No Early Exit: NATO's Continuing Challenge in Bosnia
No Early Exit: NATO's Continuing Challenge in Bosnia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

No Early Exit: NATO's Continuing Challenge in Bosnia

NATO-led troops have played a vital part in securing the peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) since their arrival in December 1995.

Executive Summary

NATO-led troops have played a vital part in securing the peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) since their arrival in December 1995. Although authorised by the Dayton Peace Agreement to assist civilian implementation, the military is not obliged to do so. Yet, by evolving in response to developments, the mission has contributed - albeit belatedly and inconsistently - to international civilian efforts to construct a viable state. This shift was reflected in the change of the mission’s name in 1996 from Implementation Force (IFOR) to Stabilisation Force (SFOR).

At the same time, the size of the force has shrunk from over 60,000 troops in 1995-96 to some 22,000 today.  The contribution of the United States has fallen from 20,000 troops at the outset to 3,300 – from roughly one-third to one-sixth of the total, despite the facts that America spearheaded the intervention in 1995, and continues to exercise overall command of SFOR.  On the other hand, the U.S. still provides the single largest national contingent.  In Kosovo, by contrast, the American contribution of some 7,000 troops to KFOR is twice as large, but constitutes just 14 per cent of the total.

The Bush Administration wants to reduce U.S. military commitments in the Balkans. Some 750 troops were withdrawn earlier this year, and the Pentagon is believed to seek cuts in SFOR of between 5,000 and 10,000, with U.S. troop levels dropping to 2,000. In this context, the German, Russian and Czech governments announced they would reduce or withdraw their SFOR contingents in the near future. Comments in the British press about the United Kingdom’s military over-extension have been common for some time. 

This apparent rush to reduce SFOR and/or KFOR flies in the face of needs on the ground.  With a general election scheduled in Kosovo for 17 November - and Albanian insurgencies near Kosovo's southern borders still erupting - there is little scope for force reductions there.[fn]The question of international troop drawdown in Kosovo will be considered in a future ICG report.Hide Footnote   NATO governments may thus see Bosnia as the only place from which troops can be extracted.  This would be an error.  Contrary to assertions by U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the job of the military in Bosnia is far from 'done'.[fn]Thomas E Ricks, 'Possible Military Overhaul Outlined', The Washington Post, 18 May 2001.Hide Footnote   Reductions now would also disregard the fact that the improvements to SFOR's strategic reserves, intelligence structure and policing capacity which were promised in spring 2000 in justification of the last force reduction (from 30,000 to 20,000) are far from having been made. 

Although the Dayton Agreement is five and a half years old, only in the last 18 months has the international community shown much muscle in challenging hard-liners who had previously stymied the peace process. This new resolve, reinforced by changes of government in Croatia and Serbia and by the emergence of a multiethnic, pro-Dayton, coalition government in Sarajevo following the November 2000 elections, means that prospects for building a stable Bosnia and a self-sustaining peace are better than ever.

The battle, however, is far from won.  A period of robust implementation, focusing on concrete benchmarks, is necessary.  Abandoning the full Dayton agenda now would mean consigning the country to a state of simmering unrest requiring near-permanent foreign military occupation or, at worst, to a renewal of hostilities following its desertion by the international community.  NATO would then have to return in circumstances far less propitious than today’s.  The over-riding lesson of the past decade in Southeast Europe must be that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

As the civilian international agencies and local democratic forces continue to tackle obstructionist elements, the presence of SFOR to provide a 'safe and secure' environment is more crucial than ever.  Recent rioting by Dayton's Bosnian Serb and Croat enemies in Banja Luka, Trebinje and Mostar - and the increasing incidence of attacks on refugees seeking to return to their homes - demonstrate that radical elements have become more desperate and dangerous.  Experience has shown that the credible display of force by SFOR is necessary to deter such violence. In addition, more arrests by SFOR of persons indicted by The Hague Tribunal would improve the political and security situations, while making it clear that individuals, not nations, bear responsibility for wartime atrocities.

The United States and its allies should make no significant reductions in SFOR’s strength or equipment until the benchmarks set out in this report are met.  The reasons are several:

  • Such force reductions are self-reinforcing. U.S. cuts could call into question the commitments of other contributors. This trend jeopardises SFOR's ability to support civilian implementation, so risking the whole peacekeeping effort since 1995.
  • Compared to some of their European partners, the U.S. and Britain have been more ready more often to cut to the core of issues in Bosnia, and put pressure on faint-hearted or uncooperative local and international authorities. Without their lead in supporting Dayton's full implementation, the international community may lack the will to see the job through. This role has been sustained in the case of the U.S. by its leading military position in both NATO and SFOR.
  • Any significant cuts in SFOR levels now would strengthen Bosnia's hard-liners and encourage extremists throughout the Balkans.  Their long-time belief that they can wait out the international community would seem justified. A U.S. draw-down, in particular, would undermine confidence in the security environment, swaying electoral support behind extremists at a time when they are losing both votes and legitimacy.
  • Perceptions that U.S. and other contingents were growing ever weaker in manpower and resources could encourage attacks on international civilians or on SFOR itself.
  • It is far from obvious that replacing front-line infantry battalions by smaller numbers of military police or special forces (Military Specialised Units, or MSUs) would or could make up for the loss. 
  • Regional sources of instability require a credible NATO presence. Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Republika Srpska Premier Mladen Ivanic have stated that an independent Montenegro or Kosovo would cast doubt on Republika Srpska’s future in Bosnia.  In the absence of a NATO deterrent backed up by the U.S., any such move to redraw borders would probably spark new conflict.
  • SFOR’s success or failure has implications for NATO beyond the region.  U.S. reductions below credible levels in the Balkans would add weight to arguments for a European Rapid Reaction Force independent of NATO, and risk fragmenting the very alliance whose salvation made U.S. intervention in Bosnia essential by 1995.

Sarajevo/Brussels, 22 May 2001

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.