US Arms Weaker Side for Bosnia After NATO

To offset well-armed Serbs, a 'tenuous' Muslim-Croat force will get $100 million in equipment, plus training.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In a ramshackle supply depot that once supported the Serb siege of Sarajevo, tightly packed rows of French battle tanks cover the floor of a cavernous hangar. Sunlight passes through a massive hole punched in the ceiling by NATO bombers, casting light on tanks, Egyptian-supplied artillery pieces, and a pair of stray Yugoslav armored vehicles.

Across a yard littered with Serb vehicles damaged in the 1995 air strikes, another building houses US-supplied armored personnel carriers and M60 tanks also awaiting disbursement to the new Muslim-Croat Bosnian army. The massive cache of heavy weapons is meant to ensure that Sarajevo will never again be placed under siege.

As the peace process in Bosnia stumbles along - local elections were held over the weekend - a US-led effort is quietly providing arms and training to the Bosnian Muslim and Croat armies in an effort to achieve a military balance with the Bosnian Serbs. Should the 1995 Dayton agreement's vision of a united and peaceful Bosnian state fail to become a reality, Washington is seeking to shore up the tenuous alliance between Muslims and Croats and ensure that together they can deter future Serb aggression if and when NATO-led peacekeepers leave the region.

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It's a difficult task. The Muslim-led Bosnian government army (ABiH) and the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) fought bitter battles against each other in 1994, when the HVO launched an offensive to create an ethnically pure Croatian statelet in Bosnia. Muslim-Croat relations remain frosty, with travel across ethnic lines often dangerous and sometimes deadly.

Uniting old adversaries

"Obviously, we're not going to have comfortable relations overnight," a US official here acknowledges. "But we're 1,000 miles down the road from where we started a year ago. Back then it was very hard to get them to sit down in the same room together, and when they did it was a verbal food fight."

The food fights are over for the time being. In the halls of the joint Federation Defense Ministry in Sarajevo, uniformed HVO and ABiH officers carrying briefcases can be seen walking the halls together between meetings, or greeting one another on the stairs. But the ministry remains only semifunctional because most other joint ministries and government institutions at both the federation and national level don't function at all due to a lack of trust among the three ethnic groups.

"Civil-military relations remain difficult because the civilian implementation of Dayton has gone so slowly," says Federation Defense Minister Ante Jelavic, an ethnic Croat whose secretary has the flags of the HVO and Bosnian Croat statelet on her desk. "This is to be the army of Croats and Muslims in Bosnia. There must be a clear civilian chain of command and many checks built into the system to ensure this army does not break apart."

Sources say the HVO remains closely tied to the Ministry of Defense in Croatia proper, and is expected to remain so until the integration of the army and necessary civilian institutions like the federation parliament become a reality. Even when the army is finally integrated, the two armies will remain separate up to the brigade-level. In the event of war, brigades fall under the command of an integrated general staff headed by a Muslim general.

Still outgunned

Despite opposition to the program by Britain, France, and other European allies, the State Department has organized the delivery of $100 million in military equipment. Even with these transfers, the Federation army remains outgunned by its Bosnian Serb counterpart, whose arsenal exceeds slightly the arms-control limits set by the Dayton accords. Diplomatic and military sources in Sarajevo say the political and economic crises in the Bosnia Serb Republic, or Republika Srpska, have certainly weakened the Bosnian Serb army. But it is still believed capable of launching an offensive.

Mr. Jelavic says the federation army will only be used for defense. "Achieving a military balance is most vital to ensuring security in Bosnia once SFOR leaves," he says. "But we have not achieved that balance, and to do so we need continued material assistance from the outside world."

US involvement isn't new. In October 1996, the Clinton administration delayed preliminary shipments of US-supplied weapons until Sarajevo agreed to sack then-Defense Minister Hasam Cengic, an Islamic cleric with close ties to Iran. US officials say they are satisfied that the federation has severed ties to Iran. "Bosnia has legitimate security concerns," a US official says. "If we don't help them meet those concerns they will look elsewhere instead."

Today the US appears committed to strengthening the federation army. Washington has provided for the training of battalion commanders and brigade commanders through a private company, Alexandria, Va.-based Military Professional Resources International (MPRI), which is led by retired senior US military officers and Defense Intelligence Agency officials.

The company runs a school and battlefield simulations center near Hadzici, and is helping construct a large military firing range near Livno in Croat-controlled western Herzegovina.

Ammunition for stored weaponry is kept in Livno, apart from the heavy weapons. This is meant to enhance security, according to MPRI spokesman Joe Allred. It also was the logical place to store them, he says: The heavy weapons will be used for the first time at the training ground there.

"All of our training operations center on a 'deter-and-defend' strategy," says MPRI's Dick Edwards, who heads the simulations center in Hadzici. "It has gone very well because they are excellent students. We really don't see any tensions between the HVO and ABiH officers who work here."

The center is actually one of the few places where middle-rank soldiers of the two armies work together on a constant basis. The cadres who are trained here are from unintegrated battalion- and brigade-strength units, and a proposed joint brigade has yet to be founded.

"We are professionals," says ABiH Capt. Eis Bektas, who runs simulations at the center, as a HVO counterpart nods in agreement. "When our leaders tell us to fight, we fight. When they tell us to work together, we work together. There really are no problems."

Asked if any of them had fought in battles between the two armies in their 1994 war, the circle of soldiers became tense. "We don't talk about these things here," Captain Bektas explains. "Not ever."

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