'No Way We Can Walk Away' From Post-Election Bosnia Now

The recent Bosnian elections suggest the classic maxim of cartographers and strategists: Everything changes except the geography.

With Serbs, Croats, and Muslims voting for separatism rather than reconstitution of the multi-ethnic state envisioned by the Dayton accords, a new set of geopolitical realities has been created that will shape the upcoming question of continued United States and NATO involvement. Whether the end-state is partition or reconstitution, we need to keep two things in mind: the inexorable logic of the Bosnian map and some hard lessons from our peacekeeping experiences elsewhere.

As Henry Kissinger recently pointed out, NATO's commitment to patrol the cease-fire lines under the military provisions of the Dayton agreement has effectively helped solidify the outlines of the ethnic enclaves. The election results may thus be the next step in the creation of a de facto international boundary between the Bosnian Federation and the Republika Srpska.

An earthworm's path

Therein lies the danger: The cease-fire lines agreed upon in Dayton make no sense if they're reinvented as frontiers. Rather than contiguous borders anchored in recognizable terrain, picture instead the progress of an earthworm crawling across the map of Bosnia-Herzegovina; this is what the zone of separation (ZOS) between the former warring factions looks like.

Even an earthworm might become disoriented as the ZOS undulates in hairpin turns around the city of Doboj or as it meanders in a 30-mile appendix connecting the Muslim enclave of Gorazde to the Federation.

Worst of all is Brcko, a shell-blasted city athwart the region's major road, rail, and river links. Because the city also bisects the narrow corridor connecting the two halves of Republika Srpska, its future is to be determined by international arbitration. Ceding the city to any one faction would cause the others to fight, so the most sensible suggestion so far has been the creation of an open, multi-ethnic city under international protection.

Though its specific circumstances represent the most compelling argument for a successor to the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR), Brcko is merely one of a number of choke points that are potential flashpoints if the ZOS becomes the new boundary. The illogic of that line is an open invitation to armed struggle in a region where arms are plentiful and where the dislocations of ethnic cleansing are raw wounds.

This volatile combination gives new meaning to the old saw about all politics being local. Nor should it be assumed that Serb, Croat, or Muslim leaders can always exercise control over their respective populations at these flashpoints. Local bosses, lost homes, old scores, and personal agendas are triggers for incidents that can become larger conflagrations unless superior force is brought to bear.

All of which raises again the question of what US interests really are in Bosnia following the elections and if they require a further commitment of American forces. Actually, those interests are pretty much what they were a year ago: to keep the Russians in, to keep the Iranians out, and to ensure NATO's success.

Quite apart from the question of arresting war criminals, the clear demonstration of the alliance's military prowess has created a momentum with important consequences well beyond the Balkans. Economic reconstruction has been more difficult, but the need to assure further development is another argument for an IFOR successor. As one military colleague recently put it, "Think of Bosnia as the ultimate Tar Baby: There's just no way we can walk away from it right now."

Soldiers' frustration

Walking (or driving) away, however, is just what US soldiers stationed in Bosnia would like to do. Their training for this mission began more than a year ago, most have been separated from their families since last Christmas, and many are three-and four-time veterans of similarly demanding deployments. With other requirements such as the Persian Gulf always looming, their leaders are well aware that this superbly professional army is being run ever closer to its limits.

Remember Somalia?

Rotation, redeployment, and overall reductions make sense in considering the force that should succeed IFOR. But these considerations must be balanced by some hard lessons learned - or at least identified - elsewhere. Remember Somalia? Writing a book about that operation last year, I was struck by how disaster followed when three independent decisions came together:

*We committed ourselves to a longer, more intrusive mission that affected power relationships between well-armed factions.

*We reduced the size of the force committed to the mission.

*We reduced the combat power of that force by largely removing its most potent element - US ground-based firepower.

Bosnia is not Somalia, but some of those same pitfalls - or minefields - are there and need to be avoided. Striking the right balance in our future commitment will require patience and a strategic perspective measured in increments longer than 12 months. One of the basic functions of military forces is to buy time - always with the expenditure of treasure and sweat but sometimes with lives. As with any other critical investment, giving in to incremental, short-term pressures is usually a bad idea.

We have bought some time in Bosnia, although the results are often hard to measure. They were summed up for me last summer on a street corner in Sarajevo - a place that months before fully deserved its name of "Sniper Alley." Feeling a touch at my elbow, I looked down into the wizened face of an old man, obviously Muslim but who otherwise looked like my grandfather. Smiling, he reached up, touched the American flag shoulder patch worn by all US soldiers in Bosnia, and said haltingly, "Senk you."

At the time, I could only nod and shake his hand. But ever since, the time purchased by our peacekeeping investment in Bosnia has seemed well worth the price.

*Colonel Kenneth Allard, currently assigned to the National Defense University, is concluding his career in the US Army following recent service in Bosnia. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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