WORLD FOCUS ON BOSNIA
Last week, as the Bosnian Serb army tightened its noose around the Bihac pocket, condemnation of the United Nation’s inability to protect the civilian Muslim population filled the airwaves and the editorial pages around the world. Some people, like the designated U.S. Senate majority leader Robert Dole, called for the United Nations to get out of Bosnia altogether so the Bosnian army, aided by NATO air strikes and armed by the United States, could go on the offensive and defeat the Bosnian Serbs.
As chief of staff of a 31-nation peacekeeping force, then as commander of the UN mission operating the airport in the besieged Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in 1992, Canada’s Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie was frequently a thorn in the side of the UN leadership. While refraining from criticizing the world body publicly, he complained frankly to the organization about its definition of the missions. And on his return to Canada late that year—and his subsequent retirement from the Canadian Forces—MacKenzie became an outspoken critic of the way the peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia was established and maintained. He also tried to dissuade the United States from launching air strikes against Serbian forces in Bosnia. Now a senior research fellow at the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies in Toronto, MacKenzie wrote this analysis of the disintegrating Bosnian situation for Maclean’s:
What has happened in Bosnia over the past 33 months might not be the United Nations’ best example of a disaster resulting from ill-conceived and inadequately supported international diplomacy, but it is certainly a strong contender for the Top 10 list. If we are unhappy with what is happening in Bosnia (and who isn’t?), and we want to try to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes again, it is probably worthwhile to look over our shoulder and see how we got here.
Shortly after the West “won” the Cold War, and while we were still patting ourselves on the back, a significant number of the countries in the world
imploded. Yugoslavia was one of them. With the encouragement of the European Community, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence in June, 1991, and in July the Yugoslavian National Army (JNA) attacked into areas of Croatia primarily occupied by Serb nationals, citing concerns for the safety of Croatia’s Serbian minority. All hell broke loose. In November, 1991, however, the U.S. elder statesman Cyrus Vance, acting for the UN secretary general, managed to broker a ceasefire.
The Vance Plan was to see 14,000 UN peacekeeping troops positioned in the Serbian-occupied area of Croatia. Their job would be to protect the occupants of three designated protected areas, primarily Serbs but not exclusively, as Croatian citizens would be encouraged to return to homes from which they had fled in the protected zones. The force was to be called the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR). Under the Vance Plan, once UNPROFOR was on the ground, the JNA was to withdraw from Croatia to what was left of the ex-Yugoslavia—Serbia,
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro.
The United Nations can’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, move at the speed of light. It was March, 1992—a full four months after the Vance Plan was agreed to by Serbia and Croatia—before a small group of officers, myself included, was gathered at UN headquarters in New York City to finalize the plan for putting troops in Croatia’s occupied areas. The war had continued during those four months and the front lines had moved.
To our collective surprise, and over our objections, we were ordered to put our headquarters for the Croatian operation in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital some 300 km forward of our troops. The UN staff explained with little enthusiasm that our presence in Sarajevo might help to keep the lid on things in Bosnia.
We were not convinced. Having registered our disappointment, however, we got on with planning the mission, and four days later departed for Sarajevo.
It was a full two years later, while interviewing British peace envoy Lord Carrington for a TV documentary, that I discovered why the United Nations had ordered us to Sarajevo. President Alija Izetbegovic, the elected Muslim leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina, had observed with horror the war in neighboring Croatia. He had every reason to be concerned, as he was under increasing pressure both at home and abroad to seek independence for Bosnia. With a large Serbian minority of approximately 34 per cent in Bosnia, he knew the odds were pretty good that there would be civil war and that Serbia could well become involved on the side of the Bosnian Serbs if the outside world recognized Bosnia’s independent status. He turned to the European Community and the United Nations, and behind closed doors asked for a large preventive UN peacekeeping force to be deployed to Bosnia to help him thwart a civil conflict. He hoped this would give him time to sort out the constitutional issues by negotiating with the Bosnian Serbs.
At that very moment, the United Nations was finding it virtually impossible to find the 14,000 troops it needed for the Vance Plan, so it certainly was in no position to source approximately the same number again for Bosnia. It decided to give Izetbegovic a consolation prize—our UNPROFOR headquarters of 300 personnel, mostly offi-
cers, with no mandate whatsoever to conduct any peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.
UNPROFOR headquarters started to arrive in Sarajevo on March 13, 1992. And as the fighting spread into Bosnia, the European Community recognized that territory’s independence on April 7. The majority of Bosnian Serbs rebelled against the prospect of a unitary state dominated by the current Muslim leadership and made their point by turning their heavy guns, inherited from the JNA, on Sarajevo.
Not only did UNPROFOR have no Security Council-sanctioned role in Bosnia, we soon realized that we were spending the majority of our time on our survival, and we couldn’t dedicate the time and effort necessary to support our 14,000 troops in Croatia.
After six weeks of helping out where and when we could with regard to humanitarian matters, but still without a mandate from the Security Council, it was decided by the United Nations that we should leave Sarajevo and re-establish our headquarters in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. The European Community’s headquarters for its monitoring mission was Zagreb, Croatia, so presumably placing our headquarters in Belgrade would help create the impression of evenhandedness that is so essential in conventional peacekeeping operations—and our mission in Croatia was just that, conventional peacekeeping. (In July, however, after the imposition of international sanctions against Serbia, the headquarters moved to Zagreb, where it has remained.)
Quite frankly, being forced out of Sarajevo was professionally embarrassing, particularly since each kilometre of our withdrawal was covered by the media. It looked like we were abandoning the city because we were afraid. We were mortified and started to plot our return. It did not take long. In June, 1992, the Bosnian Serbs agreed to turn the Sarajevo airport over to the United Nations for the delivery of humanitarian aid—providing the United Nations with its ticket back into the bowels of Bosnia’s agony. Once the Security Council was briefed that UNPROFOR had
worked out a deal to take over the airy port, it was only too ready to agree. This
represented the first good news its “ members had heard from Bosnia in
more than she months.
Unfortunately, we made the error of also calling the new UN force in Sarajevo UNPROFOR, because the first contingent of soldiers was provided by the Canadian Van Doo battalion, borrowed from UNPROFOR in Croatia. UNPROFOR was an accurate title for the UN force in Croatia—it was there to provide security for anyone in the three large UN protected zones. But in Sarajevo, the title was misleading to the extreme. The force had no mandate to protect anything—it was simply there to run an airport and deliver humanitarian aid. The United Nations is still living with this unintentionally cruel act of raising unattainable expectations within the primarily Muslim community. A name, particularly a misleading one, can have tremendous impact. With all the best intentions in the world, the United Nations had just taken one tentative step towards a steep and slippery slope.
I left Sarajevo in August, 1992, primarily because the Bosnian government decided that my impartial stance on their conflict was unacceptable, and the United Nations was increasingly unhappy with some
LEWIS MacKENZIE REVIEWS THE HARD LESSONS OF BOSNIA
FOCUS ON BOSNIA
of my sound bites. Shortly thereafter, the United Nations expanded its humanitarian operation to include all of Bosnia under the command of the French Gen. Phillipe Morillion—my roommate during the early stages of the war. The force underwent a modest expansion but the United Nations could not find the resources necessary to implement the new mandate over all of Bosnia. Convoys couldn’t be protected and were hijacked; UN police couldn’t check every convoy, and weapons and ammunition were discovered by Bosnian Serbs in humanitarian convoys heading for Muslim enclaves. The United Nations started to lose its footing and pitched forward directly onto the slippery slope.
As the Bosnian Serbs increased their pressure on the Bosnian Muslims, the UN Security Council, led by France and the United States, declared with great fanfare that “such force as necessary would be used to guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid, and a number of safe havens would be established to protect the Muslim population.” At their request,
I briefed the members of the U.S. House of Representatives armed services committee. I explained that to implement the United Nations’ new and forceful mandate would require a massive increase in the size of the UN force in Bosnia, particularly if the United Nations was serious about protecting the safe havens. My estimate was an additional 100,000 troops. The new UN commander on the ground, Gen. Francis Briquemont of Belgium, said he would try it with a minimum of 70,000. He received absolutely zero increase during the first few months of the new mandate, ultimately receiving fewer than 1,000 troops to do the work of 70,000 to 100,000. After six months of frustration, he resigned his command, a dejected and broken man.
With the UN Security Council incapable of convincing the General Assembly to provide the troops necessary to protect the safe havens, all we had was a highprofile bluff—and the Bosnian Serbs knew it. The UN Security Council was now accelerating down the slippery slope and—with continuing good intentions but ignoring conventional military wisdom—made a fatal miscalculation.
Until the United Nations came up with the idea of safe havens, the UNPROFOR mission had been strictly humanitarian. Now, incapable of finding the ground troops to protect the safe havens, it subcontracted NATO and threatened air strikes if the havens were attacked. Any self-respecting soldier knew this was a major error, and those that could said no. All the Bosnian Serbs had to do was initiate their attacks a few minutes before dark or during bad weather and NATO aircraft could do little if anything about it. Once the attacking forces were intermixed with the Bosnian army and the civilian population, air strikes were virtually impossible.
If it was decided to take the side of the Bosnian army and strike Bosnian Serb targets in depth, that would certainly write “paid” to the humanitarian mission, and would launch the UN force on the ground into the war as a participant—a war it was not equipped, organized or contracted to fight by the Security Council, of which two members—China and the United States—had no troops on the ground to bear the consequences.
It didn’t take a PhD in unconventional warfare to accurately forecast that air strikes
would result in UN hostages being taken by the army under attack by NATO aircraft. Once again, an ill-conceived bluff had been called, and by now the slippery slope was pretty well vertical.
Canada was selected by the Bosnian Serbs to be the prime target of intimidation for strategic reasons. We had been the most outspoken critic of the wisdom of air strikes, and presumably the Bosnian Serbs figured we would be the first to cut and run if we were targeted. If we ran, others would soon follow. The Bosnian Serbs, like many before them, underestimated our resolve.
The United States, in a tragic example of in-
consistent foreign policy, started to compound the United Nations’ dilemma at every tum, and the Bosnian Serbs revelled in the spectacle. Knowing full well that the UN Security Council would never agree to lifting the arms embargo on all of ex-Yugoslavia, the United States lobbied for such a move, giving false hope to the Bosnian government and perpetuating the false perception of a weaponless Bosnian army. In fact, the arms embargo has been about as effective in stopping arms going into Bosnia as the St. Lawrence River was in stopping cigarette smugglers crossing into Canada.
The Bosnian Serbs fully understood that the United Nations was locked into a Bosnia-wide humanitarian mission that was not compatible with the selected punitive use of force. They called the United Nations’ bluff in and around Bihac, and the resulting rift between the United States and its allies, including Canada, was exposed for all to see. Having understandably done little during the early stages of the conflict, the United States, or at least some of the more outspoken hawks in Congress, now gave the impression of wanting to fight to the last Canadian, British or French soldier in the hills of Bosnia.
If the United Nations actually tried to withdraw UNPROFOR to clear the way for NATO bombing, the troops would be blocked at eveiy turn—not only by women and children from all factions in Bosnia who see the United Nations as a shield, albeit a battered one, but also by the Russians in the Security Council.
The diplomatic community, which bears the responsibility for addressing the Bosnian crisis, has not exactly covered itself in glory over the past few years. Thanks primarily to
‘WE HAVE PAID A TERRIBLE PRICE FOR A WAR THAT IS NOT OURS’
the American habit of convincing the Bosnian government to hold out for a better deal, and a lack of consistency within the various peace proposals, one side out of the three has always refused to sign. There are many ways to bring diplomatic pressure to bear beyond the threat of intervention or non-intervention in the Bosnian conflict.
I have suggested as strongly as possible to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien that Canada has earned the right, unlike Germany, to be a full-fledged member of the Contact Group on Bosnia (now the United States, Britain, France, Russia and Germany). We should insist on membership and, once at the table,
strive to forge a peace proposal that the international community can sell to the belligerents or, if necessary, coerce them into accepting. Ultimately, parts of Bosnia will be linked with either Croatia or Serbia, and Bosnia itself will exist between the two with the capital, as now, in Sarajevo and with guaranteed access to the Adriatic. The sooner we get used to the idea, the sooner the Contact Group can start working as one, with all the resulting persuasive power that would bring to the process. While this process unfolds, UNPROFOR, including Canada, should stay the course and continue to alleviate the suffering of more than two million Bosnian citizens every day.
Ultimately, all sides will have to compromise, and the strongest will compromise less than the weakest—unless we can rewrite history or change human nature, which I doubt very much. The solution to Bosnia’s agony will be found through negotiation, not at the point of a gun, particularly one carried by a UN soldier. The diplomatic superpowers must show a little synergy in
their efforts and drag the belligerents into extended discussions at the highest level until an acceptable compromise is reached.
We can’t go back and start over again in Bosnia Sometimes, I wish we could, but knowing what we know now we might have avoided the slippery slope and opted for the easy missions like Haiti instead. If that was the case, millions of Bosnians would have had to do without the food and medicine that 23,000 much-maligned and underappreciated UNPROFOR soldiers have provided.
To those that say the United Nations and NATO’s credibility has been terminally damaged, I say wait until the next nation gets in serious trouble. It will be on bended knees at the United Nations pleading for help before you can count to 10. To those that say that the UN actions in Bosnia send the wrong message to future tin-pot dictators, I say let’s deal with them when the time comes, based on what we’ve learned in Bosnia.
Canada has been in Bosnia with ground forces from the very beginning, unlike some of our outspoken allies. We have paid a terrible price in death, pain and suffering for a war that is not ours and does not threaten our national interests. It is however our destiny to help others. It’s how we pay our dues for our blessings at home and our membership in the international community. The following Canadian soldiers, along with 41 more who have been seriously injured, paid much more than their share in the former Yugoslavia. We must remember their sacrifice, and their families’, as we debate the future of our peacekeeping role in the world:
Aug. 17,1992: Sgt. C. M. Ralph, killed in action
March 25,1993: Master Cpl.
J. W. Temapolsky, fatal accident June 18,1993: Cpl. D. Gunther, killed in action
Aug. 6,1993: Cpl. J. M. H. Béchard, fatal accident
Aug. 17,1993: Sgt. J. D. A. Gareau, fatal illness
Sept. 18,1993: Capt. J. Decoste, fatal accident
Nov. 29,1993: Cpl. D. Galvin, fatal accident
Nov. 29,1993: Master Cpl. S. Langevin, fatal accident
June 6,1994: Re. K D. Cooper, fatal accident
June 21,1994: Cpl. M. R. Isfeld, killed in action.