Commentary

Q: Is a continued stay of U.S. troops in Bosnia in the national interest?

By Gary Dempsey
February 16, 1999

The Dayton Peace Agreement, signed in Paris on Dec. 14, 1995, formally ended the civil war in Bosnia. Three years later, Dayton’s goal of creating a unified, multiethnic Bosnian state remains as elusive as ever. But that should have been expected. According to University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, “History records no instance where ethnic groups have agreed to share power in a democracy after a large-scale civil war. The democratic power-sharing that Dayton envisions has no precedent.”

That’s not to say that Dayton hasn’t led to any success. The fighting has stopped, and so far more than 3,600 pieces of heavy weaponry have been removed. But those few successes reveal Dayton for what it really is: a complicated cease-fire, not a solution to Bosnia’s long-term problems. The country still is deeply fractured, divided into two semiautonomous “entities” separated by a monstrosity called the Inter-Entity Boundary Line. One entity, the Serb Republic, now almost is entirely Serb. The other, the Muslim-Croat Federation, is made up of rival enclaves that maintain a tense coexistence. Nearly 90 percent of the Serbs who lived in the Muslim-Croat Federation before 1992 were expelled or have left.

The prospect for ethnic reintegration is not promising. By the end of 1997, only 19 percent of Bosnia’s 2.3 million refugees and displaced persons had returned home. Moreover, the total number of returnees in 1998 is expected to be only 11 percent of that of 1997. Even more telling, during the last three years only 55,000 Bosnians have returned to areas where they would be in the minority. At the same time, 80,000 Bosnians have moved from areas where they were in the minority to areas where they would be in the majority. That means there are 25,000 fewer Bosnians living in integrated communities today than when Dayton was signed three years ago. Moreover, 85 percent of Bosnians recently polled still say they will not vote for a candidate from another ethnic group.

Nevertheless, the Clinton administration insists that the Dayton agreement will not be adapted to the reality that has existed in Bosnia for three years - de facto ethnic separation. That unwillingness to rethink Dayton is ill-conceived.


But Bosnia’s costs are higher than many realize. It and other noncombat operations around the world have been diminishing U.S. national security by creating an operations tempo that undercuts U.S. military readiness.


First, it ensures that billions of taxpayer dollars will be spent in vain trying to superimpose an imaginary Bosnia (united) over the real Bosnia (divided). The United States already is paying about half of the costs of the Bosnia peacekeeping operation, which includes 6,900 U.S. combat troops in Bosnia, plus 3,100 support personnel in Croatia, Hungary and Italy. By the end of fiscal year 1999, Washington will have spent $10.64 billion on the mission.

But Bosnia’s costs are higher than many realize. It and other noncombat operations around the world have been diminishing U.S. national security by creating an operations tempo that undercuts U.S. military readiness. In fact, during the last decade, the U.S. Army has been used in 29 significant overseas operations, compared with 10 during the preceding 40 years. The strain of that pace has shown up in negative trend lines across all military services in a number of readiness categories.

For example, to relieve the European-based units that have carried out most of the Bosnia mission so far, peacekeeping duties have been shifted to Ft. Hood’s First Cavalry Division, one of the premier U.S.-based combat divisions. As one staff member of the House National Security Committee observed: “The Army is disassembling one of its most ready, most fearsome war-fighting divisions. The action shows how the requirements of Bosnia are detracting from the military’s ability to do high-intensity conflicts.”

Bosnia and other overseas operations also have caused the U.S. Air Force’s readiness to slip. The units that fly over Bosnia and the Persian Gulf have priority for plane rotation, support equipment and pilots. As a result, fighter squadrons based in the United States are at their lowest readiness level in years. In 1992, 86 percent of U.S.-based fighter jets were designated “mission capable.” In 1998 only 75 percent were.

Even more worrisome, there is mounting evidence that peacekeeping and other noncombat operations have adversely affected retention of soldiers, sailors and pilots. The Pentagon reports that first-term soldiers assigned to peacekeeping in Bosnia generally reenlisted at the same rate as their counterparts stationed elsewhere in Europe last year. But soldiers stationed in Bosnia were offered a tax-exempt reenlistment bonus, which artificially inflated their retention rate. The gap in retention rates for midcareer soldiers stationed in Bosnia was more noticeable. They reenlisted at a rate 6.1 percent lower than that of their counterparts stationed elsewhere in Europe.

Or take the Air Force. Since 1996, it has performed hundreds of peacekeeping missions in 11 countries, with the Bosnia operation being one of the largest. These mundane and repetitive missions have affected pilot morale negatively because there is no compelling national interest to keep them motivated.

“We’re not really fighting the country’s wars; we’re just acting like the world’s policeman,” explains one pilot who is a veteran of both Bosnia and Saudi Arabia. This year, nearly 45 percent of eligible Air Force pilots did not renew their service contracts, up dramatically from 14 percent in 1994. Such an anemic retention rate cannot long be sustained without compromising U.S. military readiness. Last year the Air Force had 45 fewer pilots than needed. This year the number has grown to 700, and it’s expected to reach 2,000 by 2002.

There also is increasing evidence that peacekeeping operations - as distinguished from actual national defense - deter prospective recruits from joining the military. And a strong economy, with plenty of private-sector jobs, has made it even tougher for the military to find recruits to replenish its shrinking ranks.

For fiscal year 1998, both the Navy and the Air Force failed to meet their recruiting goals. The Army was more successful, but only because its recruiting target was lowered significantly. The Navy fell short of its annual recruitment target by 13 percent, and it recently was reported that the Navy has 18,022 fewer sailors at sea than it needs.

The recruitment problem likely will worsen with the current demographic downturn in the prime recruiting pool: males between the ages of 18 and 21 who are physically fit high-school graduates and who scored in the upper half of the military’s standardized entry examination. That population currently consists of 15 percent fewer people than it did in the mid-1980s.

Washington’s unwillingness to revise Dayton also may be paralyzing Bosnian reconstruction. In election after election Bosnian voters cast ballots for nationalist candidates to counterbalance the perceived political power of their ethnic rivals who, in turn, vote for nationalist candidates for the same reason. Such circular logic is built into Dayton because the agreement requires three ethnic groups, each of which fears the political ambitions of the others, to operate under the fiction of a unified state. The political obstructionism and stalemates brought on by upholding that fiction have crippled Bosnia’s efforts to emerge from a communist economy. In fact, three years and $4.35 billion in reconstruction aid later, Bosnia has yet to privatize any part of its economy.

Ironically, because so much property in Bosnia still is government owned, NATO troops may be paying as much as $40 million a year to rent deployment and storage space from government-owned companies in Bosnia. That money is then pocketed by the nationalist party that happens to exercise control over the local or regional government and its institutions. What is puzzling about these payments is the obvious contradiction. NATO allies effectively are subsidizing the very nationalist political parties that Western officials consider the principal obstacles to peace in Bosnia. As the top Western diplomat in charge of implementing the Dayton agreement, Carlos Westendorp has asked, “How can they pay money to these people when we are supposed to be here promoting democracy?”

A more prudent and viable U.S. policy now would be to convene a “Dayton II” conference that recognizes the reality that has existed on the ground since 1995: a three-way partition. That would allow Bosnian Croats, Muslims and Serbs to escape the current atmosphere of perpetual political confrontation and nationalist rancor and concentrate on rebuilding normal lives. The conference could be organized by the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or the Dayton agreement’s Peace Implementation Council to work out the details of formalizing Bosnia’s divisions and to update Dayton’s arms-control, demilitarization and human-rights provisions accordingly.

On the military side, arrangements could be made to replace NATO’s current 32,000-strong Stabilization Force with a European Force, or EFOR, to oversee the transition. The EFOR operation could be conducted with Western European Union troops with, perhaps, a prominent eventual role for the Southeast European Brigade, a new regional security initiative being developed by seven NATO and non-NATO countries in or near the Balkans. With a few exceptions - such as providing logistics support, cargo airlift and sealift, and space-based communications and intelligence - U.S. forces could be extracted from Bosnia before the Dayton agreement’s fourth anniversary in December 1999.

No doubt critics will point out that this would allow separatism to prevail over multicultural cosmopolitanism. Ideally, the people of Bosnia should enjoy equal rights regardless of religion or ethnic background, and it is tragic that they have refused to uphold that principle. But a multiethnic Bosnia prospering in a climate of liberal toleration is not a realistic expectation; there is simply too much enmity and suspicion on all sides. Sometimes even an ugly divorce is preferable to preserving a futile and destructive marriage - especially when the union is forced. Most important, a negotiated partition is the last, best chance to create a relatively stable environment that will allow for the timely departure of U.S. forces from Bosnia.

Dempsey, a foreign-policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, is the author of the study, Rethinking the Dayton Agreement: Bosnia Three Years Later.