NATO exits Bosnia

A 7,000-strong EU force took over peacekeeping duties Thursday, signaling postwar stability.

For the past nine years, Eagle Base, a sprawling military complex outside the industrial town of Tuzla in northeastern Bosnia, teemed with NATO soldiers. Now Eagle Base is undergoing a changing of the guard.

After contributing some 100,000 troops to keep the peace in Bosnia over the past nine years, the US-led NATO force has called it a day, handing over the job to 7,000 European Union (EU) troops Thursday.

NATO and the UN say the security situation now is far better than when NATO arrived to enforce the Dayton peace treaty after the 1992-1995 war that left some 200,000 people dead and uprooted half the country's population.

The 60,000 NATO troops - one-third of whom were American - deployed to Bosnia to find ruined towns, roads, and infrastructure, endless minefields, and troublemaking politicians who sought control over their wartime fiefdoms.

Nine years later, while Bosnia is hardly a model country, its challenges are mostly unrelated to the threat of renewed war.

A key to the success of the US-led effort, says US Army Maj. Gen. William Nash, who commanded the first contingent of Americans at Eagle Base, was that Bosnian parties were "predisposed" to stop fighting.

And the Western countries that composed the Peace Implementation Council granted the country's international administrator king-like powers to fire officials and impose laws - a move, Mr. Nash says, that pushed the peace process forward.

Bosnia's long-term prospects for peace hinge today on current international overseer Paddy Ashdown's success in pushing through state-building reforms and kick-starting the economy.

Bosnia is also threatened by factions in neighboring Serbia insisting that if Kosovo - under UN administration since 1999 but technically still part of Serbia - becomes independent, Serbia should receive Bosnia's Serb half as a consolation prize.

Even though 500,000 troops from 43 countries have served here, the alliance has repeatedly failed to capture the UN war-crimes tribunal's two most-wanted fugitives. Former Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic have remained at large since being indicted for genocide in 1995.

Brig. Gen. Timothy Wright says that's why 150 US troops will remain at Eagle Base after several hundred others have gone home. "Those are the two guys we're going to go get," he says.

Another 100 American troops will be based at NATO's remaining headquarters outside Sarajevo. They will aid Bosnia's defense reforms, which involve downsizing its former warring Croat, Muslim, and Serb militaries and placing them under a single command. The Americans will also conduct counterterrorism operations.

But larger EU-US disagreements on the world stage could be detrimental to the Bosnia mission.

Senad Slatina, a Sarajevo-based analyst with the International Crisis Group in Brussels, says that Macedonian officials complained about hearing different advice from the EU and NATO when both had missions in that country.

"Bosnia needs international intervention less and less, but when it needs it, it needs it to be coming from one place," he says.

Mr. Slatina also says the EU must watch the sale or destruction of weapons stockpiles as Bosnia's militaries downsize so that the country doesn't become an arms emporium for terrorists, guerrillas, or rogue states. In the most high-profile of weapons scandals here in past years, the Bosnian Serb member of the three-man presidency had to resign last year over a local firm selling jet parts to Iraq.

Observers agree that much is riding on this EU military mission, its largest ever. The mission could mean the first break with the squabbling and impotence that characterized the European response to the Balkan wars in the 1990s. But Slatina notes that the EU will have to balance its need to flex its growing foreign-policy muscle with the need to keep Bosnia safe and on the road to joining Europe.

"We don't need a parade, and we don't need a testing ground for European foreign and security policy," says Slatina. "They really need to provide a safe and secure environment."

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