WASHINGTON — European allies are gearing up. Eighteen non-NATO states say they are ready too. Only the United States has yet to renew its commitment to keeping the peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina once the mandate of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expires Dec. 20.
With President Clinton bent on winning a second term, the official line is that he is sticking to his pledge to pull all 16,000 American troops out of Bosnia on schedule and has no plans to replace them. But that line may not last much past Nov. 5.
Some experts say that the indefinite postponement Tuesday of Bosnia's Nov. 23-24 municipal polls makes it almost certain the US will have to maintain a troop presence in Bosnia. No matter the outcome of the American presidential race, they say, the US will contribute to the peacekeeping operation expected to succeed NATO's 58,000-member Implementation Force (IFOR).
"With the delay in the municipal elections, there is an implicit requirement for the Americans to extend in order to ensure there is a peaceful transition to democratic rule," says Paul Beaver, a military analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
To stay or not to stay
For the US, the choice boils down to this: Not staying would risk a withdrawal from Bosnia by European peacekeepers, who say they won't be there without the US; the collapse of the US-brokered 1995 Dayton peace deal; a debilitating leadership crisis in NATO; and a loss of confidence in US global commitments.
Participation would keep at bay a new war that could be even more destructive and costly to contain and reaffirm the pivotal US role in European security.
The price would be committing US troops to at least two more years in Bosnia and adding millions of dollars to some $3 billion over the last year already borne by American taxpayers.
Marshall Harris, a former US diplomat now with the Balkan Institute in Washington, says the reasons for American participation in a post-IFOR force outweigh those of not taking part. "We have no choice but to stay," Mr. Harris says. "Otherwise, the fighting is going to resume."
US officials insist that the postponement of the municipal elections will not affect the withdrawal of American IFOR troops, which has already begun and is to be largely completed by Feb. 1. Some IFOR troops may actually leave more quickly now that they are not needed to oversee a November vote.
Some 7,500 US soldiers protecting the pullout are to be gone by March 15. But the officials concede that the election postponement will now be "an important factor" to be considered by NATO planners studying options for a post-IFOR mission. "This is part of the calculus that has to go into any potential follow-on force," says an administration official, who asked not to be named.
France and Germany are now preparing a joint brigade for the new mission, while 18 non-NATO countries have declared their readiness to participate.
The Clinton administration, however, says it will make no decision pending the completion of the NATO study. Conveniently, the study will not be officially considered by the alliance until after the American presidential election.
The NATO study is weighing the consequences of a range of scenarios: no follow-on force, deploying a small "minimum response force," or replacing IFOR with a smaller, though "robust," NATO-led contingent capable of deterring new fighting between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.
Experts say the delay in municipal elections raises the pressure to choose the third option, which they say would likely comprise three reinforced brigades totaling more than 15,000 troops. US participate would likely consist of at least one brigade of 5,000 troops, as well as American air power and command of the overall operation by a US four-star general.
The polls were first moved from September to November because of voter-registration manipulation by the Bosnian Serbs.
Their refusal to cooperate helped force the decision by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to postpone the elections. They are expected to take place in April or May.
The municipal polls carry greater threats of violence and fraud than the national elections held in September. Muslim refugees may elect Muslim-controlled councils in towns and cities now held by Bosnian Serbs from which Muslim majorities were expelled during the war.
Such results would be resisted by Bosnian Serb leaders whose goal remains creation of an ethnically pure "state" they can unite with nearby Serbia.
Failure to hold the elections, however, would doom any chance for the reintegration of the country as envisioned by the Dayton peace accords, which aim for a united, multiethnic Bosnia.