Bosnian Endgame I

AT 11:10 a.m. on Monday, August 28, 1995, five 120mm mortar rounds smashed into Sarajevo near the Markale market. They killed thirty-seven people and wounded around ninety. These were the deaths which, in effect, ended the war in Bosnia.

The United Nations immediately sent crater analysis teams. Unlike in February 1994, when such a team had been unable to say categorically that the mortar which killed sixty-eight people and wounded over two hundred in the town’s central market came from Serb or Bosnian lines, on this occasion the analysts were certain. All five rounds were judged to have been fired from the same location, bearing 220 to 240 degrees from the point of impact. The team concluded “beyond reasonable doubt” that the firing position was in Bosnian Serb territory, somewhere between Lukavica and Mijevica.

That morning Richard Holbrooke, who had recently been appointed the U.S. chief envoy to the Balkans, heard the news of the massacre on CNN in the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris. The day before, in a television interview, he had warned that unless the Serbs entered serious talks “the consequences will be very adverse to the Serbian goals.” When he first heard of the Markale mortar attack he wondered if it was a deliberate response to his warnings.

What counted now, Holbrooke related later, was that the United States should act decisively and persuade its European allies to join in the sort of massive air campaign that they had often discussed but never come close to undertaking. He was called that morning from Washington by Strobe Talbott, the acting secretary of state. He, too, felt that a military response was essential, but he wanted to know what Holbrooke thought would be its effect on his attempts to negotiate an end to the war. Holbrooke felt that the Serbs had given the West a chance to do what should have been done three years before—hit them very hard. He replied that theWest should not respond with “pinprick” attacks but with massive airpower. He wrote later that “this was the most important test of American leadership since the end of the Cold War.” Not just that; this was part of a controversy that had gone on for thirty years about the relationship between diplomacy and airpower.

The Markale mortar attack challenged the international community, or at least Western leaders, finally to put an end to the culture of impunity with which the Bosnian Serbs and the other parties had continued to flout the United Nations. There were misgivings about this among senior UN officials, as there had always been over action that could compromise the basic peacekeeping mandates which required that the UN not overtly take the side of one party against another. Those officials, from Kofi Annan downwards, would justify their caution by pointing not only to the mandates but also to the attitude of the troop contributors who, time and time again, insisted that the lives of their men were paramount. Nonetheless, the constant, daily humiliation to which UN military and civilian officials were subjected by all sides had taken its toll and their impatience had grown.

FOR over a year now, the senior UN official in UNPROFOR, the secretary general’s special representative, had been Yasushi Akashi of Japan, who had been, till the summer of 1993, running UNTAC in Cambodia. In Cambodia, Akashi had had a measure of success in dealing with the intransigent factions in his emollient manner. Cambodia was still seen as a UN victory. Bosnia was seen, at almost all stages, as a defeat. The praise that Akashi had enjoyed in Cambodia turned to gall in Bosnia.

When Akashi arrived at the beginning of 1994, the mission seemed on the point of collapse. UNPROFOR was riven with factional fighting—the military and civilian operations based in Zagreb often found collaboration difficult. Their disarray reflected the tensions inherent in the mission, which was far more complicated than Akashi’s previous assignment. The differences between Cambodia and Bosnia are instructive.

In Cambodia the UN was deployed only after an exhaustive peacemaking process that culminated in the Paris agreement of 1991. There was a framework, and if factions tried to break out or ignore it, as the Phnom Penh regime and especially the Khmer Rouge did, that was self-evident.

In Yugoslavia, by contrast, the UN was merely responding to cataclysmic events. There was no peace plan to which all sides had signed on. The best recent hopes, the Vance-Owen plan and its successor, the Owen-Stoltenberg plan, had both been undercut by American opposition.

In Cambodia the UN had the backing of a united Security Council, whose ambassadors in Phnom Penh gave Akashi invaluable support. In Yugoslavia, by contrast, there was spectacular international disarray, which had prevented the development of any coherent policy.

In Cambodia UNTAC had supreme authority in one country. UNPROFOR, by contrast, had a much more limited mandate in several countries. In Cambodia Akashi was dealing with only one national paranoia. In Yugoslavia he faced the warring paranoias of Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and others.

In Cambodia the UN had to deal with cease-fire violations; here the UN confronted war. In Cambodia there was the overarching figure of Prince Sihanouk. He was sometimes impatient and dismissive of UNTAC, but he was a court of last resort to whom all the parties turned. Indeed, the process might have collapsed without him. In Yugoslavia there was no such unifying figure—all leaders divided and spoiled.

In Cambodia UNHCR was able to repatriate all the refugees living along the border; that crisis was solved. In Bosnia the crisis grew all the time, as thousands and thousands more people were forced from their homes. This in turn encouraged more war, as all sides, in particular the Bosnian government, strove to recover territory “ethnically cleansed.”

In Cambodia Akashi had to deal with four factions, three of which were (usually) interested in making the process work. In Bosnia there was no such identity of interest. Each side constantly lied to and manipulated the UN, promising to help the effort and then finding reasons not to. In Cambodia Radio UNTAC gave the Cambodian people—for the first time ever—an objective and unbiased source of information. It diminished the evil of propaganda and was essential in convincing them that their votes really would be secret and so they could defy intimidation. In Yugoslavia the Croatian, Serbian and to a lesser extent Bosnian Muslim media poured out hate day after day.

The glaring problem was that the West had never defined a political objective for the former Yugoslavia. The history of international action had been of mixed messages from different members of the Security Council and other interested powers such as Germany. This had reinforced the different perceptions of different parties and so had escalated the conflict rather than led to resolution.

UNPROFOR now had three missions or mandates: first, an incomplete but traditional peacekeeping operation in Croatia; second, a humanitarian operation in Bosnia that had since become a peacekeeping operation; third, an observer mission in Macedonia. None was easy, but it was the second that provided the mission with the most difficulties, and it is worth reciting how it had altered and grown almost like Topsy.

Resolution 761 of June 29, 1992, had underlined the urgency of quick delivery of humanitarian assistance to Sarajevo and its environs. In September 1992, the secretary general recommended to the Security Council the expansion of UNPROFOR’s mandate and strength, the better to protect UNHCR in its humanitarian relief efforts.

In October 1992, Resolution 781 imposed a no-fly zone, and UNPROFOR was requested to monitor compliance with the ban, an almost impossible task. (NATO was authorized to enforce the ban only six months later.) In November 1992, in Resolution 787, the secretary general “consider[ed] that observers should be deployed on the borders of Bosnia, to enforce compliance of the arms embargo on Bosnia and the sanctions on Serbia.” The secretary general told the Security Council that this would require another ten thousand troops. None were provided, so this “mandate” was never implemented. Then in 1993 came the safe areas resolutions (824 and 836), whose fateful passage I have already described.

UNPROFOR’s personality was split. At its starkest, the issue was bread versus bombs. There was a fundamental clash between UNPROFOR’s two principal missions—support for humanitarian assistance and the safe area concept. To succeed in humanitarian operations, the UN had to be seen as impartial. This was made almost impossible by its parallel mandate to deter attacks against the safe areas. The safe areas resolutions were essentially anti-Serb. That may have been proper, given that the Serbs were the worst abusers of human rights inside Bosnia (with the Croats often a close second), but the new mandates of 1993 had changed UNPROFOR’s role radically, in effect making the UN the apparent protector of elements of one side in the war.

Stuck in the middle was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the lead agency in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The world’s refugee agency had become the main supplier in humanitarian crises and was now cursed. UNHCR had delivered food, clothing and shelter to hundreds of thousands of people in the former Yugoslavia, but it was often unable to reach those most in need in the war zones and was hampered—and could be stopped—by the warlords at will. Even the government in Sarajevo—which increasingly saw UNHCR’s mandate as an unwelcome substitute for more robust action by the international community—would block assistance when it wished to increase the political pressure on the West.

UNHCR had been forced in the former Yugoslavia to accept a new benchmark for governments that wished to co-opt humanitarian assistance for political ends. It was becoming a prisoner of its own “success” and had become a significant part of the response of the international community to the crisis in Bosnia. The political objective of some of the most influential governments—Britain, France and (though it claimed otherwise) even the United States—was to contain the conflict and reduce their own related domestic political pressures. Imposing a solution had been considered too costly, hence they had limited influence on the duration of the conflict. And so the humanitarian operation had not only to address the needs of the thousands upon thousands of victims but also to calm European and American opinion.

In short, UNPROFOR’s task was virtually impossible. The UN’s 1993 commander in Bosnia, General Francis Briquemont, complained about the “fantastic gap between the resolutions of the Security Council, the will to execute these resolutions, and the means available to commanders in the field.” Briquemont said he had stopped reading Security Council resolutions. The pressures on Akashi and Briquemont’s successor, Lieutenant General Sir Michael Rose, were considerable and often conflicting. They had important successes, but they spent much of their time in exhausting, often fruitless bargaining with Serb, Muslim or Croat leaders, who promised, prevaricated and lied in varying degrees. Akashi later summed up his quandary: “With a consensus absent in the council, lacking a strategy, UNPROFOR was forced to chart its own course. There was only limited support for a ‘robust’ enforcement policy by UNPROFOR. UNPROFOR thus chose to pursue a policy of relatively passive enforcement, the lowest common denominator on which all council members more or less agreed.” General Rose tried throughout to resist the pressures, particularly from the United States, which he thought would force him to cross “the Mogadishu line” from peacekeeping into peace enforcement. American officials denounced him for being “soft on the Serbs.” Rose rejected such charges, but he did become impatient at what he saw as dangerous deviousness by the Bosnian government.

Throughout 1994, crisis followed crisis. There was the bombing of the Sarajevo marketplace in February, which led to more calls for NATO air strikes and the imposition of a heavy weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo; prolonged Serb sieges of the safe areas of Gorazde and then Bihac, which resulted in limited NATO air action against the Serbs; the destruction of much of the beautiful medieval town of Mostar in gratuitous shelling, principally by Croats of the Muslim areas (it is worth repeating that Croat conduct in this war was often at least as horrible as that of the Serbs); the tensions with Russia, Serbia’s principal backer in the Security Council; and the worsening relationship between Europe and the United States, which posed a more serious threat to the cohesion of NATO than anything the Soviet Union had ever contrived. Through it all there were the images of the UNHCR convoys progressing slowly through burned-out and empty “ethnically cleansed” villages amid beautiful mountains; hulks of houses protected by blue UN plastic sheeting; queues of beaten refugees waiting for handouts of food; and, as the background chorus, the endless braying propaganda of the various leaders as they strutted upon the landscape they had helped destroy.

At the beginning of 1995, Akashi was still enduring his numbing confrontations with all the leaders, but General Rose was replaced as Bosnia force commander by another British general, Rupert Smith. Smith’s approach was different. Fifty-one years old, Smith had the looks of a matinee idol and the reputation of being an “intellectual” soldier. He had been involved in Britain’s Bosnia operations for the last year as assistant chief of the defense staff (operations and planning) and in peacekeeping training before that. His former British commander in the Gulf war, where Smith commanded the 1st Armoured Division, was impressed with him: “Possessed of an exceptionally logical mind and most professional to do business with, he was also refreshingly unorthodox in his ideas and liable to seek less-than-obvious solutions to the problems which confronted him.”

When Smith arrived in early 1995, he knew that he was taking over at a difficult time, but then all times in Bosnia were difficult. There was now a debate over the UN mandate in Croatia. The Croatian government was threatening to expel the UN from the protected areas in Croatia. There was a new resolution before Congress to obtain the long-favored American policy of lift and strike. And the French presidential elections were coming up.

In an interview with this writer before he left for Bosnia, Smith said that in peacekeeping only four things are achievable by military force: ameliorate, contain, compel/deter and destroy. The first two can be conducted without a strategy, “but a strategy is essential if you seek to compel or deter or destroy because they require evident capability, the will to use it, the ability to find and hit appropriate targets and a readiness to escalate.”

The difference between deterrence/compulsion and destruction is that the strategic objective in the former case is to change an intention, while in the latter it is to reduce capability.

Smith thought that General Aideed succeeded in Somalia because he prevented U.S. forces from finding and attacking targets at a cost or risk they were prepared to pay; he dropped below the utility of the U.S. weapons systems. In Northern Ireland, by contrast, the British army has been prepared to engage the IRA on the terms the IRA imposed. In old wars, time was the enemy; now casualties were the enemy. Human costs were more important to governments than time.

In Bosnia, Smith argued, UNPROFOR had been able to ameliorate human suffering with its humanitarian airlift and convoys. But that would not in any way lead to a solution of the conflict.

Containment was possible—as with embargoes, or with the dispatch of troops to the Macedonian border to prevent the war from spreading to neighboring countries, but it had its limits. According to Smith, the no-fly zone in Iraq had not managed to contain Saddam. He had simply dropped below the utility level of the zone—he still killed Marsh Arabs in the southern no-fly zone—but it was not on television.

According to UNPROFOR’s mandates, Smith was not even charged with containment, just amelioration. And the Western powers were quite divided on what UNPROFOR should do. UK policy had always been consistent—to ameliorate and contain. The French had been willing to take more risks, he thought. The Americans had wanted much tougher action but were not prepared to pay a price for it. The real problem, Smith concluded, was, “We have no strategic aim in the Balkans except a negotiated settlement. This means that the factions are able to define strategy. They have too much power.” He thought it was vital that UNPROFOR define its own strategy more precisely and then do what was necessary to carry it out. That was not easy. He did not seek to fight a war with the Serbs because, unlike some of the UN’s armchair critics, he knew that would be a disaster. But he did want to try to find a way to end the humiliation of UNPROFOR and give it freedom of movement throughout Bosnia.

When Smith arrived in Sarajevo in early 1995, Bosnia was enjoying relative calm thanks to a cessation of hostilities agreement negotiated by Jimmy Carter and Yasushi Akashi at the end of 1994. Humanitarian convoys were getting through and the airport was open. But it was clear that both the Croats and the Muslims were preparing for offensives when the agreement expired on May 1.

In February 1995 the United States secretly flew communications equipment into Tuzla to enable the Muslims to coordinate largescale offensive operations. Weapons were thought to be coming in also, shipped by Islamic governments either through Croatia or into Tuzla itself. Washington had connived at such breaches of the embargo. The Bosnian army was getting stronger, and the Serbs, who had less manpower, were being stretched thinner and thinner. Smith thought that the advantage now lay with the Croats and Muslims. General Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader, left Smith in no doubt that the Serbs would respond to any attack as they thought necessary. To any strategist that clearly meant they would deal with the eastern enclaves, the safe areas, which now had major concentrations of Muslim troops with them, threatening Serb lines of communication and rear areas.

In Sarajevo, Smith tried to get his band of international staff officers to devise a strategy that would better meet the conflicting demands imposed on UNPROFOR, in particular that it guarantee the safe areas while also trying to guarantee UNPROFOR’s own freedom of movement and security.

The basic dilemma remained as ever: Resolution 836, which set up the safe areas, was ambiguous if not deceptive. The areas would never be safe. Resolution 836 had been designed not to defend the safe areas but to “deter attacks” against them. And the Security Council never provided UNPROFOR with the number of troops needed to achieve even this lesser mission. The UN Secretariat had asked for 34,000 troops to defend the safe areas. The Security Council agreed to provide only 7,600. By March 1994 only 5,000 of these had been deployed. And many of these, like the Bangladeshi battalion in Bihac, were very poorly armed.

To supplement the handfuls of troops scattered through the safe areas, the threat of NATO airpower was used. It was not always a very effective threat. UN and NATO attempts to use force were neutralized by Bosnian Serb threats against the peacekeepers. The Bosnian Serbs used asymmetric responses such as hostage taking and disrupting the distribution of humanitarian aid. In terms of a cost benefit perspective, this was very effective for the Serbs. They managed to paralyze the UN and NATO by exploiting the major weakness of the international operation—the vulnerability of the men on the ground. Smith knew that if the UN was to have any hope of effective action, it had to reduce that vulnerability.

In the two years since the safe areas were established, firing attacks had increased on both sides of the line. Under agreements brokered by UNPROFOR in May, Zepa and Srebrenica were supposed to be demilitarized (but they never effectively were), and the Security Council never demanded any demilitarization of Bihac, Gorazde or Sarajevo. The Bosnian army used all the safe areas for military purposes. One internal UN military memorandum of March 1995 stated that the Bosnian armed forces “have continuously used safe areas as their own tool to preserve their forces, with an ulterior motive of instigating BSA [Bosnian Serb army] targeting of the safe areas…. There are always two sides to any argument…. Although the [Bosnian Serb] blatant disregard for the safe areas cannot be condoned, neither can the BIH’s [Bosnian Muslims’] motives to encourage such acts.” One senior UN officer said later that in almost all the crises engendered by the safe areas there was a pattern: Muslim provocations were met by disproportionate Serb responses.

General Mladic made no secret of his hatred for the enclaves, particularly Srebrenica, from which Muslims had killed several hundred Serbs in guerrilla attacks in 1992-93 prior to its establishment as a safe area. Referring to the UN’s efforts to stop him from overrunning Srebrenica in 1993, he later said, “Had there not been the involvement of the international community, they [the Muslims] would have paid dearly for everything they had done to the Serbian people. Srebrenica Turks committed some of the greatest crimes ever against the Serbian people.”

In 1994 Dutch peacekeepers had relieved the Canadians in Srebrenica. The war had caused widespread outrage in Holland, the only additional Western country to answer the secretary general’s June 1993 request for troops to implement the safe areas resolution.

The Dutch had endured constant shortages ever since their arrival. The Serbs limited their fuel resupply, knowing full well that that was the best way to destroy an army’s effectiveness and its morale. The Dutch had to patrol Srebrenica on foot instead of in vehicles. Their generators had to be constantly switched off, so there was no power for lighting, television, deep freezes; all those modern conveniences which many young Europeans assumed to be an inalienable part of their life, even if they were soldiers, disappeared.

On November 21, 1994, after NATO planes bombed a Serb air base at Udbina, the Serbs retaliated by taking hostage seventy Dutch soldiers who were on their way out of Srebrenica to go on leave. They vanished for several days and were visited by General Mladic, who arrived in a repainted Mercedes jeep the Serbs had stolen from the Dutch. One Dutch soldier later recounted, “He was with us for five minutes. He spoke to one of our chaps and then ran his fingers across his throat.” It was almost a week before the Serbs were induced by serious diplomatic pressure to release the Dutch troops unharmed.

By early 1995, there were at least three thousand Bosnian Muslim soldiers inside Srebrenica. Dutch efforts to disarm them were halfhearted and unsuccessful. Relations between the Dutch and the Muslims deteriorated; the Dutch saw Naser Oric, the Muslim leader in Srebrenica, as a murderous gangster who terrorized the refugees and profited greatly from the horror of the enclave—and from the Western aid that was delivered. After the refugees elected their own representative to help distribute food, at the insistence of the aid agencies, the man was immediately murdered, apparently by Oric’s people. Oric left the enclave in April 1995 and never returned.

In the spring the Dutch battalion (Dutchbat) reported an increase in Muslim units in the safe area. The Serbs now tightened the blockade on the Dutch as well as on the local population. Conditions, already bad, became awful. Starvation and disease spread among the refugees. Drinking water became scarce. Dutchbat needed at least seven thousand liters (1,750 gallons) of fuel a day to be fully operational. By the spring they were able to use less than a thousand liters (250 gallons) a day. There was no fresh food. Access to the enclave became harder and harder. The morale of the inexperienced young peacekeepers fell even further. Many of them began to feel that their mission was pointless and that they should withdraw.

On May Day 1995 the cessation of hostilities agreement negotiated by Jimmy Carter and Yasushi Akashi expired. No side was willing to extend it. The country returned to general warfare. A Bosnian government attempt to break the siege of Sarajevo had failed and conditions in the city deterioriated. In early May, shelling between Muslims and Serbs inside the heavy weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo killed and wounded scores of people. By now Rupert Smith was advocating a more robust response to Serb attacks on the safe areas than either Akashi or General Bernard Janvier, the overall UNPROFOR commander, deemed prudent. After one night of heavy Serb shelling of civilians, Rupert Smith called for air strikes against the Serbs. His request went all the way to Boutros-Ghali, who turned it down. Significantly, the British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, wrote to the secretary general to protest his decision. Till then the British government had opposed most requests for air strikes. Attitudes were changing.

Both Smith and Janvier now felt the fighting would escalate during the summer and that UN peacekeepers were likely to be taken hostage. At a meeting in Paris on May 12, they told Boutros-Ghali that the United Nations should choose between asking for a new mandate to impose a solution by military force and drawing in the UN presence by redeploying out of the safe areas.

Boutros-Ghali preferred drawing in and drawing down the UN commitment. He asked Janvier to come to New York to brief the Security Council. On May 24, Janvier told the council that he and Smith believed that the UN must redeploy its troops out of the safe areas into central Bosnia. It would be much more effective to have just a few observers and forward air controllers in Srebrenica and the other areas; they could call in air strikes if the areas were attacked. That would enormously reduce UNPROFOR’s vulnerability to hostage taking. Thus it could actually defend the safe areas better.

The idea was sensible, but it was worrying to the British and French governments and it was anathema to the United States. Janvier found himself under fierce and personal attack from Madeleine Albright. She claimed Janvier wanted to “dump the safe areas” and insisted that the U.S. would not allow it. The United Nations must not withdraw its men. This meant that the UN could not take the more robust action, in particular air strikes against the Serbs, that the U.S. was also demanding. It really was a Catch-22. U.S. rhetoric, from Albright and her superiors, condemned the UN to continue its exercise in futility—and condemned those supposed to be under its protection to insecurity, indeed to danger.