"ABSENCE OF WAR" - BOSNIA STATUS REPORT WITH ADMIRAL LEIGHTON SMITH
JULY 8, 1996
Is Bosnia still a tinderbox? Admiral Leighton Smith, the commander of NATO forces in Bosnia known as IFOR, tells Jim Lehrer that though there is "an awful lot of hate that remains" Bosnian and Serbian forces are not interested in fighting each other anymore. Weapons are in storage sites and troops are demobilizing. He talks to the NewsHour in a Newsmaker interview from London.
NewsHour coverage of Bosnian War Crimes: July 1, 1996 Analysis of Serbian Leader Karadzic
May 25, 1996 General discussion of issues surrounding War Crimes
Past interviews with NATO Commanders: February 1, 1996 Admiral Smith's last appearance on the NewsHour
December 6, 1995 General George Joulwan on the beginning of the recent Bosnia mission
General NewsHour coverage of the Bosnian Conflict.
JIM LEHRER: Admiral Smith, welcome.
ADM. LEIGHTON SMITH, NATO Commander, Bosnia: Jim, thank you very much. It's good to be back with you.
JIM LEHRER: Sir, prosecutors at the War Crimes Tribunal today asked for arrest warrants to be issued against Serb leaders Karadzic and Mladic. If you get those warrants, will, will NATO troops execute them?
ADM. SMITH: Well, of course, Jim, you know that NATO troops are under the guidance of the North Atlantic Council. That's the political body that governs our actions. Of course, if we get the order from our political masters to carry out an order, of course, NATO forces, IFOR forces will do just that.
JIM LEHRER: But short of--now who would give that order? What would be--if those warrants are, in fact, issued, how does it all get back down to you for you to issue the orders to your troops, okay, let's go arrest these two guys?
ADM. SMITH: Jim, any change to our current set of orders, or any change to the mandate under which I'm operating now, would require a political guidance from the North Atlantic Council of NATO. That would go down through Gen. Joulwan at SHAPE, who is my immediate superior, and Gen. Joulwan would issue that order. So right now I have no further guidance, other than that which we've been operating under all along, and that is if we come in contact with any of the indicted war criminals, we will detain them, of course, subject to the tactical situation, and that will be the commander-on-scene's judgment as to whether or not that can be done without undue risk to civilian population around.
JIM LEHRER: Is the No. 1 concern the risk to civilian personnel, rather than to find these people and to arrest them, as you sit there now?
ADM. SMITH: Uh, I'm not sure that that's the only thing you can consider in an act such as that, Jim. There are an awful lot of things. What is the overall effect on the peace process? What are the risks of the soldiers involved conducting the operation? What would be the risks to the people in the general vicinity? Those are things that we've discussed, and certainly those are operational matters. I wouldn't want to go into too great a detail on those particular issues right now, but they are considerations, and they all have to be taken under consideration when you start talking about that kind of a move.
JIM LEHRER: Well, as you know, Admiral among--a lot of lay people don't understand why these two men are indicted for war crimes, and yet are running around loose there in Bosnia with your troops having them under sight from time to time. Can you explain that a little more--a little further, so people can understand why these folks are not arrested?
ADM. SMITH: Well, Jim, first of all, the guidance that we get under the rules of engagement under which we operate are quite clear. And that is that we will not go hunting down war criminals. We don't even authority to arrest anyone. We have authority to detain and immediately turn them over to the international tribunal. I get the guidance from our political masters. Of course, they get input from us, the military side. Right now my guidance is exactly as I have previously stated.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
ADM. SMITH: And we are following that guidance.
JIM LEHRER: Admiral, do you agree with those who say that until those two men are arrested and taken to trial, there can be no lasting peace in Bosnia?
ADM. SMITH: What you might--I think perhaps the issue is larger than just those--than just those two. I would offer that there are many war criminals that are out there, and until and unless we get the parties that sign the agreement to begin carrying out their part of that agreement, and that is that they will cooperate with the tribunal and turn over indicted war criminals to stand trial for those actions, that seems to me to be the larger issue.
JIM LEHRER: And is that a serious issue in terms of a lasting peace? I mean, if those people won't turn over their own folks who are, who are accused of crimes, then that says something rather large about the possibility of a lasting peace?
ADM. SMITH: Well, I think there a lot of people that would agree that certainly in order to have a true peace you must also have justice. There are others who say you've got to achieve piece before you have justice. That sounds to me like a chicken and egg--chicken and an egg concept, but I'm not--I'm probably not qualified to address it much further than that, except to say that I think that the people who sign the agreement should, in fact, live up to what they signed up to do, and they ought to turn over those indicted war criminals to the tribunal and let them stand trial. If they're innocent, end of the issue. If they're guilty, then let--let the courts take care of that.
JIM LEHRER: But you see that as a political action, not the responsibility of you and your troops, is that right, to make sure that those people turn those people over?
ADM. SMITH: We do not at this point, Jim, have any orders whatsoever that would cause me to go hunting for war criminals, other than that which I've just explained.
JIM LEHRER: But what I mean is to put the heat on the various factions, in this case the Serbs, the Serb leadership, to turn those two guys over, you don't see that as your function either.
ADM. SMITH: Well, we certainly are part of the, are part of the entire equation, but that is a political issue right now, and as I mentioned to one of the media representatives yesterday, there are three avenues here, political, economic, and military, and it seems to me that we ought to go after the people that signed the agreement in a political way, cause them to live up to that agreement, and certainly that is in the political arena.
JIM LEHRER: Admiral, on the military side, there have been two incidents in the last couple of days, one today involving some Portuguese troops under your command, and there was a standoff of some kind yesterday involving some American troops in an area where Gen. Mladic is expected--is believed to be. What--can you explain what happened in these two cases, and how serious they were?
ADM. SMITH: Well, the first one had the potential to become very serious, but I think we were able to get that under control. Let me just start back about Wednesday, when we saw some tanks and some armored vehicles that were out of position. They were outside of an authorized storage area. That was seen via some reconnaissance assets. We went to take a look at that on Friday with helicopters. We received what we consider now to be a low-level threat issued by a liaison officer that if the helicopters conducting the reconnaissance were not, uh, would not immediately depart the area, that they would be shot down. I take every single threat seriously, so we immediately reacted to that, and we put some forces on alert. We had some fixed wing air come in, and I called up President Milosevic and had a nice, direct chat with him, and I asked him to do some things for me. I told him what my actions had been, and he followed through on what I asked him to do, and I think he was helpful in defusing that problem.
On the next day, Saturday, the American forces went in, and they were able to inspect the site and ascertain that everything was in order at that point. A British officer went in and talked with the Bosnian Serb army directly, and he was able to inspect some other areas that were of interest to us, so despite the fact that there was a bit of a problem in the early stages, a lot of it orchestrated frankly by the Serb side by getting some civilians out there to demonstrate and try to prohibit IFOR from doing their job, but I think overall there was resolve shown here, the job was done. I think it was done in the right way.
JIM LEHRER: And it's over? And it's over? That one's over?
ADM. SMITH: Yeah. I think that one's over, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
ADM. SMITH: Yeah. We've resolved that to our satisfaction. Now perhaps--I don't know whether the two are tied or not, but clearly, the tensions were high there, and so perhaps the issue with the Portuguese which happened near a town called Rugatica, where it's not clear to me whether three individuals fired a single burst or one person fired three bursts or just exactly what the scenario was, clearly it was a dangerous situation where shots were fired at a vehicle in which Portuguese soldiers were riding.
They came out of the vehicles and returned fire and saw three individuals departing the scene from which the--the area from which the shots were fired. Nothing further has been able to be done on that. Obviously, investigations continue. I consider that to be clearly a serious incident. We want to make sure that doesn't happen again. We've had previous sniping incidents, and we've been able to handle that.
JIM LEHRER: Admiral, is it your feeling that after six months, that if you all were to leave, that the fighting would break out, and that--again, just like it was before?
ADM. SMITH: Well, I certainly wouldn't want to speculate on what would happen if we leave right now because that's not in the plan.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
ADM. SMITH: Uh, and I'm not prepared to make a guess on what'll happen in December, when we begin the drawdown from where we are now. Let me just very briefly run through what the plan is. We are currently reshaping the force. I think Sec. Perry made that clear in recent media releases. And what we're trying to do is to take some of the heavy artillery, some of the tanks out and replace them with more mobile and flexible forces that can come around, drive around the country in the HumVee.
What this will give us is the same capability. In fact, we may increase the size of the force by a couple of hundred, but the bottom line is we'll maintain a good, solid capability until after the elections. And I will tell you that we're very, very much involved with OSCE in the conduct of these elections that are to be done in September. After the elections, a drawdown of some magnitude will commence. The rate of that drawdown, Jim, will be a function of the environment that we see after the elections. In other words, if it's nice and calm, things are going well, I'll expect a steeper slope. If it's not so calm and we have problems, I'll expect that that slope would not quite, be quite so steep. After December 20th, which is the one-year point--
JIM LEHRER: Right.
ADM. SMITH: -then the drawdown curve will start--will steepen up considerably and we'll come on out.
JIM LEHRER: I didn't ask the question very well. What I was really trying to get at is, is Bosnia still a tinderbox? I mean, these things, these incidents that happened just in these last two or three days, they were directed at your forces, is this place still, still explosive? Is peace--what's the nature of the peace that you're supervising at this point?
ADM. SMITH: Well, I will tell you, Jim, I don't call it peace. I call it an absence of war. We're working towards peace. Frankly, the forces are not interested in fighting each other. They're in the contonement areas. Their weapons are in storage sites. They're demobilizing. The people of this country want peace. There is an awful lot of hate that remains there, a great deal of fear and suspicion, and I think we have to work through this. We are in the process right now of trying to build confidence that peace is possible and that this reconstruction that is going to now take hold that we're certainly again a part of will be a sign of this benefits of the peace and people will move towards reconstruction, rather than the destruction that results from this war.
JIM LEHRER: Now Admiral, your assignment there is, is running down. How much time--how much time do you have left before you come back?
ADM. SMITH: Well, I'll be leaving here on the 31st of July, Jim, and returning to the states. And after a couple of months I'll retire.
JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about what you did in Bosnia, the mission in Bosnia?
ADM. SMITH: I feel good, Jim, I really do. I mean--and I can't take any of the credit for this. There is fifty-two, fifty-three thousand soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines that are part of this, and I give the credit where it belongs. And that's to the guys on the ground just slogging it out day to day. But I've got to tell you, I've been associated with Bosnia very closely since April of '94, and obviously to some degree before that just in general interest, but the magnitude of change that has occurred in Bosnia just in the last seven or eight months is absolutely incredible. We never dreamed that we would have been able to come so far so fast with as little trouble as we've had.
I mean, think back when we were debating about whether to put forces in here or not, and there were many people who opined that there would be thousands of casualties, that we would get ourselves bogged down into a war, we would be fighting amongst each other. We've got 34 nations over there, Jim. They're working together. We've got 53,000 forces. There are incredible things being done, and I could not be more pleased with the results that we've achieved, and I couldn't be more proud of the forces that are there, doing that job, and from a personal perspective, I feel pretty damned good about what's been done.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Admiral Smith, thank you very much.
ADM. SMITH: Thank you.