Reality Check in Bosnia

MORE than three months into implementation of the Dayton peace accords for Bosnia, one thing is clear: Some kind of NATO-led military force will need to remain for more than the one year currently called for. And the United States will have to participate in some fashion.

Despite serious foot-dragging by the warring sides, the peace plan is so far mostly on schedule. Bosnian-Serb, Croat, and Muslim-led government troops have withdrawn from their front lines. The parties have turned over most of the territory they agreed to evacuate, although the Bosnian Serbs left the Sarajevo suburbs none too graciously. Difficulties remain in Mostar, where Muslim-Croat tensions run high, and around Brcko, a small strip linking the eastern and western portions of Bosnian-Serb territory, where the government is demanding more land.

International force (IFOR) losses have been mercifully low. The troops have thus far done an admirable job, although their leaders could display more enthusiasm for assisting with war-crimes investigations, and could have done more to stop the looting, arson, and thuggery in the Sarajevo suburbs as Bosnian Serbs withdrew in an ethnic self-cleansing. Still, IFOR is feeling its way, and the world owes the troops a vote of thanks.

Serious problems remain, however:

Refugee repatriation. Some 2 million refugees must be returned home or resettled elsewhere. United Nations officials say this will take at least two years at best - and that assumes no more fighting.

Elections and nation-building. While elections are set for September, it will take more than elections to set up a functioning Bosnian-Serb and Muslim-Croat confederation government, as outlined in Dayton. (The Muslim-Croat federation itself is extremely shaky.) And it's going to take longer than the four months between the elections and IFOR's scheduled withdrawal from Bosnia.

Civilian policing. The international civilian counterpart to IFOR has been woefully laggard in getting its programs under way. One example is the United Nations international police force, which has so far deployed only about 700 of the 1,700 officers called for in the Dayton agreement. Recruitment has been a problem; about 10 percent of recruits had insufficient English or failed to pass drivers' tests.

War crimes. The evidence of appalling mass murders of civilians, some of which were first confirmed on the ground by this newspaper, continues to mount. There will be no long-term peace in Bosnia until the perpetrators, many of them known, are brought to justice. NATO and the US must continue to press Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to fully cooperate with the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, including detaining and turning over suspects for trial.

In addition, NATO must reconsider its refusal to arrest indicted Bosnian Serb leaders such as Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, whose whereabouts are known and who have often walked into and out of buildings occupied by IFOR troops without challenge, according to press reports.

Little of this work will be completed by December when President Clinton has said US forces will leave. Last week the Pentagon said that if increased political and economic aid is not forthcoming, Bosnia will relapse into warfare upon IFOR's departure. Britain and France, the other major contributors to IFOR, say that if US troops go, theirs will also.

NATO officials are beginning to discuss the need for a follow-on force, and may make preliminary decisions at a June meeting. Some IFOR troops need to stay, but observers seem to agree the contingent can be a lot smaller than the current 60,000 troops. The Clinton administration should assent to keep a small number of US troops on the ground, although their role can be negotiated. (There are hints that Britain and France might be satisfied with the Americans maintaining their logistical support base in nearby Hungary.)

In any event, the need for continuing NATO military support of Bosnian peace is clear. NATO leaders, including President Clinton, should start laying the groundwork - including preparing the public - now.

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