SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — Senior American diplomats in Bosnia, led by former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, acknowledge that a NATO force will stay in Bosnia during 1997, beyond the one-year deadline promised by President Clinton when he sent 20,000 American troops to Bosnia last December.
American officials here say that the decision to keep troops in Bosnia is based on the belief that peace would collapse if troops pull out in December. But it also reflects a growing feeling that Bosnia has become the Clinton administration's most significant foreign-policy success, and that the White House cannot afford to let Bosnia fall apart now.
"It should be absolutely self-evident ... that if you go from 60,000 troops to zero in a very rapid downswing, this place is going to implode," Mr. Holbrooke told journalists in Sarajevo over the weekend. "Some form of international security presence next year seems to me something you can assume will happen."
American officials point out that the success of the now-55,000-troop NATO peace mission has greatly contributed to confidence in NATO and has proved that American leadership is essential. "Bringing a success to this [Bosnia peace] process is one of the really central, if not the most central goal of American foreign policy right now," says Assistant Secretary of State John Kornblum, Holbrooke's replacement.
The decision to send American troops to Bosnia was hotly contested last year by those who said the United States had no strategic interest in the region. But criticism has largely quieted as few American soldiers have been harmed here, none by hostile acts.
International officials here agree that an international military presence next year is necessary to complete the civilian aspects of the 1995 Dayton peace accords. Installation of the newly elected multiethnic government is expected to encounter obstacles from the former warring parties. Diplomats say the situation requires military muscle to back up diplomatic efforts.
"The UN High Representative [Carl Bildt] has always maintained that the efforts of the international community would need to be maintained in Bosnia-Herzegovina for several years. Successful civil implementation is simply not feasible without a sufficiently well-balanced and structured military force remaining in the country," says Duncan Bullivant, a spokesman for international mediator Carl Bildt.
While money is starting to flow into Bosnia from the World Bank, reconstruction efforts have lagged behind schedule and have often been stalled by political squabbles among the former warring parties. Holbrooke says reconstruction, which would give Bosnians incentives to keep the peace, will require more time.
A meeting between Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in Paris next Sunday is to focus on economic development, essential to rebuilding the region.
The Bosnian government supports the decision for NATO troops to stay on in Bosnia, but with a new mandate that would give the government more control of its own future. Under the current engagement rules of NATO's implementation force (IFOR), NATO has authority over the movements of the armies of the former warring parties. The Bosnian government wants more authority to be able to act without approval from NATO.
"We support NATO staying on here, but we would demand a different mandate, which would not violate the sovereignty of Bosnia-Herzegovina," says Mirza Hajric of the foreign ministry.
One of the biggest criticisms directed against the NATO force here is that it has failed to arrest indicted war criminals. Washington has directed the North Atlantic Council, which oversees NATO's Bosnia mandate, not to conduct manhunts for war criminals.
Holbrooke says he is recommending that Secretary of State Warren Christopher reconvene a meeting of the Dayton signatories to renew their commitment to the peace process and to revise the mandate of the organizations, including NATO, working here.