NATO'S 60,000-strong Implementation Force (IFOR), including 20,000 Americans, is almost fully deployed in Bosnia. Despite casualties among IFOR troops, war fatigue has induced a grudging cooperation from all sides, enabling President Clinton and NATO leaders to claim success.
But IFOR is already adrift, with growing uncertainty about the roles, responsibilities, and limits of NATO troops. The ''bottom line'' of this massive NATO undertaking is being questioned: What is IFOR for?
Under the terms of the accord reached in Dayton, Ohio, IFOR is to enforce a peace, in the words of its press office, by ''getting forces away from the zones of separation [and by] moving armies back into barracks.''
Military aspects of IFOR's deployment are not conducted in a vacuum, however. Even where uniformed militaries are separated and demobilized, infrastructure lies shattered. Police are nowhere to be found, mafias ''govern'' by their own rules, war criminals are on the loose with their militias intact. Absent progress by Carl Bildt's mission to resuscitate civil institutions, only IFOR's presence can lay the cornerstone for a semblance of lasting peace.
But incidents that endanger the entire peace endeavor have already occurred: abductions of civilians, a rocket attack on a Sarajevo tram, shootings of IFOR peacekeepers, and interethnic murders in Mostar. Although such acts come as no surprise, IFOR's responses have been discomfiting.
Almost before the ink was dry at the Dec. 14 Paris signing of the peace accord, IFOR military commanders insisted that theirs is a narrow mandate. From the IFOR spokesman in Sarajevo, we have heard that policing ''very clearly is not our [IFOR's] responsibility'' and that ''it is wrong to try and shift the responsibility for crime ... onto IFOR when it is clearly the job of civil authorities to get a grip on it.'' Unfortunately, there are few civilian police in Bosnia, and only a fraction of a small, unarmed international police force promised in the pact has thus far arrived. Further, IFOR's claim that incidents are isolated activities, not an organized effort to disrupt the peace, rests on hope, not analysis.
Judge Richard Goldstone, chief prosecutor for the war-crimes tribunal at The Hague, got nothing better than a vague promise of cooperation from Adm. Leighton Smith when they met in Sarajevo in late January. The tribunal expected that their investigations would be facilitated by prompt IFOR efforts to secure areas in which physical evidence needs to be preserved. Admiral Smith, however, only offered ''appropriate assistance at the appropriate time.''
But, if seeking justice for the victims of aggression and ethnic cleansing is not IFOR's ''job,'' whose job is it? And if such tasks are not assumed by the NATO force, what will be the consequences for the peace the United States and its allies are trying to ensure?
Professional militaries in the NATO mold have a visceral fear of being dragged into nation-building and policing. A quick humanitarian venture is fine. But a prolonged departure from unambiguous tasks? No. In the US, a ''Powell Doctrine'' argues that American forces should be committed only when overwhelming force can be applied toward clear objectives with a well-defined exit strategy.
But the world is not all flat desert where unambiguous adversaries conveniently mix malevolence with poor tactics. A decision to commit US troops is unlikely to be made ever again without ambiguity regarding rules of engagement, mission, and duration. To the degree IFOR's military commanders are troubled by the political and social conditions of their deployment, they are expressing discomfort with the complexity of the post-cold-war world. They'd better adjust.
Western political will to support IFOR will ebb. In the US, one can expect the drumbeat for withdrawal to begin the day after the presidential election. The clock is ticking on the chance to make a lasting difference.
In the worst case, IFOR's resistance to responsibilities beyond ''moving armies back into barracks'' will generate antipathy toward NATO from all sides, leading to a troubled departure and an early renewal of fighting. IFOR ought to do far more. Its commanders err greatly by insisting that NATO has no ''police'' responsibilities; abductions, shootings, sabotage of transport and communications, and other violent acts will erode the potential for lasting peace even while IFOR is deployed. Unless IFOR participates fully in safeguarding the peoples of Bosnia and ensuring freedom of movement, it will soon become as discredited as the UN protection force.
And IFOR ought not be a bystander in war-crimes investigations. Securing suspected mass-grave sites, using intelligence assets to track and locate war criminals, assisting in the arrest of those indicted, and providing logistical and security support should be minimal duties. Accompanying investigators and standing watch, as IFOR did for preliminary mass-grave exhumations, does not constitute such a proactive role.
NATO nations risk seeing their troops depart from Bosnia about a year from now with little to show for their effort and sacrifice. The last thing the peoples of Bosnia need is the memory of a fleeting international presence - a presence that looked formidable at first and then acted as if peace really wasn't its job.