Bosnian Endgame IV

Territorial changes after the Dayton Agreement.

Political division of Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Dayton Agreement.

Every day through August the Rapid Reaction Force of British and French troops was more fully deployed in Bosnia. Meanwhile, NATO and the UN staff drew up a NATO secret planning document which compiled target lists for NATO aircraft in each of the safe areas. There were three sets of targets. The Option 1 list included heavy weapons violating the exclusion zones established around the safe areas, in particular Sarajevo. The Option 2 list included Serb military interdict targets and installations in and near the exclusion zones. Option 3 targets were more clearly civilian; bombing them would present more obvious political problems.

By the end of August all that the international community needed was an immediate excuse to bomb. It was provided by the mortaring of Sarajevo’s Markale marketplace on the morning of August 28.

General Janvier was away in France, and so the UN’s air strike key was in the hands of Rupert Smith. At 5:30 p.m. local time, after he had received the first of the crater analysis reports confirming that the mortars had come from Serb territory, Smith spoke to Admiral Leighton Smith, who held NATO’s key, in Naples. The two men discussed the different responses they could make. The admiral did not think that artillery fire from the Rapid Reaction Force would be adequate. He was clearly expecting air strikes and he told the general that his key was already turned. He also said that it would take about twenty-four hours to put together the aircraft packages required for a sustained air assault.

Rupert Smith was also expecting air strikes. He had quietly been moving UN troops out of reach of the Serbs for weeks. His last vulnerable troops—the British in Gorazde—were, as it happened, due to leave Gorazde that evening. The night was stormy and communications with the British units were poor. When he heard the last British convoy was safe at 10:30 p.m., Rupert Smith turned his key. He was still concerned to make arrangements to protect UN troops against retaliatory fire which might inflict serious casualties on them.

Next morning, August 29, Smith talked on the telephone with Mladic. The Serb general specifically denied that Serb mortars had struck the market. Smith was careful not to let his voice betray his views or the fact that he had already turned the key. He had insisted that the UN’s public statements be noncommittal so as not to forewarn the Serbs. He convinced Mladic that he was still “investigating” the market massacre.

When Janvier returned from France he said, “J’ai trouvé la clef tournée” (I found the key turned). He had classic peacekeeping concerns. He wrote in one memorandum that the bombing “will lead to the perception by the party affected that NATO and the UN have declared war on it…. UN troops will have become a party to the conflict … hostages will be taken…. The delivery of humanitarian aid into the territory of the party concerned will come to a halt and deterrence will have failed…. UNPROFOR’s mission will come to an end under its present mandate.”

In New York, Annan had to explain the sequence of events to the Security Council, especially to the Russians, and he was worried that he was inadequately informed about events of the day after the mortars struck. As far as the United States was concerned, Annan’s role was crucial and invaluable. Holbrooke describes him as Boutros-Ghali’s “best deputy.” On that morning, August 29, Annan told Albright that he had instructed UN civilian officials to relinquish for a time their authority to veto air strikes. This meant, in effect, that the decision on air strikes was now in the hands of NATO and the UN military. Holbrooke wrote later that Annan’s “gutsy performance” played a central role in Washington’s subsequent decision to replace Boutros-Ghali with him as secretary general. “Indeed, in a sense Annan won the job on that day.”

Operation Deliberate Force began at 2 a.m. Bosnian time on Wednesday, August 30. It was the largest NATO military operation ever to date. On the first day more than sixty planes attacked Bosnian Serb positions around Sarajevo. The first attacks were hampered by fog, which restricted targeting. They were against the Serbs’ air defenses and other fixed military targets, including munitions factories, ammunition depots and military storage depots. At the same time the French and British artillery from the Rapid Reaction Force on Mount Igman fired some six hundred rounds at Bosnian Serb artillery, mortar and air defense positions around Sarajevo.

Janvier wrote to Mladic saying the Bosnian Serbs must end all attacks against all the safe areas, withdraw all heavy weapons from the twelve-mile exclusion zone around Sarajevo and end all hostilities throughout Bosnia. When the Serbs complied, Janvier would recommend to NATO that the air attacks be halted.

From New York, Annan asked Akashi, “How long can we persist with our present course, in the event that Mladic does not accept your demands?” What would happen when all the targets listed were hit and the Serbs were still not in compliance? “Are we now committed to continuing the air action until such an agreement is obtained? It is imperative our action should not go beyond a zone of reasonableness that is circumscribed by our mandate, by our basic and indispensable impartiality, and by our need to continue to work with all parties to achieve a durable settlement of the crisis.”

On August 31 bad weather stopped all air strikes. Russian ambassador Sergei Lavrov wrote to Boutros-Ghali demanding an immediate end to the use of force by NATO, “an operation which we are convinced goes beyond the limits established in the relevant resolutions of the Security Council.” Radovan Karadzic wrote a furious letter to Akashi complaining that NATO “has involved itself in this civil war on the side of our enemies.” The NATO attacks, he said, had nothing to do with the Markale mortars; their goal “is to weaken our military strength in order to soften us up before the continuation of negotiations.”

Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic asked that Janvier meet Mladic in Belgrade. Willy Claes, the new secretary general of NATO, called Annan from NATO headquarters to say that he did not want Janvier to give too much away to Mladic; he wanted to find out who would evaluate the meeting between the two men and decide whether Mladic had conceded enough for the bombing to be ended. Annan replied that if Mladic undertook not to attack the safe areas anymore, Janvier would recommend that air strikes be suspended.

Annan pointed out in a memo to Boutros-Ghali that Leighton Smith might disagree with Janvier about the adequacy of any undertaking from Mladic. In that case the dispute would be referred up the chain of command. But the UN secretary general would be on a long flight to Beijing. “I wonder, therefore,” Annan wrote to him, “whether you would wish to delegate to me the responsibility for resolving such a problem should it arise at a time when you are out of contact with this headquarters.” Boutros-Ghali did so. Annan was right: Janvier and Admiral Smith disagreed on suspending the bombing. Annan had several discussions about it with Willy Claes. These were inconclusive, and so Annan decided to deal directly with Washington. In the end he and Sandy Berger, Clinton’s acting national security adviser, and Strobe Talbott agreed on a seventy-two-hour pause.

At 5 a.m. on Friday, September 1, air operations were suspended in order to allow for Janvier’s meeting with Mladic. The meeting was set for 9 a.m. at Mali Zvornik on the Bosnian border with Yugoslavia. But when Janvier was already in the air en route, Mladic canceled it. Janvier had to turn around and fly back to Zagreb. Later that day Mladic changed his mind, and Janvier set off again.

It was a tense and angry encounter which lasted thirteen hours. Mladic was shouting and ranting much of the time; he was apparently both furious and nonplussed that his long bluff of the United Nations had finally been called. NATO had provided the airpower which, together with the UN’s Rapid Reaction Force, made this possible. Mladic eventually promised Janvier not to attack the safe areas and agreed in principle to withdraw his heavy weapons. But he made other conditions which in the end were not acceptable to NATO. Janvier then wrote to Mladic setting out his demands for Serb withdrawal again, demands which had to be met by 11 p.m. on Monday, September 4, or the bombing would resume.

There was a flurry of calls around Europe and across the Atlantic. Willy Claes told Annan, “We must not let Mladic be in control. He is using typical communist tactics, refusing to meet, imposing new conditions, accusing us of lying.” Claes said he could accept an extended pause in the bombing. Richard Holbrooke was against even that. He and other U.S. officials felt that Mladic had not conceded enough. Sandy Berger called Annan to say that Mladic should remove heavy weapons from around Sarajevo and make a unilateral commitment to end the shelling.

On September 4, Janvier wrote to Mladic telling him to withdraw his heavy weapons at once. The United Nations wanted to see evidence that this had begun before 11 p.m. that same day. The operation must be completed by September 7. “If either or one or both of these conditions are not met,” Janvier warned Mladic, “air and military attacks will be resumed.”

Rupert Smith sent Mladic a letter of instructions. He said that “proof of your intention to move your heavy weapons by 2300 local time 4 September 1995 will be required.” Smith wanted “clear evidence of a continuous movement of your heavy weapons systems out of the EZ [exclusion zone], on the designated route” by that time. If all heavy weapons were not out by 11 p.m. on September 7, bombing would resume. At the same time all UN weapons and vehicles stolen by the Bosnian Serb forces must be returned. Akashi asked the UN’s man in Belgrade, Yuri Miakotnykh, to pass these demands on to Milosevic.

Also on September 4, Mladic wrote Janvier a four-page letter rejecting the UN/NATO demands. He denounced the United Nations and called NATO worse than Hitler. He declared that by demanding the withdrawal of heavy weapons from around Sarajevo, the UN was violating the Geneva Conventions on the status of safe areas. He would not leave Serb civilians under threat from armed Muslims in Sarajevo.

That night Holbrooke was dismayed to learn that there was debate over whether to resume the bombing. He called Washington to try to persuade his colleagues that the bombing must begin again if NATO was not to look like a paper tiger. “History could well hang in the balance,” he declared. “Give us bombs for peace.”

He had his way. On September 5, ninety NATO aircraft attacked a military storage facility near Sarajevo and other military targets in Bosnia, including an ammunition depot and a military repair facility in Hadzici, and a radar tracking facility in Jahorina. In the early hours of September 6 planes attacked a military repair and storage site at Brod. In parallel, the Rapid Reaction Force was constantly firing on Serb mortar and artillery positions around Sarajevo.

The weather made both more sorties and proper bomb damage assessments difficult. On September 6 some of the planned air strikes had to be abandoned. It was also difficult to tell whether the Serbs really were withdrawing their weapons. That day Akashi wrote to Karadzic urging that Mladic keep in frequent contact with Rupert Smith. Akashi praised Karadzic for recent initiatives: “They are important and courageous steps towards an end to this tragic conflict.” There was now, wrote Akashi, “an enhanced opportunity” for peace, as well as the “unspeakable dangers of further escalation.”

That day Annan briefed the Security Council at length on the bombing. Only one person responded—Sergei Lavrov held forth for thirty-five minutes on the UN’s sins of omission and commission. He insisted that the air strikes must stop; they were undermining a peaceful solution. The council had not been adequately consulted on the bombing; the United Nations had become a “bystander” to a NATO operation—and much more.

The next day, September 7, Akashi reported that there was still no sign that the Serbs were withdrawing their heavy weapons. There were reports of rows between the Bosnian Serb politicians and the military.

Professor Nikola Koljevic, a colleague of Karadzic in the Bosnian Serb leadership, called Akashi from Belgrade, just before meeting with Richard Holbrooke. He said the withdrawal of heavy weapons from around Sarajevo was proving difficult for three reasons. First, it was being hampered by civilian protests that “almost culminated in rebellion” that morning. Second, the Bosnians had attacked some heavy Serb weapons that were about to be withdrawn. Third, communications had been disrupted by the air strikes. So Karadzic had decided to continue the withdrawal during darkness when the chances of interference by Serb civilians “who we cannot shoot” and by the Bosnian military would be reduced. Koljevic also said they “have had problems with their general [Mladic], who’s been put under control.”

Akashi replied that two things were essential—a clear written statement signed by Mladic, indicating his agreement, and immediate movement on the ground despite the difficulties. Koljevic called back later saying it was still difficult for him to get hold of Mladic. He suggested that Rupert Smith try to reach him at Lukavica barracks.

ON September 10, Janvier flew to Belgrade to meet again with Mladic. He told him that the air strikes would not end until Mladic accepted the three conditions laid down in his letter of September 4 and, in particular, start the withdrawal of heavy weapons from around Sarajevo.

Mladic was less emotional than at their previous encounter in Mali Zvornik, but he spent the entire four-hour meeting demanding an end to the bombing before he would discuss Janvier’s letter. The meeting degenerated into personal accusations by Mladic. He said if Janvier did not have the authority to stop the bombing he wanted to meet with the NATO commander, who did. Janvier tried to calm him down to no avail. Mladic said three times that if the bombing did not stop he would attack UN forces.

At the United Nations, the Russians complained again about the continued bombing. Annan wrote to Boutros-Ghali to say that Mladic had still not complied with NATO/UN demands. The bombing was continuing, but the problem was that Option 1 and 2 targets were almost exhausted, and he was concerned that with its strikes on bridges and communications centers well beyond the safe areas, NATO had actually expanded into hitting Option 3 targets without saying so. Annan’s view was that after eleven days of bombing (minus the three-day pause) NATO and the UN should assess how effective their actions were. Air strikes were supposed to continue until “in the common judgment” of the UN and NATO commanders, they had achieved their objective. “But with General Mladic dug in,” Annan wrote, Janvier now doubted whether that was possible. NATO had no plans except for more strikes. Annan thought that NATO should also be made aware of UN unhappiness with its reporting, “particularly the lack of information on the damage inflicted by the strikes, which has embarrassed us vis-‡-vis the Security Council. After all, the current NATO operation is formally conducted under the Security Council’s authority; the lack of adequate reporting undermines this authority and thus the legitimacy of the operation itself. We cannot be sleeping partners, taken for granted by NATO.”

On September 14, under pressure from Holbrooke, the Bosnian Serbs agreed to UNPROFOR’s conditions. The bombing ended. Serb heavy weapons were pulled out of the Sarajevo exclusion zone, the siege of Sarajevo was lifted, and humanitarian relief began to be airlifted in again. Plans for a peace conference began to take shape.

At the end of September, Rupert Smith pointed out to his senior UN colleagues that recent advances had been made “by the deliberate, disproportionate and extensive use of force.” He spelled out just what had happened to the United Nations in the last month. “As a consequence of our enforcement action UNPROFOR abandoned its peacekeeping mission at least in the Sarajevo area. We remain, for the time being, in the position of combatants, coercing and enforcing our demands on the BSA…. We cannot put the clock back….”

Fortunately, they did not need to try. On October 5, President Clinton announced that a cease-fire, negotiated by Richard Holbrooke, would take place throughout Bosnia in five days. It would be followed by a peace conference to take place in the United States. Holbrooke was in Zagreb at that moment, urging Tudjman to press ahead with his offensive against the Serbs in Bosnia. “You have five days left, that’s all,” he told the Croatian leader. “What you don’t win on the battlefield will be hard to gain at the peace talks. Don’t waste these last days.”

Afterwards Holbrooke and other American officials asserted that the cease-fire in Bosnia had been achieved by the bombing. “ Airpower works” became their refrain.

In fact, the bombing was only partially successful. It was hampered by bad weather. NATO ran out of suitable targets and had to bomb some of them several times in order to keep up any air campaign at all. Bombing alone did not break the will of the Bosnian Serbs. The bombing was accompanied by other pressures which were equally vital, in particular the aggressive use of the artillery of the Rapid Reaction Force. Also absolutely vital was the Croat offensive through Krajina and into Bosnia, which cost the Bosnian Serbs large swaths of land which they had hoped to retain. The Bosnian Serbs were also being given political inducements. The Holbrooke plan included a Bosnian Serb entity in Bosnia, which meant that they were no longer compelled to surrender their independence to the government in Sarajevo. Karadzic had said several times, before the bombing began, that this peace plan was acceptable to them.

At the same time Milosevic himself was tiring of the Bosnian Serbs and had informed them, before the bombing began, that he would negotiate for them with Holbrooke. He had presented Holbrooke with their signed acquiescence to his new role just a few hours before the bombing began.

The administration chose Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, for the peace talks, which they proposed should be hosted by the United States, the European Union and Russia. The U.S. government decided to cut the United Nations, which had carried the water so long for both the Europeans and the Americans, out of the peace process entirely. The United Nations was also excluded from the agreement that came out of Dayton, which was to be enforced by NATO troops. The only things left to the UN were the organization of the civilian police force and the return home of the refugees and displaced.

On November 21, the Dayton peace plan was agreed to by the leaders of the combatant nations of the former Yugoslavia. It ended the war in Bosnia and, in theory, established a single multi-ethnic country. A unitary government was maintained (or created), but Bosnia was divided, 49 percent to the Bosnian Serbs and 51 percent to the Croat-Muslim Federation. The agreement called for Sarajevo to be reunified, with the Serbs of the city living under federation control. The agreement was to be enforced by a fully armed NATO force of sixty thousand troops, called the International Implementation Force (IFOR).

Dayton was a triumph of American will, but it was inevitably an agreement with serious flaws. Despite the denials of U.S. officials, it did legitimize ethnic cleansing; there was no alternative. But in some ways Dayton legitimized more Serb gains than previous peace efforts which the United States had undercut. Earlier UN and EU plans had not given them contiguous territory as Dayton did. Earlier plans gave the Muslims and Croats more and better land. Other aspects of Dayton undoubtedly favored the Muslims more, but the key fact was that the U.S. was now pressing for acceptance rather than attempting to undermine agreement. A bitter joke began to circulate: “What is the difference between the Vance-Owen plan [which the U.S. had undermined in 1993] and the Dayton agreement?” “Nothing except the number of bodies in the graveyard.”

Boutros-Ghali asked Kofi Annan to go to Zagreb after Dayton to replace Akashi, wind up UNPROFOR and hand over to NATO. Akashi was a sad figure; he had been praised for running the UN mission in Cambodia, but had been badly damaged by his time in Bosnia. He was seen, particularly in Washington, as impotent and ineffective in the face of Serb bullying. Richard Holbrooke thought his treatment had been unduly harsh and wrote that his apparent weakness “was not entirely his fault: he was operating under tight constraints imposed by Boutros-Ghali…. I felt sorry for Akashi. He was leaving Zagreb with his previously distinguished record blemished, but his mission had been doomed from the start because of limits imposed from New York.”

That was true perhaps, but those limits were set by the Security Council rather than by Boutros-Ghali. The United Nations as a whole was to be branded for its apparent failure in Bosnia, when the failure was, in fact, that of the Security Council and its permanent members in particular.

Now Boutros-Ghali told Annan that he was the only senior UN official who had the confidence of NATO and other governments. Washington was indeed pleased. Holbrooke said that since the August bombing, “Annan was the U.N. official in whom we had the greatest confidence, and his arrival was good news.” (There were those who suspected that Boutros-Ghali had also identified Annan as a potential rival and successor, and wanted to hand him the same Balkan chalice that had poisoned Akashi and many others.)

On a rainy evening a few weeks after his arrival, I accompanied Annan as he crossed the bridge in Sarajevo which divided the Muslim and Serb sections of the city. He was due to meet officials of the Serbian suburb of Grbavica. The mayor, Milorad Katic, met him at the bridge and led him in the rain through unlit streets to his office where, over coffee, he said that the Dayton peace plan was unacceptable to the Serbs of Sarajevo, who claimed to number over 100,000.

It was easy to say that after their appalling abuses of human rights, and their brutal shelling and sniping into Muslim-dominated Sarajevo, the Serbs deserved what they had got. The fact remained that without the acceptance of most ordinary Serbs, the Dayton agreement could not work as intended.

The reunification of Sarajevo was emerging as one of the most difficult aspects of Dayton. Tens of thousands of Serbs who lived there claimed they were horrified that the Dayton agreement, signed by President Milosevic of Serbia on their behalf, reunited the city under the rule of the Muslim-dominated government.

Many of them now saw President Milosevic as a traitor. With their own leader, Radovan Karadzic, indicted as a war criminal by the international tribunal in The Hague and thus denied office by Dayton, they were now in a state of apprehension which, if it tipped into panic, could destroy the hopes of peace.

The International Implementation Force was intended to be far tougher than the UN force it was replacing. Yet it would face many of the same dilemmas. The United States had a swift and essentially military perspective; the Europeans saw Dayton as a long-term process in which political, economic and humanitarian efforts—and acceptance—were paramount. Annan tended to the European view.

As he crossed the Grbavica bridge, Annan had just heard grim warning of what could come. Bosnian Croats had begun to burn the area of Mrkonjic Grad in central Bosnia, which Dayton had ordered them to give up to the Serbs. They were leaving only a charred wasteland behind. One fear was that the Serbs could do the same to their parts of Sarajevo. Karadzic had threatened to turn Sarajevo into another Beirut. And Bosnian government troops had just invaded the UN offices at Velika Kladusa at midnight, held UN officials at gunpoint and stolen every vehicle they could lay their hands on.

In the mayor’s office, Katic and his colleagues asked that the Sarajevo section of Dayton be renegotiated before or during the Paris peace conference. “We want to stay here. We want special status for Sarajevo and UN protection,” they said.

Annan courteously but firmly replied, “I have to be frank with you. Dayton was a compromise. But it was signed by the heads of state and it is not negotiable either here or in Paris. What is important is that it should be implemented fairly. Don’t try to reopen Dayton but work for its implementation. You should let the world hear you—that you want to live in peace.”

The head of the Grbavica Executive Council, Mirko Sarivic, warned Annan that if the Serbs remained unsatisfied there would be a massive exodus from the Sarajevo area: “It will be a very big ethnic cleansing.” Annan said that IFOR would be here for one year to put in place democratic processes; an international police force would protect human rights. “I know about your anxieties,” he told them, “but try to work with the international community. It’s a new period. You should let IFOR into your territory. It will be evenhanded.”

Annan urged the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, to be magnanimous toward the Serbs. Izetbegovic replied that Serb civilians were welcome, but not the soldiers who had shelled the city. Almost every Serb family contained a militiaman if not a soldier. But, given what the Bosnian Muslims had suffered at Serb hands, it was politically impossible at this stage for Izetbegovic to be more generous. The divisions in his own government were manifest at Dayton.

It was clear that the faster the IFOR deployed, the better its chances of success. The French and the British troops, who had been serving in UNPROFOR, were already in place. The French were charged with reuniting Sarajevo over Serb objections. The Pentagon was still reluctant to send Americans into Bosnian Serb territory.

Before leaving Sarajevo, Annan visited the French military headquarters and the British artillery battalion, dug into frozen underground bunkers on Mount Igman. He told them that despite media and politicians’ attacks, the United Nations had done a good job in Bosnia, according to its mandates if not newspaper and political rhetoric. He said that victories always go to governments. Defeats stay with UN peacekeepers.

As Annan drove down Mount Igman we passed both Bosnian government and Serb soldiers dug into bunkers at different heights of the mountain; IFOR would have to separate them farther. At the bottom, near the airport, in the suburb of Ilidza thousands of Serbs were demonstrating against Dayton. It seemed to me that IFOR would have to reassure them if it was to be able to help rebuild Sarajevo at all. And it would have to provide the conditions in which Serbs, Bosnians and Croats could all vote freely for a new generation of leaders, ones unsullied by the past. Did those leaders exist? Could they be found, let alone be persuaded to run for office?

The tasks of the next few months were vast. And there was an obvious irony. Peacekeepers had been sent into Bosnia when there was no peace to keep. Now a much larger force of warriors had been sent in when there was supposed to be no war to fight. Of such contradictions was policy made by the international community.

It seemed to me that with an overwhelming force such as IFOR vengeance could be put to sleep for a while, but it would linger and could be resurrected easily. A bad peace was better than a war, but it was hard to see Bosnia survive as a state divided like this.

There was a conspicuous item missing from the agenda at Dayton. No one paid any attention to Kosovo. True, the conference was designed to settle only the Bosnian problem. But it was by promising to defend Serbs in Kosovo against the Albanian majority that Milosevic had begun his rise to power at the end of the eighties. He had repressed the Albanians since. Under the moderate leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, they had been remarkably patient. As a result their problems and their rights had been ignored. Rugova was not invited to Dayton. Serb repression continued. Radical Albanians began to grow in strength, and started to kill Serb policemen and others. Kosovo remained a disaster in waiting.

In 1914, just after the First World War began in Sarajevo, the historian R. W. Seton-Watson wrote to the British Foreign Office saying that unless “the Southern Slav question” was solved, trouble was bound to be caused between at least Britain and Russia. “Only by treating the problem as an organistic whole, by avoiding patchwork remedies can we hope to remove one of the chief danger centres in Europe.” Eighty years later that danger center remained.