In the final hours before the Bosnian peace accord was initialed in Dayton before a hastily assembled audience and the eyes of the world, U.S. Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made an unannounced visit to each of the three Balkan presidents.
The message he delivered was blunt: The United States expects complete cooperation with the planned NATO peacekeeping operation and any serious threat from local soldiers or militia fighters will be met with force.
In case they missed the point, NATO plans to send in its heavy guns - among them, American M1-A1 tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and Apache attack helicopters - along with 60,000 U.S. and allied troops, whose job will be policing a winding 2-1/2-mile-wide separation zone between Bosnian Serbs and the so-called Muslim-Croat federation.
The idea is to deter any major challenges from balky Balkan fighters, particularly the Bosnian Serbs, by showing that this is NATO, the Western alliance that stared down the Soviet Union, not a bunch of blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeepers commanded by weak-willed diplomats.
“Once the troops are there, they are going to be top dog in the country,” the chief American negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, said Wednesday on NBC’s Today show. “If anybody hits them, they are going to hit back.”
Still, the biggest military operation in NATO’s history will be a difficult and perilous mission.
It faces the uncertain threat of attacks along with the known dangers of a brutal Balkans winter and the countless mines scattered throughout the nation, which have already claimed about 100 casualties among United Nations forces.
Gen. Dennis Reimer, chief of staff of the Army, warned Wednesday that there are likely to be American casualties: “If we make a commitment to this, we’ve got to expect some type of casualties.”
But getting the troops into Bosnia is both a logistical obstacle course for military planners and a political minefield for the Clinton administration, which faces a skeptical American public and hostile Congress.
The White House said President Clinton would on Monday night speak in a televised address to the nation about sending American forces to Bosnia.
The president has promised to seek an “expression of support” from Congress. But he also has said he is willing to go ahead without it to try to end Europe’s worst war in half a century, which has claimed an estimated 250,000 lives and uprooted more than 2 million people.
“It’s literally peace vs. war,” White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Wednesday, starkly defining the choices in response to the public opposition from Congressional Republicans. “You either want the United States to participate in helping keep the peace the parties have agreed to, or you want the war to continue. That’s just bluntly the truth of the matter.”
Clinton is now expected to stop in Germany during his European trip next week so he can visit U.S. troops who would take part in the peacekeeping mission.
Also, Defense Secretary William Perry will travel to Bad Kreuznach, Germany, on Friday to visit troops of the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division, which has been training as the main American element in the NATO peace force for Bosnia. Perry will also visit NATO military command headquarters in Belgium.
Bosnia for Christmas
The Clinton administration envisions thousands of American troops in Bosnia by Christmas to keep the peace. It hopes most will be out before U.S. elections in November 1996.
But such a politically driven timetable is already raising some quiet grumbling from the Europeans, who fear that setting such a public enddate will encourage rival factions to hunker down and wait out the NATO peacekeepers.
The deployment plan calls for 20,000 to 25,000 U.S. Army troops, drawn mainly from the Germanybased 1st Armored Division, to take charge of a sector around Tuzla in northeast Bosnia.
They will be supplemented by an unspecified number of U.S.-based troops and reservists, as well as by thousands more Americans involved in the enormous logistical operation in the U.S., Germany, Italy, Croatia, and Pecs, Hungary, where a major U.S. supply base would be set up.
British and French forces are to take charge in other areas in an operation that will include troops from roughly 20 countries, including some non-NATO nations such as Russia.
The overall Bosnia Implementation Force (IFOR) will be commanded by an American, U.S. Army Gen. George Joulwan, who is chief of all American forces in Europe, as well as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
With the initialing of the accord in Dayton, NATO plans to dispatch an advance force of 1,500 to 2,000 logistical planners, communications technicians, and other specialists to prepare for the rapid arrival of arrival of IFOR troops once a final treaty is signed early next month in Paris.
That will involve quickly moving troops and their equipment by plane, train and ship and then over snow-clogged roads, around blown up bridges, and through disputed territory.
Planners envision establishing command headquarters in Bosnia within 96 hours after the formal treaty signing, but getting the entire international force in place may take as long as two months.
The operational headquarters, under U.S. Adm. Leighton W. Smith, commander of NATO’s southern flank, will be in Sarajevo, the war-battered Bosnian capital that is to be reunified under the peace agreement.
The largest part of the Dayton accord - which includes 12 agreed annexes and more than 100 detailed maps - is the U.S.-drafted Annex 1A, which sets out the military aspects of implementing the peace agreement. It provides for the withdrawal of the largely discredited UN peace-keeping force now in Bosnia, and gives the new IFOR broad authority to operate throughout the country.
All sides in the Bosnia war are required to honor the cease-fire, to pull back to agreed cease-fire lines within 30 days, to respect a demilitarized zone between their territories and to withdraw troops and heavy weapons to barracks areas within 120 days. The annex says that IFOR can use “necessary force” if threatened or to ensure compliance.
The U.S. plans to draw up a number of benchmarks to judge compliance with the overall accords. And administration officials said American troops won’t go to Bosnia until they are convinced that all parties are prepared to honor their treaty obligations.
Holbrooke, whose 4-1/2 months of intensive negotiating climaxed in an agreement after 21 days with Balkan leaders at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, said American troops will not be sent “until we’re absolutely sure that the peace agreement…will work, that it will hold. And we’re not going to send people into a war.”
At this moment, though, there are serious question about that. The Bosnian Serbs in Dayton rebelled when shown the final terms of the accord by their patron, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
They were angry that the deal reunites Sarajevo, including some traditionally Serb neighborhoods, under the control of the MuslimCroat federation and that the military accord, in their eyes, makes NATO an occupying power.
And that could still prove the dealbreaker. While Milosevic, who leads a joint Serb and Bosnian Serb delegation, can sign the peace treaty in Paris, the crucial military annex must be signed by the Bosnian Serbs to take effect. At Wright-Patterson, the Bosnian Serb delegates failed to show up to initial the annex.
American officials said Milosevic assured them that he will be able to deliver the Bosnian Serbs. But they have defied him before, and some are now accusing Milosevic of selling out to get out from under economic sanctions that have devastated the economy of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, skeptical members of Congress are raising questions about U.S. military involvement such as: How could American forces maintain the appearance of being neutral peace keepers if the U.S., as promised, supplies arms and military training to the Bosnian Muslims?
Gen. Reimer, speaking with defense reporters, cited the same concern. “Our soldiers will be out there trying to enforce a peace accord, and we have to be careful that we’re not perceived as being on one side or the other,” he said.
The accord initialed by the Bosnian, Serbian and Croat leaders Tuesday includes a provision that the parties begin arms control negotiations within 30 days to achieve “the lowest level of armaments.”
But if that fails to balance the sides, the administration assured the Bosnian Muslims that Washington would help even the balance by providing them with weapons and military training.