Making Bosnia Work: A Report from the Field

Charles G Boyd. Foreign Affairs. Volume 77, Issue 1, January/February 1998.

A Report from the Field

Last summer, during the early stages of the debate on troop withdrawal, I returned to Bosnia for the first time in more than two years. Clinton administration officials were crafting talking papers describing the many achievements under the November 1995 Dayton Accord, while critics were busy marshaling evidence that an integrated, multiethnic Bosnian state was as far away as ever. Supporters of the administration’s policy, with an eye on the congressionally imposed June 1998 cutoff date for funding of U.S. troops, were claiming that progress, though substantial, was still fragile and could be maintained only with the continued presence of U.S. forces. Some skeptics with a deep understanding of historical ethnic animosities in the Balkans were sharpening the case for partition. The problem, centuries in the making, was not about to be fixed in a length of time Americans would be willing to stay. For them, the smell of quagmire was in the air.

During late August and September, I reimmersed myself in the Bosnia affair. Inside the new Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina whose constituent parts are the Federation, a Muslim-Croat entity that is really two entities, and the Republika Srpska, or Serb Republic-I interviewed a large number of Muslims, Croats, and Serbs, from presidents to taxi drivers and many in between. I met with senior military and diplomatic officials from the major countries of the coalition responsible for the implementation of Dayton and a wide range of key players from the international community engaged in various aspects of the implementation process. My goal was to take a fresh look at a landscape so polarized and fractured by internal hatreds and external manipulation as to be a virtual kaleidoscope of contradictory representations. Everyone has an agenda, and navigating through them all in an effort to make some sense of the whole was a formidable challenge.

What Dayton Wrought

It is often stated, incorrectly, that the Dayton Accord stopped the fighting in Bosnia. What it did, with the aid of 60,000 U.S. and coalition troops, was freeze in place an uneasy cease-fire and prevent a resumption of hostilities. With 34,000 troops on the ground, still well armed and possessed of robust rules of engagement, the peace is holding. Yet virtually no one familiar with Bosnia believes that peace will endure after June if the coalition force is withdrawn. People who participated in crafting the accord, as well as many who almost certainly have not read the document, assert with equal conviction that failure to implement it will surely result in a resumption of war. That assertion has a ring of truth, since not only is Dayton the centerpiece of U.S. policy but no alternatives seem to be under consideration. Yet during my recent Bosnia visit it became clear to me that continuing to implement the agreement in the current manner also may lead to a resumption of war or, at the very least, a protracted mission for the coalition troops who will have to hold this unhappy land together by force. For there to be any reasonable chance of sustaining the Bosnian state in its present form, the United States and its coalition partners will have to significantly alter their approach to implementation.

Dayton was a brilliantly negotiated agreement to support a dubious objective: the creation of a nation where no common sense of national community existed, so as to provide an economically viable entity in which the Muslim population of Bosnia could not only survive but flourish. That required inclusion of two ethnic groups, the Serbs and the Croats, who did not then and do not now wish to live as minority peoples in a state dominated by the larger Muslim group. Both agreed to do so under pressure from the international community and their brethren in Serbia and Croatia, but only under terms that left central control in the new state weak and the ethnic minorities with considerable autonomy.

Nevertheless, principal negotiator Richard Holbrooke’s achievement was remarkable and resulted in an agreement that, even against long odds, can yield long-term peace-but not if the emphasis in implementation remains on integration of the factions rather than their security. Military aspects of the accord are being implemented successfully partly because a robust Stabilization Force (SFOR) demands and gets compliance from all parties on matters for which it is responsible, but also because the coalition’s mission of separating the antagonists reflects the desires of the antagonists themselves. Conversely, integration through implementation of civil elements of the accord, such as refugee return, is being attempted by a plethora of governments, international organizations, and even nongovernmental organizations, with no single leader who has the authority to require compliance from anyone on anything. Moreover, it depends on cooperation by three parties with little inclination to cooperate; indeed, two of the parties to Dayton worked hard to ensure that their entities would be as free as possible from domination by the third. Their lack of interest now in helping the central government function effectively should come as no surprise.

Yet given the investment of U.S. prestige in the current multiethnic construct, the alternative in Bosnia-partition-would be difficult to adopt. Such a reversal of U.S. policy would incur credibility costs heavier than this administration would be willing to pay. Partition would also result in a more substantive problem than embarrassment for the Clinton administration. Two of the three entities would not be economically viable if they were completely independent. After a partition, only the Bosnian Croats would prosper, and then only because they would probably be absorbed by Croatia. This is the most likely outcome for Herzegovina in any event, after “a decent interval” following U.S. withdrawal. Indeed, according to figures from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 30 percent of Bosnian Croats have left the republic since the Dayton Accord was signed. Most of those departing are minorities from Muslim-dominated central Bosnia who are resettling in the Croatian Krajina in areas left vacant by Croatian cleansing of 200,000-plus Serbs during the closing stages of the war in 1995.

Bosnian Serbs would be less welcome as refugees in the Serbdominated Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a nation struggling for economic survival and much less acceptable than Croatia as a trade partner in the rest of Europe. Republika Srpska’s collapsed economy is a problem the Yugoslav Republic does not want or need, and Europeans, generally tolerant of Croatia’s nationalist impulses, would almost certainly balk at Yugoslav absorption of Srpska even if Belgrade were so inclined. Bosnian Serbs have nowhere else to go. Muslims, initially with the most to gain in a prospective multiethnic state, now are increasingly frustrated as they see how resistant both minority factions are to real integration. Some Muslim politicians speak openly-though not to Americans-of a partitioned state in which they would control 65 percent of the land and have guaranteed access to the Adriatic Sea. Implicit in this concept is a resumption of war, since there would be no other means of acquiring the territory.

The other reason a formal partition is unwise is that it is unnecessary. Partition is what exists in Bosnia today. Dayton outlined a central government sufficiently weak that the minorities could maintain the autonomy essential to their sense of security. But Dayton did not explicitly acknowledge the right of the minorities to govern themselves, and in implementing the accord, the United States in particular continues to deny that right in principle. The longer that right is not acknowledged, the more suspicious Bosnian Croats and Serbs become that the real motive of the United States is to force their subordination in a Muslim-dominated unitary state the precise issue over which the war was fought in the first place.

There is no reason three ethnic sub-states cannot live within the borders of one state, self-governing in all but the few elements of government it is in everyone’s interest to have handled centrally. But that can only happen if all parties are convinced they are autonomous, secure, and not disadvantaged relative to the others. Traveling around Bosnia today, it is clear that several aspects of Western policy are having the opposite effect.

Equalizing Aid

Clinton administration officials proudly describe the $5.1 billion International Donors Reconstruction Program and what it has accomplished so far in restoring economic life to Bosnia. Sarajevo, it is true, is bustling and so to a lesser extent are many other towns in the Federation. But none of the revitalization is taking place in the Serb sector. Some farming is evident in the countryside there, but virtually no economic activity is visible in the towns. Unemployment is said to be go percent.

The reason for the disparity is obvious: of the aid distributed to date, 98 percent has gone to the Federation and z percent to the Republika Srpska. When I asked the reason for the inequitable distribution, the answer generally given, at least by U.S. officials, was “Serbian noncompliance with Dayton.” But compliance with Dayton is a flexible notion. Mayors in Srpska, I was told, had to certify in writing their support for multiethnicity (a politically suicidal act for most) before being considered eligible for aid. Yet that requirement was not applied in Muslim and Croat regions with equally cleansed ethnic populations. A U.S. official in Sarajevo said the verbal instructions from Washington were simple: no aid to the Republika Srpska unless Washington said otherwise. My observations confirmed this assertion.

Some U.S. officials defended the denial of aid to Serbs, claiming that support would only reinforce the hard-line Serbian Democratic Party leadership in their capital at Pale and solidify their ethnically cleansed gains, or reward their noncompliance with Dayton’s provisions. Presumably no such benefits would accrue to the Croat or Muslim leadership in their similarly cleansed areas.

Embedded in U.S. policy and its implementation seems to be a spirit of righteous retribution directed against the Serbs, reminiscent of the Allied approach to Germany after the First World War. Given Serb responsibility for starting the war in Bosnia, such sentiment is understandable. But, as in 1918, economic devastation is less likely to produce contrition than resentment and a determination to get even next time. U.S. aid and reconstruction policy is creating an imbalance between the Federation and the Republika Srpska that is clearly destabilizing and highly unlikely to contribute to a lasting peace. The resolution of this Bosnian conflict should not make a next one inevitable.

Refugees and Resettlement

Resettlement of minorities in rural Bosnia is resisted about equally by the majority groups in the three respective sectors, although Muslim cities such as Sarajevo and Tuzla, secure in their dominance, are less resistant to minority settlers. Notwithstanding anecdotal evidence about this or that Croat woman who wants her pre-war Muslim neighbor to return, there seems to be a clear consensus that the hatred generated by the war must fade before any real mixing of the groups can take place without resistance. Even refugees who return to majority areas are unwelcome, branded as cowards who fled in time of danger. Those who received compensation for their return are resented for that reason as well. Only a small fraction of the anticipated refugee returns this year will actually be attempted. Those who have come back to live as minorities in another ethnic group’s area are heavily outnumbered by those who have fled Dayton’s freshly drawn boundaries, which left them as new minorities. In short, there are now at least 70,000 fewer people living in ethnically mixed areas than when the accord was signed. Finally, many now living abroad are happy to continue doing so, and host nations such as Germany have come under pressure not to force their return.

Muslims are widely believed to be carrying out a long-range resettlement plan that would return Muslim majorities to such key locales as Brcko, Doboj, Sanski Most, and the strategic heights at Gajevi. That fear only serves to intensify the resistance to refugee return; therefore, any large-scale resettlement of minorities will have to be forced. This is a labor-intensive task for SFOR, and not without increased risk. Force levels probably cannot be reduced if this mission is continued or expanded, and success would be doubtful after the troops’ eventual departure.

Train and Equip

The train and Equip program was developed for the stated purpose of enabling the Federation, in particular the Muslims, to defend against potential Serb offensives should the peace process fail. It has had a spectacular impact. Modern equipment, sophisticated training methods including computer-driven battlefield simulation, and ample operations and maintenance funding have boosted the Federation’s military strength and confidence. Meanwhile, the Dayton Accord has required the Serbs to reduce their military equipment to a level generally below that of the Federation, and what is left sits largely unused for lack of training funds and spare parts.

Train and Equip was born of political expediency, not military necessity. It was the Muslims’ price for accepting terms at Dayton they believed they could have bettered on the battlefield in August 1995, and a triumph for a few key U.S. senators who had long been thwarted in their desire to lift the wartime arms embargo they believed hurt Muslims. America’s European allies were uniformly opposed to the program at the outset, and all I questioned remain so today. There was a consensus, nearing unanimity, among those I interviewed that if NATO withdraws, fighting will resume; and the Muslims, confident and spoiling for a rematch, will almost certainly initiate it. Ironically, after supposedly arming the Muslims so they could defend themselves in our absence, we may now have to stay, if only to prevent them from restarting the war. Nothing the United States is doing in Bosnia today is so clearly destabilizing or unlikely to foster an enduring peace as this program.

Yet the program has taken on a life of its own, propelled by the congressional requirement that launched it, the bureaucratic momentum that sustains it, and the business it brings to the American contractor that executes it. Although the formal program is scheduled to end by the fall of 1998, with so many vested interests involved, continuation in some form is likely. Moreover, Iran is ready to resume informal arms transfers to the Bosnian Muslims similar to those secretly sanctioned by the United States in 1994-95.

War Crimes

There is strong agreement in the international community that those indicted for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia by the international tribunal at The Hague should be brought to justice there. But when I asked who should do the capturing? what are the risks? would taking former Serb leader Radovan Karadzic into custody make Serbs more or less paranoid about accepting the principles of Dayton? the consensus broke down.

If it sets its sights on capturing the less famous among the indicted, such as the two sought in the operation in Prijedor in July, SFOR can probably operate without undue risk. The Prijedor action was popular with the press and in the international community. Its popularity with the other ethnic factions is less clear, but it is probably safe to say that when the indicted is also known to be involved in current criminal activity such as black marketeering or protection rackets, his departure will not be mourned.

At the level of Radovan Karadzic, the picture becomes cloudier. Certainly Karadzic has opposed advancement of the Dayton process, although it is not clear that his removal would lessen the power or intransigence of the Serbian Democratic Party. Nonetheless, he should go, if only because then he could no longer serve as the scapegoat for Dayton’s slow civil implementation.

The military and intelligence professionals to whom I spoke were unanimous in their assessment that Karadzic is well protected and getting to him would entail considerable risk. They are not reluctant to attempt it, but want decision-makers to understand that it is not likely to be a bloodless operation. And while it would be multinational, the hard part would be carried out by Americans.

Even if Karadzic was arrested with no loss of s FOR lives, the effect on the Serb people would be a serious concern. With Karadzic’s popularity rating at 79 percent (according to the best polling data we have), already paranoid Serbs would hardly be confident that they could find security in a peace accord engineered by people who destroyed their most famous leader. As with so many other issues, what drives Serbs’ behavior is their historically rooted sense of injustice and persecution. A cab driver in Banja Luka asked me the same question as current Srpska President Biljana Plavsic: “Why should only Karadzic go to The Hague? Why not [Croatian President Franjo] Tudjman and [Bosnian Federation President Alija] Izetbegovic?” Many Serbs believe that the indictment process is political because so many more Serbs than Croats or Muslims have been indicted. Whether or not those suspicions are correct is almost irrelevant. If that is the perception, that is what Serbs will act on. If the process is to have the healing effect its proponents claim, it must be seen as fair, and for that to happen it must be explained in a much more plausible way than it has been thus far.

When asked by U.S. Information Agency pollsters what they feel are the most urgent issues facing their country, Croats, Muslims, and Serbs have consistently ranked bringing war criminals to justice near the bottom. No more than six percent of the members of any faction regarded the issue as important. It would seem that the whole business is much more important to Washington and London than to Bosnia.

Power Struggle in Srpska

The battle for power in Srpska between President Plavsic and former President Karadzic is not central to long-term peace in Bosnia, although the United States is treating it as if it were. Rather, it is a symptom of the central problem: the uncertainty of minorities about their right to national identity and self-determination.

Everything we know about Plavsic points to the conclusion that she is as extreme in her nationalism as Karadzic but is skillfully playing the Dayton card to gain U.S. support against him. By taking sides in that internal struggle, the United States has convinced many Serbs that its intent is to split Srpska into two parts-one centered in Banja Luka, the other in Pale-thus fatally weakening it. Distaste for the abominable Karadzic should not require making a pact with a different devil. Both leaders have been made to seem legitimate on the political stage in Srpska because they play to the people’s uncertainty about retention of their national identity and their right to self-determination. If those two rights were explicitly acknowledged, radical nationalists like Karadzic and Plavsic would lose their principal source of appeal and quickly become irrelevant.

The Arizona Market

Along SFOR’s Route Arizona, on the inter-entity border between Doboj and Tuzla, a market has emerged spontaneously since the Dayton Accord went into effect. Located just off the main road in a five-acre field, it consists of some semipermanent wooden stands that are open daily. In this thriving free-market enterprise, they sell everything from goats to Mercedes-Benz automobiles. Black-market gasoline, cigarettes, prostitutes, and AK-47s are available, if that is what the buyer wants, but the heart and soul of the market is building materials and home improvement items like sinks, heaters, roof tiles, tools, and hardware. Most shoppers are in search of items to improve their families’ lives.

Because of its location, the Arizona market is patronized primarily by Serbs and Muslims, but Croats as well come from afar to buy things they need or to sell their wares. The ethnic hatred all share is put aside in the interests of need and economic gain, both powerful counteractive agents when it comes to prejudice. Bosnian Serb and Muslim police routinely patrol the marketplace, and there has been no known confrontation between the two forces. Shoppers and vendors return to their respective ethnic areas, where they feel most secure, when business is done.

In the microcosm the Arizona market represents may lie a clue to building a functioning multiethnic society in Bosnia. At least for now, people feel secure only when surrounded by their own kind. But as economic opportunity invites interaction, these same people will gradually become confident that they can live again in a mixed society. Bosnia can survive as a state in a loose confederation if the international community, led by the United States, explicitly acknowledges the right of the ethnic factions to live among their own and govern themselves. Once people’s sense of national identity is secured, the appeal of radical nationalist politicians will evaporate and a reasonable politics and economics can emerge.

Three aspects of U.S.-driven Dayton implementation stand out as the most obviously harmful to the prospects for peace. All seem based in a desire for retribution against the Serbs because of their role in the Bosnian conflict’s origins. These three must be reversed as quickly as possible.

First, the United States should take the lead in correcting the grossly inequitable distribution of reconstruction aid for Bosnia (98 percent to the Muslim-Croat Federation, 2 percent to Republika Srpska), which is producing a disparity between the entities that heightens the already intense ethnic animosity in Bosnia.

Second, the coalition should put less emphasis on getting refugees back into their former homes or regions, since it puts them and those assisting their return in greater peril. Hatreds on all sides are still too fresh to make this Dayton objective a worthwhile goal anytime soon.

Third, the coalition partners should halt the Train and Equip program, which has led to a growing military superiority for the Federation that is deeply destabilizing and, ironically, may impede the U.S. withdrawal it was supposed to assist. Congress, which legislated the program and is apparently unaware of its ramifications, should call for an immediate assessment by the U.N. of the military balance between the Federation and the Republika Srpska. It can then revise the legislation that mandates Train and Equip so as to reflect current realities on the ground.

Moreover, decreased emphasis on the pursuit of popular, highlevel war criminals like Karadzic and former Serb military leader Ratko Mladic is also imperative. While technically feasible and immensely satisfying in Washington and some European capitals, this policy has at least even odds of producing a backlash among Bosnian Serbs that will make them more resistant to the Dayton process and the concept of a multiethnic Bosnia. Until the Hague tribunal gains credibility as a judicial rather than a political institution, no healing will result from capturing those indicted for war crimes.

NATO must remain engaged in Bosnia to prevent the resumption of hostilities, but will do so only if the United States stays as well. The size of the remaining force must be determined by its role: if it will be used to keep the peace as a true “Stabilization Force,” it can be reduced; if it will be used as a proactive civil “Implementation Force,” it will need to be increased. An exit strategy should set the following conditions at a minimum: more advanced and balanced reconstruction in all areas, no matter which ethnic group predominates; essential elements of a central government that actually function; and an electoral process in which no one political party controls the media in any entity. Achieving these conditions will take at least two or three more years if Dayton implementation policy is altered, and much longer if not.

Such an alteration in course cannot be undertaken by the administration alone; Congress must participate. Yet the basic step of an agreement on keeping U.S. troops in Bosnia beyond June is by no means assured as of this writing. While the administration has recently improved communication with Capitol Hill on the issue, members of Congress, twice burned by expectations of withdrawal, are reluctant to sign on to a continuing troop commitment when they see little real progress or a plausible exit strategy.

Restoration of congressional confidence begins with acknowledgment by the administration that its policy requires change. Dialogue between the most senior administration and congressional officials can then proceed to develop adjustments that both branches can support. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who has gained credit on the Hill for seeking bipartisan understanding of the situation in Bosnia, is well positioned to take the lead on the administration’s behalf.

If, however, Washington and its allies continue to force the peoples of Bosnia to live with those they hate and fear and to share power with their sworn enemies, and if they continue to push economic and military disparity on the Serbs, who are already deeply uneasy about the advantages and intentions of the other factions, they will ensure continued hostility and suspicion in Bosnia and a resumption of the conflict once coalition forces are withdrawn. That war will not be in spite of our efforts, but because of them.