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NATION BUILDING IN BOSNIA How efforts to stop the war turned into a broader responsiblility for building a lasting peace by rick young and jim mokhiber
Jim Mokhiber was a reporter on and Rick Young was a producer of the FRONTLINE documentary Give War A Chance

"Neither we nor the international community has either the responsibility or the means to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to rebuild nations."

- Tony Lake, U.S. National Security Advisor, March 6, 1996

The path to peace in Bosnia was a long one, its final phase marked by tragedy, a change in the fortunes of war and NATO military intervention. Events during the summer of 1995, including the Serb massacre of thousands of Muslims at Srebrenica and the marketplace shelling of Sarajevo, energized a U.S.- led negotiating effort. Bloodied by an increasingly successful Muslim-Croat ground offensive and two weeks of NATO air strikes, the Bosnian Serbs finally agreed to talk peace in Dayton, Ohio.

The result was the comprehensive November 1995 peace plan that looked beyond the immediate cessation of hostilities to the prospects for long-term stability and the reconstruction of a multi-ethnic state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But implementation of the Dayton agreement has been problematic and controversial, ultimately dependent on an expanding military role--which now includes tasks such as the pursuit of war criminals and assisting with the return of displaced refugees.

The story of the Dayton peace agreement and its implementation is also the story of how Bosnian policy evolved within the Clinton administration. It is the story of how efforts to stop the war turned into a broader responsiblility for building a lasting peace. "The result," writes former National Security Council staffer Ivo Daalder in a forthcoming book on the administration's policy, "is an open-ended commitment to Bosnia's future, that places much of the responsibility for securing a lasting peace in the hands of the international community."

The Policy

After several years of inaction, in mid-1995 the Clinton Administration embraced a more aggressive American commitment to stopping the bloodshed in Bosnia. The President had two years earlier decided not to send ground troops to Bosnia unless a peace settlement could be reached. The question at hand was what kind of settlement and, ultimately, who would enforce it?

Tony Lake, the president's National Security Advisor, pressed a new diplomatic approach dubbed "The Endgame Strategy." The goal was to end the war and to maintain a single, though divided, state in which the warring parties--the Croat and Muslim Bosnians and the Serbs--would be separated. The exit strategy rested on the establishment of a military balance of power among the warring factions to deter additional fighting and allow for the removal of U.S. troops at the end of one year.

While many in the administration supported this approach, those responsible for negotiating the ultimate peace settlement--including Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke--sought a more expansive peace agreement. "Our fundamental goal in getting involved in Bosnia in the summer of 1995 was to end the war," says Daalder. "Richard Holbrooke's fundamental goal was to negotiate a peace. A peace that was sustaining and self-sustaining over the long term."

The critical difference between stopping the war and building a peace was manifest in a series of Cabinet-level meetings just days prior to the opening of the Dayton talks. The President's top advisers gathered in the White House situation room to formulate the military's mission should a settlement be reached. Would NATO troops assume responsibility for arresting war criminals, for guaranteeing refugee returns and assuring free elections?

"These were fundamental questions about what kind of society one was willing to build and use IFOR [the NATO military force] as the instrument to build them," says Daalder.

"I was a maximalist," explains Richard Holbrooke. "I wanted the NATO force to do as much as possible. Most of the people in uniform, particularly at the higher ranks, and particularly those who were scarred by the Vietnam experience, or had been involved in Somalia, were minimalists who wanted to do as little as possible."

At that moment, Holbrooke lost his argument for an expansive military mission. The obligations of the forces would be limited. But the President's advisers also agreed that the NATO troops would hold the authority to expand their mandate should conditions warrant.

The Accords

On November 21, 1995, after three weeks of intensive negotiations, representatives of the warring parties in the former Yugoslavia finally approved the agreement that became known as the Dayton Peace Accords. Significantly, the agreement provided for the continued existence of a single, though divided, state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with 51% of the territory going to the Muslim-Croat Federation and 49% to the entity that would be known as the "Bosnian Serb Republic." Under the agreement, Sarajevo was to be unified under the control of the Muslim-Croat Federation.

But, the Dayton Accords also included a comprehensive array of provisions meant to establish the basis for a sustainable, multi-ethnic nation. The agreement created a new constitution, a new parliament and a constitutional court, provided for democratic elections, and established a central bank as well as transportation, utilities and postal bodies.

Other provisions guaranteed refugees the right to return home safely and receive compensation for lost property, established commissions to protect human rights and national monuments, and created a UN International Police Task Force to monitor and train local law enforcement organizations. A high representative was charged with overseeing economic reconstruction, aid and the "civilian" aspects of the ambitious settlement.

Key to the Dayton Accords were the military provisions (Annex 1-A) enforcing the end of the war. The principle guarantor of the peace was IFOR, the multinational Implementation Force that received its authority from the UN but was under the command of NATO. IFOR's leader was NATO southern commander Admiral Leighton "Snuffy" Smith. IFOR was tasked with the responsibility for separating the warring factions, overseeing the withdrawal of heavy weapons and monitoring the cessation of fighting. In addition, IFOR was authorized to assist, with force if necessary, in the implementation of the ambitious "civilian" provisions.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee just two weeks after Dayton, General John Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was explicit in delineating the limits of military responsibilities. "IFOR will not be responsible for the conduct of humanitarian operations. It will not be a police force. It will not conduct nation building. It will not have the mission of disarming, and it will not move refugees."

The Implementation

Within a short few months, the inherent conflict between the expansive goals of Dayton and the limited responsibilities of the military became evident. With the "civilian" apparatus prescribed by Dayton slow to emerge, pressure quickly grew for the military to assume greater responsibility for the success of the accords.

No issue was more contentious than whether IFOR would track down and arrest indicted war criminals. For some, especially Richard Holbrooke, the success of Dayton was not possible without the arrest of the Bosnian Serb leaders and indicted war criminals, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. For Holbrooke, their continued presence and activities fueled the hopes of Bosnian Serb separatists and ended the promise of multi-ethnic peace.

However, the IFOR commander, Admiral "Snuffy" Smith, remained intent on keeping his troops focused on their primary mission of peacekeeping. Smith worried that taking on additional tasks, particularly the pursuit of war criminals, could destabilize the peace and draw his forces further into dangerous duties they were not adequately prepared to handle.

"Snuffy had some very strong views on what could be done, could not be done," recalls General Howell Estes, former Director for Operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We've been through this in Vietnam and you can see the connection we can't let that happen in Bosnia, we can't let ourselves get involved in something that we know is not going to come out right because we're not trained to do it."

Ultimately, Admiral Smith's reluctance to see the military accept additional responsibilities for the implementation of Dayton was viewed by some, particularly in the "maximalist" camp, as an impediment to the grand vision of a sustainable multi-ethnic state. In June of 1996, Smith retired--several months earlier than he had planned.

"What happened into 1996 and really into 1997 was that we changed our goals from establishing a military balance of power on the ground to building a new Bosnia," explains Ivo Daalder. "And it becomes clear that this is going to take a long time. It also becomes clear that if we're ever going to resolve this issue the military, as the most capable instrument inside Bosnia, will probably have to do more."

In mid-May 1997, the Administration set a new course in an "ABC" meeting of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, and Defense Secretary Bill Cohen. As a result of the meeting, it was agreed that the U.S would push for NATO forces to assume greater responsibility for the implementation of the peace accords, including the arrest of war criminals and the return of displaced refugees.

In December, 1997, with the initial one-year exit plan having long passed, President Clinton announced that troop withdrawal deadlines would no longer determine the length of U.S. commitment to Bosnia. Though their numbers were vastly scaled back--from 35,000 to 6,000--American troops would stay until the goals of Dayton were achieved.

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