Military commanders call it “mission creep.” It happens when you start off with a relatively simple objective that gradually expands—usually beyond the available resources. The UN peacekeeping role in Bosnia-Herzegovina will be studied for decades to come as one of the best examples of the disasters that inevitably accompany “mission creep.” (Two other examples were the American interventions in Vietnam and Somalia. Understandably, they continue to influence Washington’s policy—or lack thereof—towards Bosnia.)
The UN mission in BosniaHerzegovina started in June,
1992, when a modest force of just over a thousand UN soldiers secured the Sarajevo airport for the delivery of humanitarian aid. The mission was a success—more than 200 tons of food and medicine arrived daily for over six months.
By early 1993, however, the war was starting to go badly for the Bosnian government army.
The predominantly Muslim town of Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, close to the border with Serbia, was about to fall to the Bosnian Serbs. My successor, Maj.-Gen. Philippe Morillon of France, heroically entered the besieged town and forced the United Nations to deal politically with the situation. In order to keep Srebrenica and two other major Muslim communities, Zepa and Gorazde, from falling to the Bosnian Serbs, it was agreed by all sides that the Muslims in the area would hand in their weapons and the UN would defend the three “safe havens.”
Shortly after, I appeared in front of the U.S. House of Representatives foreign policy committee, and I estimated that it would take 100,000 well-equipped UN troops to guarantee the protection of the safe havens. Maj.Gen. Morillon’s successor, Belgian Lt.-Gen. Francis Briquemont, agreed, but was prepared to try with 70,000. The UN secretary
In 1992, Maj.-Gen. Lewis W. MacKenzie was the first UN commander in Sarajevo. Now retired from the Canadian Forces, he is a senior research fellow at the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies in Toronto.
general subsequently recommended that the mission be conducted with 34,000 troops. The Security Council, in its wisdom, approved 7,600—of which only about 2,000 ever showed up. General Briquemont quit in frustration—an act of courage, not weakness, which unfortunately did not have the desired effect of convincing the international community that defending the safe havens with a combination of bluff and symbolism was bound to fail.
In fact, the United Nations’ response made matters worse. The Bosnian government quickly recognized that the United Nations would not be able to defend their citizens in
the eastern enclaves, so they smuggled weapons and men into the safe havens to do the job themselves. Over time, the Bosnian fighters became more brazen, launching a campaign of short, violent forays into the surrounding countryside. UN peacekeepers reported numerous atrocities by the Bosnian army, but were inadequately equipped to control the situation. Finally, the Bosnian Serbs overreacted by cleansing the entire population centre of Srebrenica—all very explainable, if not justifiable.
Now that Srebrenica and Zepa have fallen, there is much discussion about the wisdom of reinforcing the UN presence in Gorazde, opening a humanitarian corridor from Split
to Sarajevo, defending Sarajevo, etc., etc. Regrettably, all this chatter has been conducted without a clear political objective. In soldiers’ language: What’s the aim? Is it to reestablish Bosnia-Herzegovina’s borders as recognized by the European Community on April 6,1992? To defend the safe havens? To deliver aid? To save face? Only once the political objective is clarified can the military get on with the task.
As a short-term balm for our consciences, it does make some sense to reinforce Gorazde and to try to open a humanitarian corridor into Sarajevo. Unfortunately, both of those objectives probably fit into the category of what should be done, rather than what can be done. More importantly, if the United Nations reinforces GoraMe, the Serbs will simply threaten one of the other safe areas— Bihac, Tuzla, Sarajevo or somewhere else. The Bosnian Serb leadership, after all, can make strategic decisions in a matter of hours, while the Security Council, NATO, and the contributing nations take weeks to respond.
The reality is that Zepa and Gorazde—and, for that matter, the northwestern enclave of Bihac—are indefensible without substantial reinforcement, which the international community is not prepared to provide. As distasteful as it is to admit it—but considering only what can be done— negotiations should commence to create a smaller but viable Bosnian nation based in Central Bosnia and including Sarajevo and Tuzla. I don’t for a moment expect the Bosnian government leadership to accept such a concept, but the West has led them down the garden path long enough. The least they deserve to know is where we are prepared to draw our “line in „ the sand.”
I Meantime, Canada’s tough I but tiny army is hard-pressed I to maintain a presence in both § Bosnia and neighboring Croatia. § Of the two, the Croatian mis$ sion is the more dangerous, and is where the majority of our personnel have been killed or wounded. But the possibility of renewed conflict between government forces and minority Serbs in Croatia represents the most serious threat to security in the region, and Canadian soldiers have the task of keeping them from each other’s throats. If serious fighting breaks out there, Serbia and Croatia might well go to war again—touching off a conflict that could engulf the Balkans and beyond. With that in mind, Canada should warn the United Nations that we intend to depart Bosnia-Herzegovina this fall at the end of the current mandate and offer to redeploy our troops in Croatia—where the success of the United Nation’s mission is significantly more critical to world stability. □
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