Would Sending Arms to Bosnians Help Keep Peace? The US Says Yes

American-led moves to equip and train the Bosnian Army are slowly picking up speed despite opposition from NATO allies.

Five months after the signing of the Dayton peace accord, American officials have been unable to persuade their European counterparts to support the $500 million program. Few issues have so divided Western policymakers here, even as Bosnia's three warring factions are engaged in arms-control negotiations.

American officials argue that their equip-and-train program will balance military forces in the region and deter any faction from reigniting the war. But NATO allies counter that bringing more weapons to Bosnia can only do harm.

"The Europeans think that if you are madly stamping out the fire, then the last thing you should do is put more fuel on it," says a senior European diplomat. "The Americans believe that if a big guy is beating up on a little guy, they should give the little guy a bigger stick. These two views of the world could not be further apart."

Officials and diplomats on both sides say they have agreed to disagree. Europeans recognize that to win support for the Dayton accord and its Bosnia policy, the Clinton administration was required by Congress to undertake the equip-and-train program to "level the playing field."

But in the European view, the policy only broadens the killing field and may undermine the peace it is meant to preserve.

So far, every other military element of the accord has been adhered to: Bosnian Serb, Muslim, and Croat forces have withdrawn from front lines. For the first time in four years the coming of spring has not been accompanied by fresh offensives.

NATO estimates that already half of the country's 300,000 soldiers have been demobilized, and 750 tanks, 1,300 artillery pieces, and more than 3,500 mortars have been put into storage. Arms-control quotas are now under discussion in Vienna, and agreement is expected by June 6.

In such a climate, European diplomats say, it is foolhardy to arm the Bosnian Army. After four years of humiliation at the hands of Serb forces, who "ethnically cleansed" 70 percent of Bosnia, the largely Muslim force - along with its nominal Croat allies - turned the tables last fall and went on the offensive.

That advance in northwest Bosnia stopped only when American and NATO officials demanded an end to the fighting. It also convinced Serbs they should take part in the peace process.

The outcome divided Bosnia into two roughly equal-sized territories - one controlled by the Muslim-Croat "federation," the other by the Serbs - and formed the basis for the Dayton agreement. The American equip-and-train program is meant to provide the federation only with a defensive capability.

But European diplomats worry that the program will be seen as a green light to the Muslims for future conflict. "We are worried that it will give the wrong signals," says one. "You may only arm and train them, but it may be perceived as more than that. It is a risk, and it could tip the balance."

The Dayton accord requires all of Bosnia's ethnic groups to live together, and the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo has been its strongest supporter. But increasing hard-line rhetoric from Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic has added to European concerns.

Over the weekend in the former Muslim enclave of Gorazde, a former United Nations "safe area" that was surrounded and shelled by Serb forces throughout the war, President Izetbegovic promised that the war was not over.

"We will return to every place they [the Serbs] expelled us from," Izetbegovic told his audience. "The fight for Bosnia-Herzegovina will never stop until the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina is free ... That fight, with God's help, is continuing."

American officials play down such comments and say they have asked the Europeans to "reconceptualize" the equip-and-train program. The Americans insist the program will go ahead anyway and that the Bosnian government considers rearming to be the heart of the Dayton accord.

"[The Bosnians] believe it is the foundation of everything," said James Pardew, the American coordinator for the program in a telephone interview from his office in Washington. "Military balance is the best way for peace in the region - it worked in Central Europe for 50 years."

But two primary obstacles remain, he said, which have prevented the start of the program: Muslims and Croats have yet to agree how to integrate their forces (Dayton forbids either from receiving military assistance separately); and all foreign Islamic fighters, some from Iran, have yet to leave.

Izetbegovic and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia met recently and agreed to bolster their federation. A decision to pave the way for military integration could come this week.

But the Bosnian government is reportedly hedging its bets in case the deal collapses. According to Sarajevo newspapers, Hasan Cengic, the deputy defense minister, says: "The Bosnian Army has certain amounts of weaponry outside the Bosnian borders. We can't allow political stalling to jeopardize the defense of these areas."

The continued presence of Islamic fighters, which has caused deep consternation among American policymakers, is another stumbling block. Though some 1,000 mujahideen fighters have left Bosnia, senior commanders of the American-led peace force say that about 150 remain.

"We think this is the best way to get the radical foreign elements out of Bosnia," Mr. Pardew says. "Our view is that Bosnia will get the weapons, and it is in our interest to manage it.... We just don't think it is a good idea to have these radical influences in Southern Europe."

A third restraint for Washington has been an embarrassing lack of financial support. A March fund-raising conference in Turkey yielded abysmal results. The US promised $100 million for equipment such as tanks, helicopters, and rifles. But only Turkey followed suit, offering $2 million for training. Some NATO members refused even to attend.

That result spawned a mission in mid-April by presidential counselor Mack McLarty. Armed with messages from President Clinton, Mr. McLarty's visits to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates raised $130 million.

That money, officials say, ensures that the equip-and-train program will go ahead, despite the lack of other American allies being on board.

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