Turning the Bosnia Ceasefire into Peace: A Debate About the Future of Bosnia

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Since they were signed in 1995, the Dayton accords have accomplished a great deal in Bosnia. Armed conflict has been stopped and further genocide and widespread ethnic cleansing prevented. Troop casualties in the NATO-led operation have been extremely low. Unemployment is down from 90 percent to 50 percent (though progress has been less notable in the Serb region). The military disadvantages that plagued the Muslims throughout three and a half years of war have been largely eliminated through the U.S.-led train-and-equip program as well as a regional arms control plan that has already led to the destruction of more than 4,000 heavy weapons. NATO forces have cooperated with Russian troops in pursuit of these common goals, giving real substance to their budding and critically important partnership.

But for the current ceasefire to turn into lasting peace, the Dayton accords need a fundamental overhaul. Most important, their aspiration to achieve a truly reunified and multiethnic Bosnia must be recognized as unrealistic. A more workable goal would be to partition the Bosnian state into three distinct countries, each dominated by one of the three major ethnic groups. Even if partition is not adopted as formal policy, the goal of reversing ethnic cleansing should at least be dropped. The map of Bosnia should also be redrawn to give the Muslims more land. Making even this scaled-down plan work will be tough enough. For it to have a good chance of success, an outside force will need to stay in Bosnia well beyond the completion of the current mandate next June, and U.S. units will need to be a part of that force.

The Dayton accords are at war with themselves. They are both a plan for reunification and a plan for partition. The accords call for return of refugees and reintegration of the country at the local and national level, while also legitimizing separate armies and permanent lines of separation between them.

Growing out of this contradiction are three specific flaws. First, the call for refugees to return to their homes is infeasible and indeed dangerous – as Bosnians have themselves generally discovered when trying to return to their original communities. Second, Dayton’s current map does not give the Muslims as much land as their share of population warrants, and the land it does allocate to them does not constitute a politically or economically viable entity. Finally, Dayton’s ambitious approach to trying large numbers of indicted war criminals at the Hague risks a repeat of the Somalia tragedy – casualties suffered in manhunts that the U.S. public has not been prepared for and does not support.

Once a revised peace accord that redresses these flaws is developed, the Clinton administration should be able to overcome congressional pressure to bring home U.S. troops in June. It should, in fact, declare its intention to keep several thousand American troops in the region until at least the year 2000.

Related Books

Defending Partition

Fixing Dayton will probably require something that, even if it is not called partition, largely amounts to it. Taking that position requires answering the arguments of those who oppose partition on principle – like Dayton’s chief architect, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton’s national security adviser Sandy Berger (most notably in a September speech at Georgetown University), and scholar Radha Kumar writing recently in Foreign Affairs magazine.

Opponents of partition often argue that it would sanction ethnic cleansing. But what really sanctioned ethnic cleansing was the West’s refusal to take action to prevent tens of thousands from being butchered and hundreds of thousands from being forcibly uprooted during the Balkan wars. Moreover, Dayton is not reversing ethnic cleansing: two years into the NATO presence in Bosnia, only a few percent of those displaced have returned to their original homes.

Mr. Berger recently claimed that allowing partition in Bosnia could create a dangerous precedent for other civil conflicts around the world, emboldening would-be secessionists to pursue their goals through force. But Berger’s espousal of such a latter-day “domino effect” is unconvincing. After all, holding to the goal of a unified Bosnia has not deterred or ended numerous other civil wars going on in the world today.

At this point, the real issue is not how to wrestle with our guilty consciences but how to turn the Bosnia ceasefire into a genuine peace. Mr. Holbrooke has recently claimed in a Washington Post op-ed that an “imposed partition’ would probably lead to resumed warfare. But U.S. Information Agency polls in Bosnia, to say nothing of realities on the ground, show powerful and widespread pressures for partition among Bosnians themselves. According to a USIA survey published last February, 85 percent of Bosnian Croats lack confidence in the Muslim-Croat Federation Army. Although about half of the Muslims are supportive of the tripartite presidency, roughly 80 percent of all Croats and 90 percent of Serbs have little faith in it and prefer independence or merger with Croatia and Serbia, respectively. Shockingly, comparable percentages continue to give favorable ratings to their own respective indicted war criminals like Ratko Mladi’c. Since Dayton was signed, more Bosnians have left homes in regions where they were minorities than have returned to such regions. These trends make partition look like the home-grown solution to the conflict and a multiethnic Bosnia the externally imposed approach.

Also, partition can work. It has succeeded with the Czechs, Slovaks, and Slovenians. Some form of partition is also the preferred policy of the major parties to the Arab-Israeli and Indo-Pakistani peace processes. It does not always work, but it can, and it has.

Last but not least, a reality check: Bosnia is largely partitioned already. Even the West’s new darling, Serb President Biljana Plavsic, wants to keep it that way – refusing to allow more than a handful of displaced Croats and Muslims to resettle in her Banja Luka region. Moreover, the Dayton accords legitimate two independent armies within Bosnia into the indefinite future. One of them, the Muslim-Croat Federation force, itself has two component parts that are only loosely tied together. The Dayton accords do not include even a paper plan for integrating Federation and Serb forces. Where is the precedent for a single stable country containing two or three separate and mutually hostile armies within it? One might point to China. But the concept of one China is a policy, not a political-military reality – and the policy works only because a wide strait, as well as the U.S. 7th Fleet from time to time, separates the two antagonists.

A Revised Peace Plan

Formal partition or no, the peace plan needs review. Most important, a revised plan should lower expectations about refugee resettlement. It should also give the Muslims – with nearly half of prewar Bosnia’s population but only 30 percent of the territory under Dayton – additional land corridors that provide access to the sea (through southeastern Croatia) as well as to the Bihac pocket in northwestern Bosnia.

The Muslims, principal victims of the war and still the principal proponents of a multiethnic Bosnia, may not like this plan even with the new land corridors it would provide them. But there is little practical alternative – and we can sweeten the deal for them in other ways. For example, a new Muslim state should receive increased international aid to build housing for those displaced by war. The Muslims could also be offered more formal defense arrangements with the West, ultimately even NATO membership, provided they were prepared to forswear the use of force against neighbors and ensure civilian control of the military.

The Serbs and Croats would each achieve their primary goal – independence, and ultimately the chance to merge with Serbia or Croatia respectively – through this Dayton II approach. As the price to pay for self-determination, both the Serb entity and Croats now within Bosnia, as well as Croatia itself, would have to give up modest amounts of land to increase Muslim holdings to about 50 percent of Bosnia’s present territory and make for a viable Muslim state. Most of the transferred land should probably come from the Serb entity, which represents about half of the country’s land mass even though Serbs were only a third of Bosnia’s pre-war population. (But the Brcko region in northern Bosnia, whose fate is to be determined by international arbitrators in March, should be left within the Bosnian Serb entity to provide the Serbs with territorial cohesiveness.)

That would not be enough, though. If the Serbs and Croats wanted recognition, trade, and aid, they would have to satisfy several other conditions. Any further ethnic cleansing would, of course, be impermissible. That is an essential precondition to future peace even if Dayton’s map is revised, because no map can form ethnically pure entities in a country where interethnic marriage involves perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the population (according to Mr. Holbrooke’s figures). Transit and trading rights for foreigners would have to be assured. And Dayton’s arms control accords would have to be fully respected.

What about the war criminals issue? We could continue essentially the current policy, pressuring extremists in the hope that they would eventually lose heart and surrender to the Hague (as 10 prominent Croat suspects did in October). But it would be more realistic to allow each entity to establish judicial processes to deal with its own indicted citizens who are still at large. These processes could be based somewhat on the South African and Latin American models, by which simply holding people publicly accountable for their previous actions is deemed to have an important healing function for societies trying to recover from conflicts. In a partitioned Bosnia, monitors from the other two Bosnian ethnic groups and broader global community should be allowed to watch the proceedings as well. Individuals admitting to aggression against civilians would be banished from politics, though generally spared long prison terms. Those claiming innocence but later found guilty would have to be imprisoned. Failure to follow these procedures would lead to economic sanctions and perhaps even a revocation of international recognition.

U.S. Troops Should Stay

Some argue that any need for outside troops in Bosnia after June should be handled by a European force, thus freeing U.S. troops – which bear major responsibility for the security of Persian Gulf oil and South Korea and global sea lanes – to focus on other missions.

At a military level, this argument is mostly right. NATO European forces are distressingly unable to help the United States handle security problems in places off the continent, yet are adequate to address threats that might arise in the relatively nearby Balkans.

But the issue has less to do with military capability than with political leadership. Who will lead on future Bosnia policy if not the United States? Germany is still haunted by World War II; France is not even a full member of NATO and has but a mediocre recent track record in handling humanitarian crises (witness Rwanda and Zaire); Russia can barely sustain a brigade as far away as Bosnia and, not being a member of NATO, cannot lead a NATO operation anyway. Britain might have the best mix of political savvy and military capability to be the guarantor of any new peace accord – but other European countries are unlikely to defer to its judgment when tough decisions have to be made about how to revise Dayton and when to use force. European security institutions like the WEU are probably composed of too many independent centers of decisionmaking to reach a new consensus on how to solve a problem like Bosnia just now. Dayton needs to be fixed in the same place it was made – the USA. And since peacemaking is as much about dedicated implementation as about signing a piece of paper, U.S. troops will be an essential part of the equation well beyond next June.

The good news is that the U.S. military is up to the job. Forces deployed in Bosnia, principally Army soldiers, may be a little rusty for warfighting when they complete peacekeeping assignments. But their leaders, like Generals Nash and Joulwan, the former commander of the 1st Armored Division and the former supreme allied commander in Europe respectively, have estimated that complete readiness can be restored in no more than 100 days. Since today’s U.S. war plans envision sending divisions to any future war in successive phases over a period of several months, that delay would not represent a serious problem. The generals also argue that readiness actually improves in Bosnia for some military activities like engineering and logistics.

Although the U.S. armed forces are losing people to the civilian economy, Bosnia is not the chief reason. In fact, troops who deployed there recently reenlisted at a higher rate than those in the Army as a whole.

Even more to the point, the burden that Bosnia now places on the U.S. military is quite modest – for example, some 8,000 troops deployed in the Balkans out of an active-duty Army of 495,000. Even if again as many U.S. soldiers are backing up or supporting the troops in Bosnia, that amounts to only about 3 percent of the service’s total strength. Including forces in Korea, and smaller deployments elsewhere, that means that the Army – which says it can maintain roughly one-fourth of its units on deployment if need be – now has just 10 percent of its forces away from home base at a time. The Marines and Navy routinely manage an operational tempo three times as great. Moreover, the Army has by now adapted to its post-Cold War deployment pace and learned to spread the burden of these types of operations around to more units.

Actually, the biggest military problem with the Bosnia operation may be its effects on the Air Force, which has been losing pilots at a precipitous pace of late (largely because of the strength and attractive pay scales of the commercial airline business). But high operations tempo also contributes. Between the Southern Watch Operation in the Persian Gulf and maintaining the no-fly-zone in Iraq, the active-duty Air Force has been continually deploying some 15 percent of its force structure to relatively uninteresting and straining missions for several years. It may be time for European air forces to take over primary responsibility for the no-fly-zone in Bosnia, which at this point in the Bosnia operation is less central to the success of the mission than developments on the ground.

Partition Is Not Defeat

Renegotiating Dayton would admittedly amount to an admission of partial failure by the United States and international community as a whole. But if the United States and NATO help Bosnia achieve a workable peace, they will have succeeded at their core task.

A “Dayton II” plan might also help Biljana Plavsic in her ongoing struggle for power with Radovan Karadzic in Srpska by reducing the Serb paranoia about large-scale refugee resettlements and possible Muslim military attacks on which Karadzic’s popularity depends.

The international community should not underestimate its ability to make this type of plan work. The substantial money it has set aside for Bosnian reconstruction is needed by all parties. The international community also has various types of security commitments to offer – a continued presence to keep stability as well as continued training for Muslim forces in the short term; possible NATO membership for the Muslim-dominated entity and perhaps the other two states down the road. It also has the stick of economic sanctions to apply again if need be, and the benefits of diplomatic recognition to confer on parties that comply with the new accords.

President Clinton’s national security adviser was wrong when he said recently that to allow partition of Bosnia is to accept defeat. In Bosnia, some goals – notably, peace and economic recovery – are simply more achievable and more important than others.