NATO Eyes New Role in Bosnia

But doubts emerge as member nations order large troop cutbacks

LIKE an officer with new orders tucked into his breast pocket, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has a renewed determination as it prepares for its first high-profile mission in its new post-cold-war uniform: enforcement of a peace plan in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Especially since the United States put its weight behind the Vance-Owen peace plan for Bosnia earlier this month and called for a NATO role in its eventual enforcement, the 16-nation organization appears to have forgotten its recent identity crisis.

"Those 40 years of dress rehearsals are finally paying off," says one NATO diplomat, acknowledging that the organization's success at this "particularly complicated peace-enforcing mission" could determine its future credibility. "It's something we have to get right."

Yet despite the Alliance's regained sense of purpose, alarms are sounding both inside NATO headquarters here and outside among security specialists over planned troop reductions by NATO member countries. Concern is growing that the soldiers will not be available to maintain basic defense and undertake the tasks like rapid intervention and peace enforcement the Alliance envisions in a destabilized, post-Soviet Europe.

At a Munich conference earlier this month, NATO Secretary-General Manfred Worner warned that "the current pace of conventional force reductions of the Alliance is having a severe impact on the composition and size of our main defense forces." He said the "Allies must make more effort if they ... are not to lose credibility."

Privately, NATO officials are even more direct, saying announced troop cuts will make a country like Belgium, whose defense minister plans to slash armed forces in half, or the Netherlands, which has announced a 43 percent troop reduction, less dependable partners.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl sent chills through European security circles this month when he suggested Germany reduce its Army below the 370,000 minimum it had committed to when NATO ministers laid out the Alliance's broader stabilization role in December.

"Barely more than a month after the ministers meeting in December their plan is completely void," says Frric Bozo, European security specialist with the French Institute for International Relations in Paris.

"The Belgian, Dutch, and German [reduction plans] are posing serious questions about NATO's legitimacy as a security organization," Mr. Bozo.

Although NATO officials and diplomats say no concrete numbers have yet been determined for an eventual Bosnian peace force, observers say the Alliance has the 25,000-45,000 soldiers that a peace-enforcement force would require.

But even then, at the upper reaches it would be a "cobbling together" that would become difficult beyond 40,000, says Michael Dewar, deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "A lot would depend on the cooperation of the parties on the ground," he adds. "If the going got rough, that 40,000 wouldn't be enough."

The Alliance is also anticipating a call to enforce the United Nations no-fly zone over Bosnia. Though this assignment is not affected by the troop-reduction issue, it is still embroiled in controversy.

The problem is that NATO's 18 AWACS aircraft, surveillance planes needed to enforce the flight ban, are commanded by a German general and a third of the crew are Germans. But Germany's Constitution prohibits the deployment of the German military outside the NATO area, and all efforts to amend the Constitution have failed.

Despite these complications, the prospect of being assigned a role in Bosnia by the UN has invigorated NATO.

For one thing, it would allow the Alliance to put its strategy of cooperation with the former Warsaw Pact countries to work. NATO officials anticipate that any peace-enforcement force it deploys will include soldiers from Eastern European countries.

"For political as well as operational reasons we will want to have troops not just from NATO but from elsewhere, like Russia and Ukraine," says a senior NATO diplomat. "That way it will be neutral, a true UN operation."

NATO's evolution toward a role serving the UN has led to an evolution by hesitant NATO member France toward closer cooperation with the Alliance.

ACKNOWLEDGING their country's shift, French observers say it was made possible by NATO's own willingness to "efface" its Atlantic (and US-dominated) identity.

"Once it is clear that an operation is a UN mandate, we say why not employ the resources of the Alliance?" says a senior official at the French Foreign Ministry. The only points at which the French would balk, he says, is "integrated planning, because we are not part of the integrated command," and putting French soldiers under an American general when few or no US soldiers are involved.

But even France has questions about how many troops it would have available to contribute to a force in Bosnia.

With nearly 10,000 French troops already under the UN's blue helmet, coming up with more troops could be difficult.

"The French will raise volunteers where they can find them, but they won't be from the same unit, which raises questions of effectiveness and preparedness," Mr. Dewar says.

Such difficulties are likely to leave France contemplating many of the same questions about conscriptive armies and troop levels that other European countries are asking.

NATO officials say it is not such questioning that worries them but the public sentiment that with the cold war over and Europe falling into recession, the military is a luxury that can no longer be afforded. "We realize that everyone wants the peace dividend," says one NATO diplomat, "but the new insecurities we're facing cannot be wished away."

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