Let's Explain What NATO Must Do in Bosnia


AFTER three weeks of intensive negotiations, the United States-led mediation effort on Bosnia has produced a fragile agreement. The deal isn't perfect, and all sides have had to make agonizing compromises along the way. But if it sticks, the settlement will halt the fighting and speed the removal of ethnic extremists. It offers hope that Bosnia, in time, could reawaken from its nightmare.

That's the good news. The bad news is we haven't yet faced up to the difficult tasks of securing the peace. What would American GIs actually do if they were dispatched to Bosnia? Terms like ''peacekeeping'' or ''policing'' a settlement aren't self-defining labels. From the Pentagon's standpoint, the military's role in implementing a settlement in Bosnia is to separate the warring factions. But the Clinton administration must acknowledge, right now, that the range of potential tasks for the NATO-led ''implementation force,'' or IFOR, is far broader than simply patrolling a no-man's land.

In tailoring the job too narrowly at this stage, President Clinton risks inviting a huge controversy with Congress over ''mission creep'' later on.

What are the other missions?

Implementing arms reduction. Given the damage inflicted by tanks, artillery, and mortars during this conflict, it's not surprising that the peace settlement calls for the removal, storage, and eventual reduction of so-called heavy weapons. Yet, the administration has said the arms-reduction job would be supervised by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a nonmilitary, regional association.

That seems very odd. Clearly, the parties won't trust each other to dispose of heavy weapons; and only military units would have the equipment and manpower to oversee this job. Throwing the job to an organization working outside NATO's chain of command is a sure-fire invitation to trouble.

After our Somali debacle, our military has good reason to be leery of anything that looks like coercive disarmament. But Bosnia is not Somalia.

In Bosnia, so long as Russia and Serbia remain committed to the peace settlement, defiance of the US will not pay. We have substantial leverage to induce the Bosnian Serbs and the other factions to cooperate with agreed arms-control measures. If the Serbs stonewall us, and the deal falls through, the option of arming and training the Muslims and Croats is always there. But let's not play that card until we've tried arms control first.

Supervising the disbanding of paramilitary groups. Skeptical of large-scale demobilization programs, the Pentagon suggests implementing gun ''buy back'' programs and pushing the new Bosnian government (or its two substate entities) to legislate and enforce tougher gun-licensing laws. Fair enough.

On the other hand, if IFOR doesn't adopt some kind of demobilization routine, it won't have any basis for challenging the retention of these irregular units for civil ''policing'' activity. Heed the lesson of Croatia: When the United Nations deployed there in 1992 to implement the so-called Vance Plan, it found that Serb paramilitary personnel and weapons in many cases had simply cascaded into local police forces.

Assistance for civil law enforcement. IFOR will face pressure to help reestablish law and order in areas close to former confrontation lines. When the Muslims and Croats stopped fighting in 1994, for example, bandits were quick to fill the void created by the withdrawal of opposing armies. UN peacekeepers had little choice but to take control of dozens of checkpoints previously manned by the factions, implement procedures for free movement of civilian traffic, and begin transferring police responsibility to teams of Croat and Muslim cantonal police.

Putting cops back on the beat in exhausted war-torn societies is no mean feat. Civil police must be recruited, trained, and equipped, their ranks culled of war criminals, and their senior officers placed firmly under legitimate civilian authority. There is no reason to suppose this process would be any easier in Bosnia than in less developed countries.

Monitoring Bosnia's international borders. Administration officials have professed doubt that border monitoring would be necessary because Bosnia's neighbors, Croatia and Serbia, have no incentive to breach those borders. That may be true, but fears of cross-border arms and personnel smuggling will be easy fodder for alarmists on all sides. Since the Muslims or Croats are not likely to patrol the Serbian-Bosnian border, or the Serbs to patrol areas abutting Croatia, who is going to do this?

Protection for civil-affairs functions. Numerous civilian tasks are going to generate substantial demands for military support. IFOR may end up serving as a kind of all-purpose protector, taxi driver, and logistics provider in these areas. None of these jobs is glamourous or perfectly suited to soldiers. Some may be risky. Most will take more than one year to accomplish. But all will weigh heavily in the ultimate success or failure of the operation.

It would be deeply unfortunate if Congress were to stymie American involvement in an operation that may give Bosnia its best shot at peace in a long time. At the same time, let's not understate the magnitude of the jobs to be done or our role in doing them. To do so is to court disaster.

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