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Bosnia: NATO Triggers False Alarm

NATO's plans to start withdrawing some of its troops from Bosnia should not be a cause for concern
By Daniel Korski

Plans by NATO to cut peacekeeping troops in Bosnia have been criticised in some quarters as a prelude to full withdrawal, but all the signs are that the move is primarily aimed reducing inefficiencies and responding more effectively to changed circumstances in the country.


After its latest six-month mission review, NATO on May 10 announced its decision to slash the Stabilization Force, SFOR, from about 19,000 to 12,000. "NATO is adapting its military presence in the Balkans to reflect the improving security environment in the region," a NATO statement said. "It is now appropriate to create lighter, more mobile and flexible forces, that will not only be more cost-effective, but will also be able to meet current challenges effectively."


These changes are supposed to be implemented over the next 12 months and should be completed by mid-2003. At the same time, the UN and its International Police Task Force, IPTF, are scheduled to leave Bosnia by the end of 2002. The IPTF has attempted to fashion the pre-war militias into a modern police force. A slimmed-down mission, run by the EU, will continue the UN's work from January 2003 onwards.


The main explanation for the reductions is that the peace-building mission in Bosnia is mostly done. And some argue that the need to continue fighting terrorism worldwide has eclipsed the need to provide a "safe and secure environment" in Bosnia. As NATO secretary-general Lord Robertson noted, "Since we first sent forces to the Balkans much has changed and improved and we are changing with them."


In reality, though, the cuts must be seen as the implementation of US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's goal, which he set out on assuming office, that the "The boys must come home".


In all likelihood, the cuts will probably not make a big difference. While scaremongers decry any reductions as a prelude to a total disengagement, it is worth remembering that NATO will still remain in Bosnia. "I do not think it will have any negative impact on the path to overall security in Bosnia and Herzegovina," said Mario Brkic, a spokesman for the Office of the High Representative, Bosnia's top international mediator.


IFOR and its successor SFOR effectively separated the largely exhausted warring parties at the conclusion of the war. Since then, there has been little desire - or indeed capability - by any side to restart the conflict. SFOR, just like the UN policing mission, has suffered from high turnover as units and staff rotate in and out of the mission.


Understandably, NATO has wanted to reduce its overheads. The cuts mainly concern back-office staff and troops in charge of maintaining equipment - such as tanks - that has not been used in Bosnia for years. "Do we really need so many colonels doing nothing to keep the peace?" and SFOR source asked.


While the troop numbers are an important factor in maintaining the peace, what really made SFOR successful in the past has been the willingness of contributing countries to engage robustly. Some might argue that the latter is less important than it once was since the country's former warring communities show little sign of wanting to renew hostilities.


In the absence of a direct threat to Bosnian stability, SFOR has been preoccupied with tracking down war-crime suspects. And its arguable whether military cut backs will have any impact on this, as it is the job of special military units, such as the US Delta Force, which has never been under NATO command.


A more ominous development than cutting troop numbers is moving SFOR command to NATO Headquarters South in Naples. This would deprive the high representative of the interlocutor - and strong arm - required to advance the peace process. As western source noted, "As long as US troops and a US general remain, calm will remain."


While NATO's presence throughout Bosnia will decrease, it's critical that it remains committed to the effective use of its troops by, for instance, more frequent patrolling of hot spots, especially regions to which refugees are returning; helps the High Representative ensure that the implementation of recently announced constitutional changes takes place; and shares more intelligence with the EU police mission and the high representative.


In short, a leaner SFOR would still have a unique opportunity to work in an increasingly focused manner. It might even enable NATO do more in order to do less in the long run.


For all the scare mongering, the cuts do not represent the death knell for international engagement in Bosnia. But NATO still needs to prove to its critics, as well as its remaining enemies, that it means business in Bosnia.


Daniel Korski has worked for the UN in Geneva and the International Crisis Group in Bosnia."