As U.S. forces leave, experts debate success of Bosnia mission

Spc. Stanley Messer and Staff Sgt. Rose Mikle walk through a shop-lined lane in Sarajevo's Turkish bazaar shopping district in April, 1997. The two were on an MWR tour.


By KENT HARRIS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 28, 2004

EAGLE BASE, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The CD shacks, hawking assorted bootleg items, are scattered about. The haystacks — sometimes in fields, sometimes on horse-drawn carts and sometimes on farmers’ backs — dot the landscape. And the red signs with skulls and crossbones that warn of land mines aren’t going anywhere soon.

But U.S. troops, who entered Bosnia in December 1995 for the start of what President Clinton said was a one-year mission, are in their final days in country. All but about 250 will be gone within the week.

Tens of thousands of American troops — the exact number might never be known — have spent time in Bosnia as part of Task Force Eagle during the last nine years. But to some, it’s debatable how much the mission has accomplished.

“This has been a very long year,” said Ted Carpenter, vice president of defense and foreign policy studies for the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., with a hint of sarcasm.

“You could argue that the conflict hasn’t restarted, so it’s been a success,” said David Chandler, author of “Bosnia: Faking Democracy after Dayton.” “But I think that’s being a bit dishonest.”

A better Bosnia?

Ask those who have been involved in the American mission, though, and one is likely get a different answer.

“I dramatically disagree with anyone who says this mission has not been successful,” said Gen. B.B. Bell, U.S. Army Europe commander. “Anyone who says there’s not substantial progress was not here nine years ago.”

Bell, who was assistant division commander of the 1st Infantry Division in 1995, watched as 1st Armored Division troops managed to bridge the storm-swollen Sava River so troops could cross into Bosnia.

Maj. Gen. William Nash commanded that American contingent on its first mission, dubbed Implementation Force. The 1st AD controlled the sector north of Sarajevo to the Croatian border for a year. Then the mission changed names to Stabilization Force, or SFOR.

Nash, now retired from the military and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, visited the country last week to observe the end of the U.S. mission.

“I think by any measure you would choose to use, Bosnia is better than it was nine years ago,” he said. “That’s not to say that everything’s perfect. But everything, I feel, is better.”

The new commander of the sector, Finnish Brig. Gen. Juha Kilpiä was one of Nash’s battalion commanders in IFOR. He was as decisive as his American counterparts.

“The situation is totally different (today),” he said. “There have been an enormous amount of positive changes in the area.”

Kilpiä pointed to an improved infrastructure as one of the most obvious changes. Another is that people aren’t openly attacking each other. According to most estimates, more than 200,000 people died in Bosnia as it attempted to break away during the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

“We had not witnessed that level of atrocities in Europe since World War II,” Bell said. “It takes time to heal those wounds.”

And the American contingent of SFOR helped provide that time, he said.

Internal woes

But some critics of international operations in Bosnia say American troops haven’t helped solve anything.

“Generally, having troops on the ground has little to do with the real problems of Bosnia,” Chandler said.

The largest problem, critics say, is the nature of country itself.

The country’s political, judicial and economic systems are still largely in shambles. The most recent estimate by the CIA suggests the country has a 40 percent unemployment rate. Corruption is rampant in many parts of the society, military officials say, and many residents don’t trust the police or the court system.

A senior lecturer at Westminster University in England, Chandler says there’s been no shortage of international organizations trying to help in the country.

“Practically every international group is playing a role in or interacting in Bosnian policies,” he said. But he said few Bosnians have benefited from the programs and many are now worse off economically than they were before SFOR entered the country. And, at least partially because of international policies, few locals appear willing to put forth an effort to help the country improve.

“Few people in Bosnia have real positive feelings about the future,” he said.

Bathsheba Crocker, co-director of the Post Conflict Research Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the indicators aren’t favorable for any economic or political turnaround soon.

“Voter turnout continues to decrease every time elections are held,” she said, adding that international businesses won’t invest until they have confidence in the local legal and political systems. “It’s difficult to see how democracy is really working.”

Mladen Pupavac, a Croat national now living in the United Kingdom, like his Bosnian neighbors to the south, lived under the “benevolent dictatorship” of longtime communist leader Josip Broz Tito.

He said Tito remained in power over a disparate group of people because he suppressed any nationalistic thoughts other than those to the greater state of Yugoslavia.

Pupavac said he is more skeptical than others about the long-range prospects for peace in Bosnia. While fighting isn’t likely to erupt anytime soon, he said, it will come again if the international community can’t figure out ways to improve the daily lives of Bosnians and get them to trust and work with each other.

“I think the fighting could erupt again and I think it would be even more vicious than between ’92 and ’95,” he said.

Bosnia timeline ...

June 1991 — Slovenia and Croatia declare their independence from Yugoslavia. While Slovenia’s exit is almost peaceful, a bloody war rages in Croatia.

Meanwhile, there’s sporadic fighting between ethnic Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats in Bosnia. Each has a separate religion and historical claims to territory, however, populations have been somewhat mixed the regime of maverick communist strongman Josip Broz Tito.

1992 — Fighting intensifies in Bosnia. Thousands are killed. The Croats and Bosniaks, once allied, start fighting each other. By January, there’s a three-way war.

In much of Europe and the States, the Serbs are mostly seen as aggressors. American air power comes into play to stop the shelling of Sarajevo and generally pressure the better-armed Serbs to stop fighting.

November and December 1995 — Under heavy pressure from the United States and Europe, leaders from the ethnic factions are brought together. An agreement is reached in Dayton, Ohio, to stop the fighting.

Task Force Eagle, the American mission in Bosnia, is formed a few days later. The 1st Armored Division is ordered to Bosnia and takes over the U.S. part of the 60,000-strong Implementation Force.

Dec. 20, 1996 — Not long after the 1st ID takes over the U.S. mission, IFOR ends. The Big Red One then takes over the U.S. role in the new Stabilization Force, or SFOR.

October 1998 — The 1st Cavalry Division takes over command of a greatly reduced U.S. presence. About 7,000 American troops — about one-third of the original force — are now in Bosnia.

March 2000 — The 49th Armored Division of the Texas National Guard takes over the mission. With the exception of the rotation led by the 3rd Infantry Division that followed, the remainder of the 15 SFOR rotations would be led by Army Reserve elements.

Nov. 24, 2004 — Task Force Eagle is disestablished and most U.S. troops prepare to head home.

Dec. 2, 2004 — SFOR will become EUFOR as the European Union takes control of peacekeeping operations in Bosnia from NATO.

— Stars and Stripes

December, 1996: Two destroyed houses on what was once the front line between Bosnian Croats and Serbs near the Sava river.