Sunday, May 29, 2011

Thoughts on Bosnia

Good news from the Balkans: a couple of days ago, Serbian police arrested Ratko Mladic. He was the leader of Serbian paramilitary forces during the horrible Bosnian conflict of the early '90's, and the one responsible for the slaughter of 8,000 people in Srebrenica in July, 1995. Even better, the Serbian police forces put down a small protest riot today by ultra-nationalist Serbs who were demanding his release. Mladic will soon be sent to the Hague to stand trial for war crimes. This marks a milestone, a finish line of sorts, to the Bosnian war.

I was in Sarajevo in the spring of 1996 as part of the Operation Joint Endeavor peacekeeping forces. I was part of a small team providing intelligence support to the NATO commander, Admiral Leighton Smith, and a few select senior leaders. Our team had a unique ringside seat to the negotiations and maneuvering between NATO, the various nations that made up NATO forces, the Serbians, the Bosnian Muslims, the Croats, and the UN. This was soon after the ceasefire had been established. The fighting had officially stopped, but peace had definitely not broken out, and keeping things under control meant walking a tightrope.

A great many people at that time were demanding that NATO capture Mladic, along with Radovan Karadzic, the political leader of the Serbians. This pressure began to build, to the point that many, even in the NATO forces, assumed that we were getting ready to mount an operation to nab them. Frankly, it would not have been that hard. Admiral Smith, though, refused to do it. He had good reason. We had a very close call in the spring when a low-level Serbian general took a wrong turn, blundered into a NATO checkpoint, and was arrested. The Serbians were furious and came within a heartbeat of pulling out of the peace process. Somehow, they were persuaded to stay, and eventually were convinced that the general really did just take a wrong turn and that it wasn't a planned NATO operation. But this event showed just how tenuous the whole situation was. Admiral Smith knew that if we gone after Karadzic and Mladic, the peace process would have collapsed and the Balkans plunged back into civil war. His view was that we were there to establish the peace. That came first. Whatever justice was to be meted out would have to wait until it could be done without bringing ruin.

That time is now. Radovan Karadzic was arrested three years ago and is currently being held in the Hague. Now Ratko Mladic has been brought in. Just a few years ago, his arrest would have brought down the Serbian government. Now, though, it just provoked a relatively small protest with a few hundred people that was contained by Serbian police.

When Yugoslavia collapsed, it did so very quickly, and when it went violent, it did so even more quickly. It has taken 15 years to get to the point where the arrest of former Serbian leaders can be done without destroying the country. Similarly, when our government made the decision to go to war against Afghanistan and then Iraq, it did so very quickly, but the process of building the peace is still ongoing nine years later. This has always been the case: wars can come quickly, but the recovery often takes decades.

Food for thought on this Memorial Day.

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