Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

SFOR Uncertainty Endangers Bosnia

The uncertainty over the future of SFOR could not have come at a worse time, or from a worse quarter
By Mark Wheeler

Donald Rumsfeld did not let any cats out of the bag, but he did put a big saucer of cream on the front stoop for any stray felines to drink. Speaking last week to The Washington Post, the US defence secretary confirmed both his determination to withdraw American troops from the Balkans as soon as possible and his disagreement with the secretary of state, Colin Powell, over whether America should continue to participate in the Nato-led mission in Bosnia.


Although the reluctance of key members of the Bush administration to keep US soldiers in south-eastern Europe was obvious before they came to power, Powell has since sought to reassure the Europeans about America's staying power in Bosnia, telling Nato foreign ministers in February, 'We went in together and we will leave together'.


Rumsfeld contends, however, that the military mission in Bosnia was 'done' three or four years ago and insofar as there remains a job to do, the Europeans can handle it. This attitude reflects both the Pentagon's longstanding view that peacekeeping is for wimps and the new administration's plan to re-orient America's defence priorities towards the Gulf, the Pacific and the heavens. It does not matter to Rumsfeld that the Americans were the last to go into Bosnia in 1995. It is more important that they should be the first to leave.


The US defence secretary and his supporters will be looking to meetings of Nato foreign and defence ministers in Budapest and Brussels over the next month to endorse their view that between five and ten thousand troops can be safely withdrawn from the Balkans.


Since the Nato-led force of some 40,000 soldiers in Kosovo, KFOR, will have its hands full coping with continuing Albanian insurgencies across the province's southern borders and with preparations for the 17 November elections, the 22,000-strong force in Bosnia, SFOR, offers the only pool from which significant numbers of troops can be quickly withdrawn.


The Pentagon seems determined to cut the current US contingent from 3,300 to 2,000, minimum. If implemented, this would mean America's contribution will have been halved since President Bush came to power.


The United States is not the only contributor to SFOR that is keen on making cuts. Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic have recently announced force reductions, or withdrawals. In Britain, the media and politicians have voiced concern that the country's military capacity is being stretched. Nato officials in Brussels have tried to


stop the rot, denying that the US has told them it intends to quit Bosnia, or that the mission is by any means complete.


But more withdrawals can be expected if the US perseveres, for the Europeans will not want to be left holding the Bosnian baby on their own. The fact that the improvements have not been made in SFOR's strategic reserves, intelligence functions and policing capacity, which were promised last year in justification of the last round of force reductions from 30,000 to 20,000, is particularly alarming in this context.


This uncertainty over the future of SFOR could not have come at a worse time, or from a worse quarter. Galling as Europeans may find it, the war in Bosnia was only stopped and a peace cobbled together at Dayton thanks to America's belated intervention in 1995. Since then, the US has provided the single largest contingent to both the Implementation Force , IFOR, and its 1996 successor SFOR, as well as their commanders and headquarters.


Moreover, the United States (and Britain) have come to play a leading role in strengthening the hand of the High Representative as he has sought over the past 18 months to realise the potential of Bosnia's Dayton constitution for integrating the divided country. Support for this policy of aggressive implementation has been underpinned by America's (and Britain's) increasing willingness to use SFOR's military clout, even if it has been undermined by the reluctance of the US (and France) to go after indicted war criminals in their respective divisional sectors.


Changes of government in Croatia and Serbia and the emergence of multi-ethnic, pro-Dayton, coalition governments at state and Federation levels in Bosnia following the November 2000 elections have reinforced the resolve now shown by the international community to challenge the powers and privileges of Bosnia's entrenched wartime elites.


This means that prospects for establishing a functional Bosnian state and a self-sustaining peace have never been better. The battle, however, is far from won. More robust implementation of Dayton is necessary to construct state-wide institutions capable ultimately of superceding the three-entity - a common state and two entities - monstrosity bequeathed by Dayton.


But this can only be done if SFOR provides a safe and secure environment, filling the security gap which continues to impede refugee return, building institutions, encouraging foreign investment and eliminating parallel power structures, paramilitary forces and the influence of those war criminals who remain at large.


Recent rioting by Bosnian Serb and Croat chauvinists in Banja Luka, Trebinje, Mostar and other parts of 'Herceg-Bosna' - and an increasing incidence of attacks on refugees seeking to return to their homes in areas from which they had been expelled during the war - demonstrate that as the old guard begins to lose both legitimate political power and economic power, it has become more desperate and dangerous.


SFOR has helped establish conditions in many areas for refugee returns, but remains loath to take on police functions across the board. Yet, even in the continuing absence of adequate numbers of military police trained in dealing with civil disorder, a show of force by the troops could easily have deterred the disturbances in Trebinje on May 5 and in Banja Luka on May 7. The fact that there was no serious opposition to the second of OHR's April raids on branches of Hercegovacka Banka, which were supported by blanket security provided by American, British, Canadian and Danish units of SFOR, proves this point.


By contrast, raids in the French sector were inadequately protected by mere handfuls of Italian Carabinieri and were largely frustrated by mob violence.


This is not the time for Nato to put more than five years of work in Bosnia at risk. Nor is it conceivable that the United States should wish to jeopardise the cohesion and purpose of the very alliance it entered Bosnia to save.


There is, at long last, light at the end of the Bosnian tunnel. But if that light is to prevail, NATO must maintain a credible military presence in Bosnia. It should publicly accept its forces' duty to support civilian implementation tasks until the country is ready to exercise the responsibilities currently entrusted to the international community.


Mark Wheeler is Director of the International Crisis Group's Bosnian Project and a former head of IWPR's media monitoring project in Bosnia-Hercegovina. This article is based on ICG's latest Balkan report, 'No Early Exit: NATO's Continuing Challenge in Bosnia' (22 May 2001), available at www.crisisweb.org.


More IWPR's Global Voices