July 6, 2004
Curtain call in the BalkansBy Douglas Hanson
The nine year—long deployment for US forces in the Balkans finally appears to be coming to a close, yet amazingly, the US mainstream media has chosen to completely ignore this major shift of our defense strategy. Meanwhile, the American people are bombarded daily with major press reports (mostly negative) of Coalition efforts in Iraq, where US troops have been stationed for barely over a year. Press usage of the word 'quagmire' is reserved solely for the young Iraq operation, and strictly avoided in reference to the Balkans.
In the early 90s, nightly newscasts beamed pictures of the carnage of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, while reporters waxed apocalyptic about a complex religious conflict that required intervention by more enlightened nations to stem the violence. This was a sea change in US politics: the mainstream press was essentially acting as one of President Clinton's national security advisors in order to affect a military intervention in a foreign country.
That the media now refuse to acknowledge the US withdrawal from a deployment they built the case for, is the height of hypocrisy. Or is it? A close examination of the situation in Bosnia at the time of the deployment actually reveals that what the press presented to the public was deliberately deceptive and dishonest. This was nothing new for the media, but this time they were involved with determining whether the lives of US soldiers would be put at risk in a major military operation.
For US forces, it all started in December of 1995, when a Brigade Combat Team from the 1st Armored Division, reinforced by the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, crossed the Sava River from Croatia into Bosnia—Herzegovina. Their mission was to conduct stability and support operations in order to implement the provisions of the Dayton Accords. They, and their successors in the years to come, would have their work cut out for them. This was because, as with many of the Clinton era foreign policy decisions, the Dayton Accords were built upon a false premise.
The mainstream media promoted the Administration's view that the Bosnian War was simply a conflict involving complex ethno—religious rivalries going back hundreds of years. Nothing could be further from the truth. Prior to Dayton, Bosnia had been the most religious and ethnically diverse state in the Balkans. Croat Roman Catholics, Serbian Orthodox Christians, and Bosniac Muslims had lived side—by—side for centuries. Certainly, there was conflict from —time to time, but the notion that these ethnic hatreds all—of—a sudden boiled up and erupted into a regional conflict in a few short years is laughable.
Nationalism was certainly a key factor in the conflict, and there were underlying resentments of the older generations of people in the region. During WW II, there were multiple alliances with the various resistance groups, and alliances that were either for or against the Axis powers. These arrangements frequently switched on a whim, so that the people couldn't tell the players without a program. For example, even though Croatia and Bosnia were nominally referred to as "Independent States" after the German occupation, the Croatian Ustashis (Fascists) essentially ran a puppet state for the Nazis, and committed grisly atrocities against the partisan opposition.
It is the WW II time period that is most often cited as being the historical cause of the 92—95 Bosnian War, specifically, that modern day Serbs remembered the Croat policy under which Jews, Gypsies, and especially Serbs were deported to Serbia, exterminated, or forcibly converted to Catholicism. What the press and the Clinton administration ignored, is that the generation doing most of the fighting and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia had no more sense of that historical perspective than most American youth do about the passions of our WWII vets who fought in the Pacific against the Japanese race. They had to be taught; and they were taught well.
Another key aspect overlooked by the Clinton Administration, was that the breakup of Yugoslavia followed the pattern of so many nations before, who demonstrated the undercurrents of developing a free market economy. After Tito's death in 1980, mounting foreign debt and the USSR's increasing inability to support its satellites motivated political talent to shift from the communist central government to the individual states of Yugoslavia. Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia all voted in 1991 and 92 to part ways with the communist government of Slobodan Milosevic, who made no secret about continuing the Soviet—style central planning and non—market form of economy. This was later manifested by his cronies covertly raiding the Serbian National Bank of 1.8 billion USD for the usual communist bureaucracy 'subsidies' and political payoffs.
Knowing that they would be militarily opposed by Serbia, the states beefed up their National Guard forces to counter the threat, however, some of them were better prepared than others. Slovenia, bordering northern Italy and being the most Westernized, had planned well ahead by purging all Yugoslav Army (JNA) influences from the Guard, and by assuming positive control of all weapons and armaments. Slovenia fought the JNA and won in just 10 days.
On the other hand, Croatia's effort went badly. Even though it had the equipment, 70 percent of JNA officers in Croatian territory were Serbs. Bosnia was the least prepared of all. Years later, the commander of a Bosnian military unit would relate how his men had tried to stave off Bosnian—Serb attacks with hunting rifles, pitchforks, and clubs.
Essentially, the fight for independence from Milosevic's rule caused the ethnic and religious split, not the reverse. This was the key element of the conflict that the Clinton administration and the media could not understand, or would not acknowledge. However, justifying US and NATO intervention to the American public in terms of the ancient and a complex tangle of ethnic and religious ties was somewhat puzzling.
If anything, it was a classic case of rebellion against a centralized, tyrannical regime, and if publicly presented as such by the Administration, could have possibly increased popular support for action in the Balkans. However, it is no surprise that the American socialist left could not justify US support in the fight against one of its ideological allies in Eastern Europe based on the reality of a war of independence from a leader who was a devoted disciple of Stalinist politics. Hence, the Administration, its foreign policy machine, and the media promoted the false notion of religious and ethnic conflict based on ancient animosities.
Of course, ethnic conflict and cleansing did occur on all sides during the course of the war. But it was actually a gruesome tactical and psychological operation to win battles and conquer territory, not the root cause of the war. It must also be understood that the first instances of these atrocities were perpetrated by Serbs from Serbia; not Bosnian—Serbs. This betrayed Milosevic's hand that he was willing to use any and all means to retain total control over those who desired to live in freedom.
This tactic was no different than when the Former Soviet Union desperately tried to retain control over their satellites in the Balkan region by promoting the centuries—old concept of 'pan—Slavism.' During the Bosnian operation, a Russian airborne brigade* was nominally part of the US led Multi—National Division (North) (MND (N)), but ensured it was stationed in Bosnian—Serb territory to help its 'Slavic brothers.'
Promoting intervention based solely on humanitarian grounds, while refusing to admit the true nature of the conflict, resulted in the Clinton Administration making nonsensical decisions. First, the US agreed to cooperate with an international arms embargo, then abetted a covert effort to smuggle arms into the war zone from the Middle East. Then, Clinton said he would abide by regional isolation protocols to stop outside help to either side, while later allowing 200 Mujahadeen to fly into Bosnia to assist their Muslim 'allies.' These fighters were more of a psychological warfare ploy then a true combat force multiplier, but nonetheless, we witnessed a continuing series of foreign policy and national security 'I voted for it, before I voted against it' type operations.
By September of 1995, the Croatian and Bosnian armies were fighting and beating the Bosnian—Serbs at every turn, and conquering huge chunks of Bosnia thanks to US and NATO support. The Dayton Accords were ironed out to stop the war and promote the peace, but they only made matters worse. The agreement presupposed that the final battle lines and unit boundaries were indicative of the pre—war ethnic population distribution in the country. In other words, the accords forced ethnic segregation where previously there had been ethnic integration. Of course, US and NATO soldiers now had to figure out how to step in amongst three sets of belligerents, keep a fragile peace, and then assist the return of refugees to their traditional homes, which, in many cases were behind enemy lines.
Naturally, the Europeans had a very nuanced approach to all of this. That meant they sat on their posteriors until the US made a move to deploy our forces to the region. And, despite misgivings at home, our soldiers accomplished this mission as only they can: with courage and professionalism. Finally, after nine years, they can turn the Balkans over to the EU. We will now find out if the Europeans will be successful in maintaining the peace. The early signs are not particularly promising.
There has still been no official announcement from DoD about the termination of the mission. However, EUCOM published a bit of news that reinforces the notion of US withdrawal from the region, announcing on July 29 that an Acquisition and Cross—Servicing Agreement (ACSA) had been signed by Maj. Gen. Edward LaFountaine of EUCOM and Bosnia's first State level Minister of Defense, Nikola Radovanovic. The agreement authorizes mutual logistics support, supplies and services, but does not commit the US in anyway to any future military action in the country. Significantly, Lt. Col. Charles Sherwin, Chief of EUCOM's Office of Defense Cooperation in Sarajevo, noted that the arrangement had two important aspects
Number one, the continued commitment of the U.S. to assist Bosnia and Herzegovina's military establishment to continue its development in the face of the drawdown of international peacekeepers [emphasis mine]. And number two, it paves the way for any possible, future participation by Bosnia and Herzegovina in U.S. and Coalition operations.
The lack of mainstream media coverage of this event reflects their continuing cover up of the true Clinton legacy, and their own complicity in encouraging US intervention in a foreign country without a casus belli. The same crowd that expresses faux concern for our troops' long—term deployments in fighting the War on Terror, didn't care a whit when our soldiers didn't return from the Balkans by Christmas of 1996 as promised by Clinton.
These same people complained about atrocities in the Balkans, yet they now ignore the realities of hundreds of thousands of victims in mass graves in Iraq. They touted the dire need of rebuilding a country torn by a supposed ethnic war, when one could see satellite dishes on every other balcony of modern high—rise apartment buildings in downtown Tuzla, and Bimmers and Mercedes speeding down the local highways. Today, the left complains about budget constraints in our current reconstruction efforts, when for 30 years, the people of Kabul had no decent sewer system, with the resulting diseases contributing to an average life expectancy of 47 years for an Afghani male.
There is no doubt that the left suffers from selective compassion syndrome. When their guy is in charge, it's OK to send US troops traipsing around the world 'helping' people, just as long as we don't help them gain their freedom from a tyrannical dictator. But when an attack on the US is answered with force to obtain victory, and with a successful follow—on effort to reconstruct countries from the ground up, well, that's just all about big oil and a sop to Halliburton.
I wonder if the press will cover the ceremony when our troops leave Bosnia? Nah — they wouldn't want to give any ammo to their critics. After all, nine years deployed to the Balkans is a pretty long time, you know.
* During the NATO air war against Serbia in 1999, elements of this same Russian airborne brigade seized Kosovo's Pristina Airport in advance of NATO forces arriving in the area. Many Americans are aware of UK General Jackson's refusal to 'start WW III' by not following General Wesley Clark's orders, but few are aware that because of these same orders, this Russian brigade, part of the US—led MND (N), refused to acknowledge the authority of the division commanding general, and was only accepting orders directly from Moscow for about six hours. Fortunately, the American and Russian commanders on the scene worked together to reduce the tensions between the two units.
Douglas Hanson is our military affairs correspondent. He was a civilian analyst in