, combined Croat and Muslim forces retook Mostar and cleared it and the surrounding regions of most Serbs.

By early 1993, the ARBiH was able to field 261,500 reasonably well-armed and increasingly professional troops, 90 percent of whom were volunteers (CIA 2002, 180). Furthermore, the ARBiH began to rein in the criminal gangs that had been essential to the early Sarajevo defense but were now a liability. This increase in capability enabled the ARBiH to take the offensive in some areas, although the Serbs consolidated their hold on eastern Bosnia. Meanwhile, in Sarajevo, which remained the most visible front in the war, Muslims and Serbs maneuvered for political and military advantage, with the government desperately angling for forceful international intervention on its behalf and the Serbs continuing to shell the city and press their advantage as much as possible without provoking such intervention.

International efforts to end the war intensified in 1993 and paradoxically played a role in launching two new fighting fronts. The first new front erupted after Cyrus Vance and David Owen, who represented the UN and the EC, respectively, as the cochairmen of the Peace Conference on Former Yugoslavia, proposed the Vance-Owen Peace Plan (VOPP). The VOPP would have preserved Bosnia as a single state but devolved substantial powers to each of ten provinces defined primarily by ethnicity. The Croats, eager for autonomy within the Croat-majority regions, immediately accepted the plan. Once the map was published, “the Bosnian Croat serving as minister of defense of Bosnia-Herzegovina ordered Croat forces to take control of those provinces expected to be Croat-majority territories. His action was immediately opposed by the Muslim commander of the Bosnian army” (Burg and Shoup 1999, 134). Soon, the Croats began a massive shelling of the Muslim half of Mostar, which they viewed as the “capital” of their new statelet, and Muslims and Croats began fighting in much of central Bosnia, with Croats ethnically cleansing “their” provinces. The VOPP was rejected in a Bosnian Serb referendum, but negotiations based on it continued until September, when Izetbegovic withdrew, calling the latest proposal “genocidal.” A second new front emerged when Fikret Abdic, a rival of Izetbegovic’s and a Muslim representative on the Bosnian Presidency from Bihac, broke from Izetbegovic over his withdrawal and declared the creation of the “Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia,” of which he was the president. Within six weeks, he had made peace with both the Bosnian Serb and Croat forces and joined them in fighting the Bosnian government.

Serbs were the main beneficiaries of the Croat-Muslim fighting. The Bosnian Croats were outnumbered by the Muslims and lost more in the fighting, but because Croatia supported the Bosnian Croats, the fighting also took a heavy toll on the Muslims. When the United States threatened Croatian President Franjo Tudjman with economic sanctions if he didn’t stop supporting the Bosnian Croats, Tudjman endorsed the talks that led to the signing of the Washington Agreement on March 1, 1994. The agreement ended the Croat-Muslim fighting and created the federation that became the basis of the postwar governing structure in the areas still under government control. In contrast, the intra-Muslim fighting in Bihac dragged on until late summer 1994, when the ARBiH 5th Corps finally managed to defeat the breakaway Muslim forces.

From a strategic perspective, the end of the Croat-Muslim fighting was extremely important, as it allowed a now battle-tested ARBiH augmented by Croatian allies to focus its attention exclusively on the fight with the VRS. Just as important, the Washington Agreement reopened an arms pipeline to the ARBiH. The Bosnians took this opportunity to employ a new strategy that would, almost for the first time in the war, put the VRS on the defensive and mitigate its continued advantage in heavy arms. In early 1994, ARBiH General Rasim Delic “placed his hopes on war of attrition across the country that would employ small to medium-sized attacks in an effort to wear down the Serbs and gain back key bits of territory. He believed his bigger army could absorb more easily than the VRS the manpower losses this strategy would require … battle after battle raged day after day for obscure villages, mountains, and roads throughout Bosnia” (CIA 2002, 219). Although the VRS was not overwhelmed, it lost much of the strategic initiative and, undermanned and demoralized, was largely unable to retain territory when it did take the offensive.

The VRS attempted to retake the initiative in April 1994 with an assault on Gorazde, one of the designated UN “safe areas” along the Drina that had held out against the 1992 Serbian campaign in eastern Bosnia. The VRS attack was a military success but a strategic error, as it led to increased international pressure on the VRS and its allies in Serbia. After Ratko Mladic, the VRS general, refused UN demands to cease the attacks, NATO on April 10 launched punitive air-to-ground strikes, the first in its history. The pinprick strikes had little military impact, but they did signal the entry of a new phase in the war. Mladic took 150 UN personnel hostage and launched a retaliatory shelling of Tuzla. However, he eventually ended the attack on Gorazde at the request of Milosevic, who was also under international pressure to stop the war.

The groundwork for the international community’s increased assertiveness had been laid in February 1994, when, in a rare display of decisiveness and resolve, the West responded to a mortar shell that killed sixty-nine people at a market in Sarajevo. Media coverage of the carnage was instantaneous, the international public was outraged, and within days NATO, led by France and the United States, issued an ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs to remove their heavy weapons from a 20-kilometer “exclusion zone” around Sarajevo or submit them to UN control. If they failed to do so, they were warned, they would face NATO air strikes. Mladic eventually complied with this demand, and the shelling of Sarajevo ceased. Although life for Sarajevans improved, this changed little militarily; the front lines around Sarajevo remained in place, and both the siege and the broader war continued unabated.

1995 began with a four-month cease-fire negotiated by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that significantly decreased fighting while giving each side a chance to rebuild for their spring campaigns. Sure enough, hostilities restarted in the spring when the VRS reentered the 20-kilometer exclusion zone around Sarajevo and resumed shelling. When the VRS refused renewed UN demands that the heavy weapons be removed, NATO launched another round of largely symbolic air strikes against Serb positions. This time, the VRS responded by redoubling their efforts, including launching a mortar into a crowded cafe in the center of Tuzla, killing seventy-one people, and taking more than 200 UN personnel hostage throughout Bosnia.

In July, after a failed ARBiH attempt to break the siege of Sarajevo, the VRS sought to regain the initiative and consolidate its acquisitions in eastern Bosnia. During this effort, the Serbs launched an offensive in Srebrenica that would lead to the worst single massacre of civilians in Europe since World War II. The VRS overran the Srebrenica enclave on July 11, 1995, and while Dutch peacekeepers stood by, they separated the men and boys over eleven years of age from the women and children. Within a few days, more than 7,000 had been murdered. More than any other single event, this massacre demonstrated conclusively just how impotent the international community was in the face of flagrant violations of the safe areas and of the Serbs’ continuing ethnic cleansing.

Following a series of Croatian successes in retaking territory from Croatian Serbs in May 1995, a joint ARBiH/Bosnian Croat/Croatian offensive in western Bosnia led to rapid and dramatic changes in the control of Bosnian territory. By the time this offensive was over, Serb-controlled territory had fallen from nearly 70 percent to less than 50 percent of Bosnia. Ultimately, the ARBiH offensives that had been going on for much of the summer, combined with these joint offensives, “forced on Mladic and the VRS the realization that the military balance had decisively shifted against the Serbs; a cease-fire and a peace agreement were all they had left to protect the existence of Republika Srpska” (CIA 2002, 391).

The Serb need to find a peace settlement was confirmed when NATO responded, beginning August 30, to a mortar attack that killed 37 people in a Sarajevo market by launching a series of devastating air strikes (code-named “Operation Deliberate Force”) on Serb positions throughout Bosnia. On the same day, Karadzic, Mladic, and Momcilo Krajisnik, president of the RS Parliament, signed with Milosevic what came to be known as the Patriarch’s Agreement because it had been sponsored by the Serbian Orthodox patriarch (Silber and Little 1996, 365-366). The Patriarch’s Agreement gave Milosevic the authority to negotiate on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs. NATO suspended its bombing September 15 when U.S. negotiator Richard Holbrooke signed an agreement with the Serbs to remove their heavy weapons from around Sarajevo. Fighting continued over the next month as each side attempted to consolidate its gains in anticipation of a negotiated end to the war. Finally, on November 12, Izetbegovic, Milosevic, and Tudjman met at a Camp David-style summit in Dayton, Ohio, where Holbrooke kept them until they had negotiated the peace agreement that ended the war.

The Insurgents

As is clear from its description, the war in Bosnia was not an asymmetric civil war pitting a clearly established government against a smaller, less powerful group of insurgents. Rather, the war emerged from the disintegration of Yugoslavia and was fought by three major fighting forces.

The JNA was one of the largest armies in Europe, but it was not Yugoslavia’s only fighting force. Following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Tito restructured the Yugoslav military to improve the probability that the country could repel an attack by the Soviets. He did so by creating a complement to the JNA called the Territorial Defense (Territorijalna Odbrana [TO]). The TO concept meant that the entire male population would receive military training and, in the event of attack, would mobilize to fight a partisan war against any occupying force. The TO was decentralized; each republic’s political authorities were in charge of their TO forces and the stockpiles of small arms at their disposal (TOs lacked heavy armaments). Although the JNA comprised about 170,000 soldiers at the beginning of the 1990s, the TO theoretically could call up more than 1.2 million (CIA 2002, 47-48).

Sources: Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Fearon and Laitin 2003; Lacina and Gleditsch 2005; World Development Indicators 2005.
War: Bosnia government vs. Republika Srpska vs. Croats
Dates: March 1992-November 1995
Casualties: 250,000 total deaths. Between 55,000 (Lacina and Gleditsch 2005) and 150,000 (Doyle and Sambanis 2000) battle deaths.
Regime type prior to war: Not applicable; Bosnia did not exist as a state prior to the war. Score of-5 for Yugoslavia in 1991.
Regime type after war: Not applicable; although several elections have occurred since the war ended, administration of Bosnia has been overseen by the international community, represented politically by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and militarily by a variety of foreign military powers.
GDP/capita year war began: Unknown. Figures for 1990 ($4,548) and 1991 ($2,740) are in 1985 US dollars and are only for Yugoslavia (Fearon and Laitin 2003).
GDP/capita 5 years after war: $1,177 in 2006 US dollars (World Development Indicators 2005).
Insurgents (combatants): Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Muslims
Issue: Ethnicity, secession
Rebel funding: Neighboring states Serbia and Croatia, illegal smuggling, stockpiles of weapons inherited from parent states
Role of geography: Approximately 60.5 percent of Bosnia’s terrain is mountainous, but geography played a limited role.
Role of resources: Bosnia has no natural resources of note, although looting was a way for irregular forces to sustain their activities.
Immediate outcome: Negotiated settlement in which state is independent but broken into autonomous “entities”
Outcome after 5 years: Stable, internationally monitored peace, elections
Role of UN: UNPROFOR deployed; troops sometimes taken hostage by the Serbs
Role of regional organization: The EC, NATO, and the Contact Group were key players.
Refugees: Up to 1.7 million internally, 1 million externally
Prospects for peace: Good in the short term, but core issues remain unresolved; given the region’s history, a return to war in the long term would be unsurprising.
Table 1: Civil War in Bosnia and Herzegovina

During the buildup to war in Bosnia in 1991-1992, the JNA pursued a “dual-track policy of working for peace between all three ethnic groups but preparing for war in support of the Serbs” (CIA 2002, 129). In part, this meant making sure that the JNA in Bosnia would choose the right side if Bosnia declared its independence. In January 1992, Milosevic had issued a secret order to transfer JNA officers and troops born in Bosnia, most of whom were Serbs, back to stations in that republic. The impact of this order was magnified by a Croatian cease-fire requirement that the JNA withdraw its troops from Croatian territory, leaving that many more troops for deployment in Bosnia. According to one Serbian official, by the time the JNA made its formal withdrawal from Bosnia in May 1992, 85 percent of the 90,000 troops in Bosnia were from Bosnia, and the vast majority of these were Serbs. When the JNA withdrew, these troops stayed on as well-armed fighters for the new VRS (Silber and Little 1996, 218). At the same time, the JNA in Bosnia ensured that the TO detachments and police units in the predominantly Serb districts retained their arms while arms were removed from the TO detachments in non-Serb parts of the country.

When Bosnia became independent, the VRS included arms and fighters from the JNA, the Bosnian TO and police detachments, and Serb volunteer paramilitary groups in both Bosnia and Serbia. The Muslim military organization originated from a combination of Muslim TO units and a paramilitary organization called the Patriotic League that the SDA had founded in 1991. Similarly, the Croatian Defense Council (Hrvatska Vijece Odbrane [HVO]) grew out of a paramilitary organization formed in 1991. However, for all practical purposes the HVO was part of the Croatian Army in the early part of the war (CIA 2002, 134).

The advantage in armaments with which the VRS had begun the war continued as the war dragged on. Milosevic and Mladic remained close allies, and although there were occasions on which Milosevic would attempt to appease international negotiators by claiming to cut off the Bosnian Serbs, the VRS rarely lacked for support from Serbia. This often came in the form of JNA reservists and paramilitaries, especially during the campaigns in eastern Bosnia in the early part of the war. It also included financial support and arms replenishment. Similarly, the HVO received ongoing support from Croatia, the main exception being when the international community pressured Croatia to help end the Muslim-Croat war in 1994.

In sharp contrast to these two images, the ARBiH was woefully underarmed through much of the war. When the war began, the JNA troops that had not simply transitioned into VRS withdrew, taking with them JNA-owned weapons and leaving behind for the ARBiH only a few TO small arms. What made the situation particularly dire for the Muslims was the arms embargo the UN had imposed on all the former Yugoslav republics in 1991 in the hopes of minimizing the number of arms in circulation in the region. The embargo froze in place for much of the war the VRS arms advantage, a fact that would lead to intense debate among interested members of the international community about the efficacy and morality of the embargo.


The Bosnian landscape has shaped the country’s history in important ways. The rugged mountainous terrain that covers much of the country served as a defense against invaders as far back as the Roman era. More recently, the cover this terrain provides was a main reason the Yugoslav leadership decided to locate a large proportion of its defense industries there (Burg and Shoup 1999, 43). Beyond these mountains, central and northern Bosnia is mostly characterized by rolling green hills. The richest agricultural land in the country lies in the northeast along the River Sava, whereas the Herzegovinian climate, dry and arid, is more typically Mediterranean.

Although this varied and often rugged terrain undoubtedly played an important role in many of the tactical decisions the military leaders made during the war, there is no reason to believe that geography played a decisive role in the parties’ strategic outlook. As the war did not pit a small and mobile group of combatants against a larger army but rather involved armies that competed for control of territory, terrain did not serve as cover for an insurgency the way it has in so many other civil wars.


The siege of Sarajevo, the haunting video footage of prisoners in concentration camps (or more recently of prisoners being murdered), and the mass killings of civilians in Srebrenica are some of the lasting images of the civil war in Bosnia, images that bring to mind a savagery and bloodlust that shocked the world. Such images lead many to believe that a Hobbesian anarchy descended on Bosnia in 1992 in which neighbors who had dined together in peace one night were suddenly torturing and killing one another the next. This understanding is incomplete. In fact, two seemingly contradictory themes characterized the war. The first is articulated well by Mueller, who claims that the conflict in Bosnia was spawned

… by the ministrations of small—sometimes very small—bands of opportunistic marauders recruited by political leaders and operating under their general guidance. Many of these participants were drawn from street gangs or from bands of soccer hooligans. Others were criminals specifically released from prison for the purpose. (Mueller 2000, 42-43)

A more recent analysis by the CIA highlights another dimension of the conflict:

In fact, virtually all of the fighting was done by professionally led, relatively well-organized citizen armies, and the contrary view is largely the product of mirror-imaging by Western officers who regularly disparaged the appearance, discipline, and professionalism of the armies involved … The myth of the so-called “paramilitaries” has persisted, although few, if any, major independent paramilitary units operated after 1992. Of the original independent forces, nearly all were either incorporated into the contending armies or disbanded; the rest were only nominally independent. (CIA 2002, xii-xv)

These two themes—bands of opportunistic marauders on one hand and well-organized armies on the other—define the “symmetric non-conventional war” (Kalyvas 2005) that tends to generate high levels of violence. Their combination also explains in part the tactic that became the war’s calling card: ethnic cleansing. The common perception of such atrocities is that they were committed mostly “by young urban gangsters in expensive sunglasses from Serbia, members of the paramilitary forces raised by Arkan and others; and … what they were doing was to carry out a rational strategy dictated by their political leaders—a method carefully calculated to drive out two ethnic populations and radicalize a third” (Malcolm 1996, 252). Another possible explanation for ethnic cleansing that is consistent with Bosnia’s symmetric, nonconventional war emerges from an understanding of patterns of violence within the war itself. As Kalyvas and Sambanis argue, “… ethnic cleansing may have also been an answer to the problem of population control. Actors lacking the ability to control populations whose loyalty is questionable, may choose to deport them instead in order to secure their rear” (Kalyvas and Sambanis 2005, 43).

Causes of the War

Although it may not be the case that war in Bosnia was inevitable once Slovenia and Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia, it is probably fair to say that, by that point, avoiding such a war would have required a herculean effort and a mountain of luck, given the vital and irreconcilable political interests at stake among the Bosnian Serbs, the Muslims, and the Croats (CIA 2002, 160). In addition to the factors discussed above that set the stage for the war, several other general explanations for the war exist. These include Hunting-ton’s (1996) clash of civilizations, which emphasizes the incompatibility of the three civilizations that meet in Bosnia: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Western Christianity. Kaplan (1993) focuses on the “ancient hatreds” that have driven Muslims, Serbs, and Croats to fight time and again in the Balkans, and sees the recent war as another link in that chain. As attention has shifted, in the years since the war ended, to the capture of war criminals and their prosecution by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), many have shifted their gaze to the Machiavellian role played by specific immoral individuals in the lead-up to the war. Leaders such as Milosevic, Tudjman, Izetbegovic, and Karadzic each used nationalist appeals to consolidate their hold on political power in post-Communist Yugoslavia, and their decisions were responsible for the war that resulted. In the end, all these factors played a role in the tragedy.


The fighting in Bosnia ended in 1995 with the Dayton Agreement. However, the conflicts that motivated that fighting persist. The nationalist parties that led their respective ethnic communities into the war easily achieved postwar electoral success; many of their goals did not change, even if the methods they used in pursuit of those goals did. Although this is a dramatic improvement for the Bosnian people, it does not bode well for the future of the Bosnian state.

Conflict Status

The settlement reached at Dayton included both a military component that would end the fighting and disarm the parties and a civilian component that would form the basis of the Bosnian state. On the military side, the outcome reflected the international community’s desire to limit its military involvement in the quagmire that the Bosnian situation had become. The initial military component was called the Implementation Force (IFOR) and included the deployment of more than 60,000 international troops headed by contingents from Britain, France, and the United States. These troops were to remain in Bosnia only until the first set of national and municipal elections, scheduled for the end of 1996.

The civilian component of Dayton reflected the intense mistrust between the warring parties and the international community’s simultaneous insistence on the inviolability of the borders of the Bosnian state and refusal to accept the legitimacy of the ethnic cleansing that had characterized the war. The main power centers would be the two entities established under the accords: the RS and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH). The RS would be a Bosnian Serb entity, whereas the FBiH would be further divided into ten cantons, control of which was apportioned among Bosnian Croats and Muslims. The central government would be extremely weak, reliant on the entities for its funding and responsible only for matters related to foreign trade, foreign policy, customs, interentity communications, transportation, and international and interentity law enforcement.

The Office of the High Representative (OHR) was created by the international community and assigned the authority to interpret the civilian elements of the settlement. By 1997, the political parties had clearly demonstrated their lack of interest in giving up their ethnically based power structures or facilitating the refugee return process that was an essential element of Dayton. It had also become clear that OHR’s supervision of the political reform process relied too much on persuasion and was unable to overcome the parties’ obstinacy. In December of that year, therefore, the OHR was given the power to impose legislation and to dismiss elected officials judged to be impeding implementation of the Dayton Agreement—powers that have since led some to refer to the OHR as “the European Raj” (Knaus and Martin 2003).

Duration Tactics

Although it seemed interminably long to its victims and lasted much longer than many expected it to, the war in Bosnia was shorter at about three and one-half years than many other civil wars in the post-World War II era. To the extent that any external factors affected the war’s duration, the international community probably deserves the most attention. Had the international community not been fixated on Bosnia, the war might well have taken a different course. For example, several times the VRS stopped short of individual battle aims in the interests of preventing NATO attacks, international condemnation, or being cut off from Serbia. The siege of Sarajevo vividly illustrates this dynamic. For the better part of three and a half years,

Serb armed forces had isolated the capital from the rest of Bosnia … Although frequent interruptions of the relief flights and the occasional overland convoys tightened the belts and hollowed the cheeks of its citizens, they were able to endure far longer than if they had been truly cut off by a conventional siege. Simply put, international humanitarian assistance managed to sustain the city throughout the war and thwart the Serb objective of a starvation-induced capitulation. (CIA 2002, 307)

On the other hand, had the international arms embargo not perpetuated the ARBiH’s disadvantage in armaments, even an unchained VRS might have struggled to impose its will. In the end, then, the international community had an important, if indeterminate, impact on the war’s duration.

External Military Intervention

International involvement in the former Yugoslavia began with the EC sanctions imposed on all the former Yugoslav states on November 8, 1991. These sanctions were lifted from all but Serbia and Montenegro a month later, and the remaining sanctions were adopted by the UN Security Council later in the war. The promise to lift sanctions was a carrot the international community used to pressure Milosevic to rein in the Serbs in Bosnia. Such pressure tactics worked occasionally, as when Milosevic briefly closed the border between Bosnia and Serbia after the Bosnian Serbs rejected the VOPP, but ultimately the sanctions had limited impact on Bosnian Serb decisions. Similarly, in 1994 the United States threatened to cut off Croatia if it did not push the Bosnian Croats to settle their war with the Muslims. The stick seems to have been more effective—the Washington Agreement was an important element in turning the tide of the war against the Serbs. Nevertheless, Croatia remained an important ally of the Bosnian Croats and later of the Federation in the war against the VRS.

UN involvement in Bosnia began when, in June 1992, the mandate of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), deployed to Croatia in 1991, was expanded to include ensuring the security and functioning of Sarajevo airport and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the city. In September 1992, the mandate was once again expanded to allow UNPROFOR to support humanitarian efforts throughout Bosnia. UNPROFOR would eventually also monitor the safe areas, the no-fly zone over Bosnia, and several of the cease-fires that were negotiated during the course of the war.

In addition to Croatia, Serbia, and the UN, NATO as an organization and NATO countries individually played important roles in the conflict. This began as early as 1991, when Germany led the push for EC recognition of Slovenia and Croatia and NATO began to enforce the arms embargo on the region. The role of the United States in the conflict began somewhat later and was also essential, if sometimes controversial. The United States did not contribute troops to UNPROFOR, and it was only marginally supportive of the early EC peace proposals, most of which called for an extensive ground force to monitor the peace. Instead, for most of the war the United States endorsed the “lift and strike” policy, which meant attempting to right the imbalance of power between the two sides by lifting the arms embargo and striking Serb positions from the air.

Outside of NATO countries, Russia’s involvement in the war was the most intensive. Russia almost without exception served as the defender of Serb interests in the international community, opposing the use of force by NATO or the UN in nearly every circumstance and instigating a new round of negotiations once the NATO bombs began to fall. The Cold War having only recently ended, the Russians were able to deter some international threats to use force against the Serbs by raising the specter of a larger conflict between NATO and the countries in Russia’s sphere of influence. However, as the Bosnian war dragged on and memories of the Cold War faded, the U.S. approach more or less won out. We have already seen the role NATO eventually played in the conflict, beginning with the first bombings of Serb positions after the Serb attack on Gorazde in 1994 and culminating in the massive air strikes on Serb positions throughout Bosnia that helped drive the Serbs to the negotiating table in 1995.

Conflict Management Efforts

International efforts to resolve the Bosnian conflict began after the referendum in 1992, boycotted by the Serbs, in which Bosnians voted in favor of independence. Portuguese Ambassador Jose Cutilheiro convened talks in Lisbon, leading to the Cutilheiro Plan, eventually rejected by Izetbegovic, which called for Bosnia’s international borders to remain unchanged and for the formation of three ethnic cantons that would have broad power over all but economic, foreign, and defense affairs.

The VOPP, presented to the parties in January 1993, was the next attempt to resolve the conflict. It would have made Sarajevo a demilitarized area, provided for extensive human rights protections, and given the Bosnian Serbs control of 43 percent of Bosnia’s territory, even though at the time they controlled about 70 percent of the territory. Unsurprisingly, 96 percent of Bosnian Serbs rejected it in a referendum. In May 1993 came the Joint Action Plan, proposed by the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and Spain, which established Muslim safe areas in and around Srebrenica, Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zepa, Gorazde, and Bihac. The UN Security Council later authorized the use of air power to protect these safe areas, making them a haven for Muslim refugees and later the sites of some of the worst atrocities of the war.

The Joint Action Plan was followed by the Owen-Stoltenberg Plan, which proposed a minimal central government that could only operate by consensus, and a map that gave the Serbs 53 percent of the territory, the Croats 17 percent, and the Bosnian government the remaining 30 percent. In the words of one of the Serb members of the delegation at the talks, “The Turks [a derogatory reference to Muslims] are going to be like walnuts in a Serbo-Croat nutcracker” (Silber and Little 1996, 303). The Bosnian parliament rejected the plan in September 1993. In November, France and Germany proposed the EU Action Plan, which attempted to remedy the issues to which the Muslims objected. This time the Serbs rejected the plan.

As noted above, the United States was an important part of the negotiations between the Muslims and Croats that led to the Washington Agreement in March 1994. Then, following the first round of NATO bombings in April, Russian President Boris Yeltsin appealed for an international summit on Bosnia. The summit led to the creation of the Contact Group, which comprised representatives from France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Contact Group presented a new peace plan in July that provided 51 percent of the territory to the newly formed Bosnian-Croat Federation and 49 percent to the Bosnian Serbs. The Federation accepted the plan, as did Milosevic, who was eager to end the war so as to get the sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro lifted. When Karadzic and the Bosnian Serb assembly rejected the plan, Milosevic reimposed an economic blockade along the Bosnia/Serbia border, and the Contact Group announced it would not deal with Karadzic until he had accepted the terms for negotiation.

All the while these peace plans were being debated and negotiated, UN officials and others on the ground worked to negotiate cease-fires. Countless times, these efforts seemed to bear fruit with the signing of one or another agreement. And countless times, hopes were dashed when the agreements were broken almost before the ink on them was dry. Eventually, the combination of an increasingly effective Bosnian army, the combined Federation-Croat offensive, and an increased international involvement led the parties to the table at Dayton. This marked the end of the war in Bosnia, if not the end of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. It also marked the transition from international efforts to end the war to an extensive international effort to implement a peace.


The war in Bosnia lasted more than three years and is estimated to have claimed approximately 250,000 lives. Of these, anywhere from 100,000 to 195,000 were civilians not killed in battle (Doyle and Sambanis 2000, dataset; Burg and Shoup 1999, 169). Estimates of the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes range from 900,000 to 1.2 million who became refugees in other countries and 1.3 to 1.5 million who were displaced within Bosnia (Burg and Shoup 1999, 171). Large numbers of civilians were also rounded up and held captive in horrifying conditions, images of which were broadcast around the world, evoking memories of World War II concentration camps. Untold numbers of crimes were committed, including systematic rape and torture. The country’s economy was shattered and criminalized as billions of dollars of property and infrastructure damage was done. And even ten years after the war officially ended, Bosnia continues to be a weak and dysfunctional state riven by ethnic animosity and heavily if not completely reliant on international assistance for its survival.