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Sorry, the boys should darn well stay in Bosnia
Sorry, the boys should darn well stay in Bosnia

Sorry, the boys should darn well stay in Bosnia

Originally published in International New York Times

Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld wants the boys home, and he doesn't mind who knows it. Within weeks of the inauguration, 750 troops were taken out of Bosnia. And the 3,300 remaining U.S. personnel "didn't come into the military to be policemen," he told The Washington Post in an interview published this week. "It's difficult for families. And I darn well intend to do something about it." All very understandable. But if this translates into a unilateral U.S. withdrawal - or, more likely, a push at forthcoming NATO ministerial meetings for an overall drawdown - it won't be very helpful to a peace process which is now at an extremely fragile stage.

The job that the U.S. and other troop contributors went in to do is not yet done, and if there are significant force reductions now, it can't and won't be. Gutting the stabilization force (SFOR) would send precisely the wrong message to Croatian and Serbian extremists who are presently testing the Dayton peace accords to the limit.

NATO went into Bosnia in 1995 with 60,000 troops, including 20,000 Americans. The United States still leads the operation, and has the largest contingent. With the initial military task long complete, the overall numbers have shrunk to 22,000. But what is not complete, or anything like it, is SFOR's stabilization task: to maintain a secure environment in which civilian agencies can carry out reconstruction, economic development and political institution building and create an "overall climate of reconciliation."

A viable multiethnic Bosnian state can be built. In the past 18 months the international community has finally mustered the will to tackle extremists opposed to a democratic society. Pro-Western governments exist for the first time at state level and in the Muslim-Croatian entity. But recent events attest to peace's fragility and the need for a credible SFOR presence. Last month international officials were beaten and taken hostage while auditing a bank with links to Croatian extremists. A few weeks ago ceremonies to mark the rebuilding of mosques destroyed in the war were broken up by Serbian nationalists. And as more refugees return home, violent incidents increase, and local police are often too weak or corrupt to help. Far from contemplating new reductions, NATO should focus on meeting the conditions it set when it reduced troop strength in Bosnia below 30,000. For example, barely half the Military Specialized Units (enhanced police) that were to replace soldiers are in place.

None of the troop contributors wants to be in Bosnia forever, but drawdowns and ultimate exits have to be based on credible benchmarks. The International Crisis Group has identified 12 of them in a report this week, covering institutionalization of the rule of law, enhancing the security environment and building Bosnian institutions.

The United States is not the only troop contributor looking to reduce deployments, but it is the most influential. It led the intervention that ended the war, and it brokered the 1995 Dayton settlement. The U.S. contingent is the superpower's pledge that a viable Bosnian state will be built.

Any security operation has its risks, but the only U.S. casualties to date have been due to traffic accidents or suicide. This excellent safety record may result in part from a "force protection" doctrine that has at times been the despair of both foreigners and Bosnians who want U.S. troops to be more active, especially in pursuing indicted war criminals. It is also due to the security conditions in Bosnia, where civilians, not soldiers, are the prime targets. The modest remaining U.S deployment pays high dividends. The U.S. role ensures Washington's political preeminence at the heart of the Balkans, a region now shaping the development of security structures in Europe.

The larger issue here is the U.S. attitude to post-conflict military missions. The new millennium will keep throwing up actual or potential conflicts requiring the sort of "messy" mandates being pioneered in the Balkans. It would be a very unhappy start to the new century if the United States abdicated its huge capacity for resolving or alleviating them.

Report 232 / Europe & Central Asia

Bosnia’s Future

While the physical scars of the 1992-1995 Bosnia war have healed, political agony and ethnic tension persist. Real peace requires a new constitution and bottom-up political change.

Executive Summary

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH, or Bosnia) poses little risk of deadly conflict, but after billions of dollars in foreign aid and intrusive international administration and despite a supportive European neighbourhood, it is slowly spiralling toward disintegration. Its three communities’ conflicting goals and interests are a permanent source of crisis, exacerbated by a constitution that meets no group’s needs. The political elite enjoys mastery over all government levels and much of the economy, with no practical way for voters to dislodge it. The European Union (EU) imposes tasks BiH cannot fulfil. A countrywide popular uprising torched government buildings and demanded urgent reforms in February 2014, but possible solutions are not politically feasible; those that might be politically feasible seem unlikely to work. Bosnia’s leaders, with international support, must begin an urgent search for a new constitutional foundation.

The international project to rebuild Bosnia has had success: war’s physical scars are largely gone, and the country is peaceful. The political agonies, however, show the intervention’s limits. Years of well-intentioned reforms, imposed or urged, have left a governing structure leaders circumvent, ignore or despise. May’s floods left scores dead and thousands homeless, exposing the price of poor governance. With growing frequency, Bosnians ask the questions that preceded the 1992-1995 war: shall it be one country, two, or even three; if one country, shall it have one, two or three constituent entities, and how shall it be governed?

The heart of the problem is in Annex 4 to the Dayton Peace Agreement, known as the constitution (and in several changes imposed by courts and international officials). It defines BiH as a state of two entities, in effect but not explicitly federal, but also the state of three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs), and yet, simultaneously, of all citizens. A suffocating layer of ethnic quotas has been added, providing sinecures for officials increasingly remote from the communities they represent. The tensions created by constitutional schizophrenia are pushing BiH to the breaking point. A new design is needed: a normal federation, territorially defined, without a special role for constituent peoples, but responsive to the interests of its three communities and the rights of all citizens.

The state administration’s need to reform is made acute by a 2009 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that in effect requires BiH to change the ethnicity-based way it chooses its chief executive and part of its legislature. Existing proposals try to squeeze the constituent peoples into an ostensibly ethnicity-blind structure on top of which a complicated network of indirect elections would allow party leaders to choose the executive with as little democratic input as possible. The EU and the outside world support this tinkering with Dayton to satisfy the decision, though such proposals have manifestly failed. Bosnians need to rebuild their political structure from the bottom up.

There is no consensus on where to start, but Bosnia may have to break from its political system based on constituent peoples and their rights. Crisis Group has not reached this conclusion lightly. It reflects long experience and observation that no one has been able to frame a broadly attractive vision on the existing flawed basis. With stresses and frustrations accumulating in all communities, Bosnia must conceive new foundations to survive. Agreement may take years and much experimentation and debate, but the search should begin.

BiH is home to three political communities: those primarily loyal to the Bosnian state, usually but not always Bosniaks; those loyal to Republika Srpska (RS), usually Serbs; and those desirous of Croat self-government, usually Croats. Giving the Croats what they want, their own entity to make a three-entity Bosnia, is absolutely rejected by Bosniaks. Building virtual representative units for the three communities, possibly with new emphasis on municipalities as basic building blocks, is intellectually plausible but requires a leap of faith few seem ready to take. A purely civic state is inconceivable to Serbs and Croats.

Neither leaders nor civil society have deeply explored alternatives to three constituent peoples in two entities; any consensus would take time. Nevertheless, the goal should be clear. The head of state should reflect Bosnia’s diversity, something a collective does better than an individual. The same body could be the executive government. Some decisions should require consensus, others a majority. All three communities should be represented, not necessarily in equal numbers. There should be no ethnic quotas; representation should reflect self-defined regions and all their voters. Poorly performing, unnecessary state agencies and ministries should be slimmed or abolished, with powers reverting to the entities; but the state would need new ministries and agencies required for EU membership. The ten cantons in the larger of BiH’s two entities, the Federation (FBiH), are an underperforming, superfluous layer. They could be abolished, their powers divided between the municipalities and the entity government.

Political culture is part of the problem; an informal “Sextet” of party leaders in effect controls government and much of the economy. A multi-ethnic coalition persists, election to election, with only minor adjustments. Membership is earned by winning opaque intra-party competitions in which voters have little say. Change in this system can only come from within: Bosnians should join parties and participate in genuine leadership contests. Sextet power is further buttressed by control of hiring, investment and commercial decisions at state-owned firms, a situation that chokes private investment and growth.

Bosnia is unimaginable without the work of international officials who did much to shape political institutions and implement peace, but the international community has become more obstacle than help. BiH is trapped in a cycle of poorly thought-out, internationally-imposed tasks designed to show leaders’ readiness to take responsibility but that put that moment forever out of reach. The only way to encourage leaders to take responsibility is to treat the country normally, without extraneous tests or High Representatives. The EU could signal a new start by stating it will receive a membership application – the first of many steps on the long accession road. It should then be an engaged, not over-didactic partner in Bosnia’s search for a way to disentangle the constitutional knot.