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Operation Storm’

Paralysis led finally to humiliation. By July 1995, when General Ratko Mladic and his Bosnian Serbs swept unopposed into the UN-guaranteed “safe area” of Srebrenica and, virtually before the eyes of Dutch troops, massacred more than 7000 Bosnian men, there was, in Holbrooke’s words,

no more energy left in the international system. Everywhere one turned, there was a sense of confusion in the face of Bosnian Serb brutality.

Days later, as allied officials met in London, General Mladic was besieging Zepa, a second “safe area” nearby; the allies drew “a line in the sand” at Gorazde, a third “safe area,” thereby abandoning Zepa, which Mladic promptly seized. After murdering many of Zepa’s men, including the Bosnian commander (whom he had invited to his headquarters on the pretext of discussing surrender), Mladic turned his sights on the Bihac pocket, thus directly threatening Croatia. This led Tudjman—who had now recognized the true worth of international guarantees—to prepare his own offensive, first in Bihac then in the Krajina itself.

Even as the Croats were getting ready to launch “Operation Storm,” sixty-nine US senators voted for Robert Dole’s resolution to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia—and thereby ensured the Republican from Kansas a veto-proof margin. With a presidential election coming soon, the Senate, in the person of President Clinton’s likely rival, threatened to take Bosnia policy away from the White House. Elizabeth Drew quotes one of Clinton’s advisers:

He was about to lose control of foreign policy on a fundamental issue…. The passage of the Dole bill made the President and others more aware of the political danger, that Congress could do real damage to American foreign policy, and of the problems presented by Presidential politics—meaning Dole. The fall of Srebrenica sent ten to fifteen senators across the line. Britain and France set up the rapid reaction force. The administration knew it had to get back on the offensive.”12

Clinton officials knew as well that many European leaders treated their newly formed “rapid reaction force,” with its tanks and heavy artillery, less as a means to protect convoys of troops than as an instrument to cover their soldiers’ early retreat from Bosnia. Even now President Jacques Chirac, whose election had added much forcefulness to French policy, was calling for aggressive action to retake Srebrenica and to reinforce Gorazde, the last surviving “safe area”; failing that, he vowed to bring his men home: “We can’t imagine that the UN force will remain only to observe,” he declared, “and to be, in a way, accomplices in the situation. If that is the case, it is better to withdraw.”

If the Europeans decided to withdraw their troops, however—and it seemed that Chirac and Major and the others might well reach such a decision before the end of the summer—President Clinton would find himself obliged, possibly just before the American election, to send American troops to Bosnia to help extract the allied forces. The President had agreed to take on this obligation without fully understanding its implications; and Clinton security officials, in an astonishing feat of incompetence, had stood by while planners at NATO headquarters duly drew up and then approved a plan—OpPlan 40-014—that not only pledged 20,000 American ground troops but required them to take part in dangerous nighttime heliborne operations sure to bring with them significant numbers of casualties. No senior official had seen fit to question this plan, or even to brief the commander in chief on it—he had learned its full implications only in mid-June of 1995—and now if President Clinton refused to honor his promise he risked doing irrevocable damage to America’s relations with its allies.

With an election approaching President Clinton was caught in a vise. Shortly after the Croats triumphed in the Krajina in August, producing in a few days 150,000 new victims of “ethnic cleansing,” the President declared that he was “hopeful that Croatia’s offensive will turn out to be something that will give us an avenue to a quick diplomatic solution.” Bill Clinton had traveled a long way from his slogan “ethnic cleansing cannot stand.” But things had at last become clear: there would be no more talk about what the United States would or would not do; one way or another America wanted to put an end to the war.


By undertaking his vast bloodletting in Srebrenica, General Mladic had not only shocked the world and deeply humiliated the leaders of the West. He had “solved” one of the “problems of the map.” Even before Mladic conquered Srebrenica, said Sandy Vershbow, then in charge of Bosnia policy on the National Security Council staff, its future

seemed pretty gloomy. We were already then considering that some kind of swap for at least the smaller of the eastern enclaves for more territory would be wise.13

Ethnic cleansing itself would now help ensure the Americans “a quick diplomatic solution”—an agreement on territory providing, in the words of Tony Lake (the arch-idealist at the time the “ethnic cleansing cannot stand” policy was formed) that rather than draw the lines in Bosnia in a “higgedly-piggedly way” that might make sense according to where the current populations actually lived, the Americans must “do what we could to have a territory that was as simplified as possible.”14 To “simplify their territory” had been—for different reasons, of course—the desire of the Serbs as well.

Thus when Lake met his old friend and rival Holbrooke in London on August 12 for a “hand-off meeting”—Lake had just briefed the Europeans on the Americans’ new plan to end the war, and Holbrooke would now take over the actual negotiating—he had included in the proposal he had shown the Europeans the suggestion that the Americans abandon Gorazde, the last of the eastern enclaves whose “safety” leaders in the United Nations Security Council had guaranteed two years before. The source of that suggestion was clear. “The Pentagon,” Holbrooke writes, “insisted it would not defend enclaves and slivers of land if it were called upon later to implement a peace agreement.” That the idea that such an abandonment—which, less than a month after the massacres at Srebrenica and Zepa, would have created another 40,000 Muslim refugees from Gorazde—could have been included in an initial American proposal is almost grotesque. Bosnian leaders would certainly have rejected this proposal out of hand, as Holbrooke rightly did.

As the world soon learned, Holbrooke’s first negotiating trip to Sarajevo was interrupted by a horrible accident on the treacherous Mount Igman road, which he and his team had been forced to travel because General Mladic would not guarantee their safety if they flew into the capital. An armored personnel carrier tumbled off the road and down a hillside, and ammunition stored within exploded, killing three senior officials. This accident, of which Holbrooke gives a horrific and moving account, may well be considered one of his “seemingly disparate events,” for it had the effect, he says, of “steeling” the will of senior American officials on Bosnia, leaving them determined to push for a solution. And given the evident confusion and disagreements that had paralyzed US policy up to then, this in effect meant placing more power in Holbrooke’s hands.

The last of those “seemingly disparate events,” however, Holbrooke owed to the Serbs, who on August 28, 1995, lofted into Sarajevo’s Marshal Tito Boulevard a number of 120-millimeter mortar shells. Landing within sight of Markela Marketplace, where sixty-eight people had died in a famous mortar attack in 1994, the shells dismembered thirty-seven Sarajevans. That day residents of Logavina Street, the subject of Barbara Demick’s beautifully rendered portrait of Sarajevo during the war, were hit particularly hard. “Five people in the immediate neighborhood were killed,” Demick writes.

Merima Ziga, 42, a legal secretary…was feeling ill and left work to see a doctor. Heading down Marshal Tito at midday, she walked directly into the trajectory of an incoming 120-mm mortar shell and was killed instantly….

Adnan Ibrahimagic, 17, was supposed to have left town the Friday before to join his mother in Vienna. He had balked at the last minute, declaring to the neighbors, “I can’t live without Sarajevo.” And so it was that on Monday, he went downtown with a friend to pick up a take-out lunch of Sarajevo’s cevapcici at a shop across from the market hall. Adnan ended up featured in the most widely published photograph of the massacre, a poster boy for genocide.

The gruesome picture showed his skinny teen-age body, dead, slumped over a railing outside the cevapcici shop. His friend, 16-year-old Dario Glouhi, had both his legs amputated in an attempt by surgeons to save his life. He died anyway.

Holbrooke, who had just arrived in Paris for talks with Bosnian leaders, saw the implications of the mortar attack with great clarity: “The brutal stupidity of the Bosnian Serbs had given us an unexpected last chance to do what should have been done three years earlier. I told [Strobe Talbott, at that moment acting secretary of state] to start NATO air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs—not minor retaliatory ‘pinpricks,’ but a serious and, if possible, sustained air campaign.”

It had been the key issue of the war, whether or not to initiate such a “sustained air campaign.” Now the entire cacophony of officials with a voice in Bosnia—American, European, Bosnian, United Nations—could be heard. Holbrooke’s account of the means by which hundreds of NATO warplanes were at last launched against the Bosnian Serbs, four years after the war’s outset, is fascinating and provocative. “As our negotiations gathered momentum,” he writes,

almost everyone came to believe that the bombing had been part of a master plan. But in fact in none of the discussions prior to our mission had we considered bombing as part of a negotiating strategy. Lake himself never mentioned it during his trip to Europe, and in private he had shown great ambivalence toward it. The military was more than skeptical; most were opposed…. It took an outrageous Bosnian Serb action to trigger Operation Deliberate Force—but once launched it made a huge difference.

This last, of course, is an understatement, for the NATO warplanes not only “moved” the negotiations forward, they also did much to redraw the map itself. During two weeks beginning at the end of August, NATO pilots flew 3400 sorties, destroying Serb antiaircraft batteries, radar sites, ammunition depots, command bunkers, bridges. Meanwhile the Croats and Bosnians pressed their combined attacks in northwest Bosnia, conquering town after town. Indeed, NATO planes had in effect become the Croatian and Bosnian air force, ensuring that they would succeed, in just over two weeks, in changing the balance of power in Bosnia. By the end of September—less than three months after Tudjman launched his “Operation Storm”—the Serbs had lost enough territory to bring their holdings from 70 percent to not more than half, about what was envisaged in the Contact Group plan.

In view of the central role of the bombing, and Holbrooke’s dogged personal advocacy of it since he joined the administration, his comment—that “in none of the discussions prior to our mission had we considered bombing as part of a negotiating strategy”—seems a bit peculiar, and his assertion that “Lake himself never mentioned it during his trip to Europe” is simply not credible. For three years the issue of NATO air strikes had been central in American disagreements with Europeans over Bosnia. How could Lake, the President’s envoy bringing a new and “comprehensive” peace plan, “never mention it”?

More interesting is Holbrooke’s treatment of the other “players” in arriving at the decision to bomb. From the beginning, Strobe Talbott considered a strong military response “essential.” The President, meantime, vacationing in Wyoming, passed word to “hit them hard.” And, in another of Holbrooke’s “seemingly disparate ele-ments,” UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who could be expected to oppose all air strikes, happened to be in flight on a commercial aircraft and unreachable, and thus his then deputy, Kofi Annan, found himself in charge, and, earning the administration’s considerable gratitude, “instructed the UN’s civilian officials and military commanders to relinquish for a limited period of time their authority to veto air strikes in Bosnia.” (Holbrooke says that Annan “won the job [of secretary general] on that day.”)

In any event, the one UN military commander who could be counted on to block the bombing, General Bernard Janvier, happened to be absent from his command as well, and in this case “the key” passed to Lieutenant General Rupert Smith of Great Britain, not only a determined believer in bombing but an officer who had actually sent NATO planes to attack the Serbs three months before. General Smith took action that was critical to making bombing possible. He moved quickly to clear remaining UN troops from exposed positions where Serbs might take them hostage—in particular, he succeeded in withdrawing the last of the British soldiers from Gorazde, without alerting Serb commanders. He also prepared an artillery attack to coincide with the air strikes in order to suppress Serb cannon and mortar fire.

Holbrooke, though he acknowledges earlier that General Smith “had tried to put a more muscular policy into effect,” gives the British general no credit for making way for the air strikes—the “last British troops had been removed from the Gorazde enclave just before the bombing began,” he writes, as if it happened by coincidence. In doing so he mischaracterizes an important part of the history leading up to the bombing. Instead, he describes himself furiously working the telephones during a dinner party at Pamela Harriman’s US Embassy in Paris—a wonderful scene, true, and obviously irresistible to the memoirist, but one that gives an emphasis that is not entirely true to the facts.

By mid-September, Washington officials were pressing once more, privately and publicly, for the Croats and Bosnians to halt their offensives. Ambassador Galbraith was ordered to deliver an official message to the Croatian defense minister urging the Croats to stop their military advances. But the US government was divided, and Holbrooke and his team, with their eyes always on the map, pressed the Croats and Bosnians to keep going. According to Holbrooke, intelligence “experts” in Washington (the quotation marks are his) had once again miscalculated the situation on the ground, assuming that with each Croat and Bosnian victory on the battlefield Milosevic was coming closer to sending his regular Yugoslav Army to intervene—and thus the message from Washington, as an unnamed official told The New York Times, was “quit while you’re ahead.”

While administration officials went on making blunt public statements that they wanted the fighting halted, Holbrooke never had, he says, “a clear instruction” to that effect. And meanwhile the negotations continued while the bombs fell and the Croats and Bosnians pushed back the Serbs. On September 17, Holbrooke sat down with President Tudjman and told him frankly that “the offensive had great value to the negotiations.”

It would be much easier to retain at the table what had been won on the battlefield than to get the Serbs to give up territory they had controlled for several years. I urged Tudjman to take Sanski Most, Prijedor, and Bosanski Novi—all important towns that had become worldwide symbols of ethnic cleansing. If they were captured before we opened negotiations on territory, they would remain under Federation control—otherwise it would be difficult to regain them in a negotiation.

But a critical decision lay ahead. Even as the two men spoke, the road to Banja Luka lay open before the Croat armies: Banja Luka, the largest city in Bosnian Serbia—the heart of “Republika Srpska”—and the city where the Serbs had not only raped and tortured and murdered thousands of Muslims, as elsewhere, but had forced them to wear white armbands, like the yellow stars of the Jews. By his own account, Holbrooke told Tudjman bluntly, “Mr. President, I urge you to go as far as you can, but not to take Banja Luka.” The reasons? Capturing the city “would generate over two hundred thousand additional [Bosnian Serb] refugees,” and, more tellingly, “the city was unquestionably within the Serb portion of Bosnia [and] the Federation would have to return it to the Serbs in any peace negotiation.”

If one had to pick a moment where Bill Clinton and his officials—where America, under their leadership—chose between supporting peace or supporting justice in the Balkans, it would be here, during this conversation between a senior American diplomat and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia. For at this moment, very briefly, two roads lay open: one of those roads, the road around Banja Luka, which Richard Holbrooke dutifully urged on Tudjman, would leave in place Republika Srpska—Bosnian Serbia—and in doing so would make necessary a final map in which, as Holbrooke says, there would be a “Serb portion of Bosnia.” This solution—the “51-49 percent solution”—was already “on the table,” a product of negotiations conducted among the “Contact Group”—the United States, the Europeans, and the Russians. It could well bring peace to Bosnia but doubtless little justice.

Another solution presented itself to Tudjman and Holbrooke as they sat in the Croat’s Presidential Palace, in the Louis Quinze chairs. This was the conquest of Banja Luka and with it the destruction of Republika Srpska—the destruction of General Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, and the other sinister ideologists of ethnic cleansing—and the reconstruction of some sort of integral Bosnia. Shattered as it was by NATO bombs, ignored by its godfather, Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, the Serb Republic of Bosnia could not survive the loss of its largest city.

For the United States, the risks of such a course (not just the refugees, or the possibility that Milosevic might finally feel forced to move his troops, but the greater involvement it would demand of America in building a new state) would have been great, and the responsibility heavy. In the event, Holbrooke, as talented a diplomat as the US has, pushed for what his president had demanded, and what his instincts required: the “quick diplomatic solution.” And for Holbrooke, of course, as his fine and provocative book shows us, the solution would not be quick but arduous and demanding and his skills at Dayton and after would be rightly praised.

As part of his Dayton agreement, Holbrooke managed to include some of the benefits a conquest of Banja Luka might have brought. Mladic and Karadzic, or so it was agreed, would be sent to an international tribunal and tried and punished as war criminals. So would many other of the less well known villains of the war. And, above all, the refugees would be allowed to return home, no matter what part of Bosnia they came from. Even if the agreement might seem to rest upon a quasi partition, Muslims would still be able to return to their houses in the Serb entity, just as Serbs would be free to resettle in Federation lands.

Though Holbrooke inserted within the broad lineaments of the Dayton agreement—an agreement that in outline looks very much like ethnic partition—this liberal vision of peace and justice, that vision has remained until now mostly inert. Mladic and Karadzic live freely as do many other war criminals; very few refugees have returned. Though Western—and among them, American—troops occupy the land, they have been unwilling to do much in the service of this part of Holbrooke’s vision.

When Holbrooke writes that one of the critics of his diplomacy has “confused the Dayton agreement with the way it has been implemented”—as if these were two separate entities, with two separate realities—one wonders whether he ever thinks back to that moment when Banja Luka lay open to the armies that could have seized it and might have brought to Bosnia a very different future. Only by examining how Americans finally “brought peace to Bosnia” can we hope to suggest an answer.

This is the ninth in a series of articles.

  1. 12

    See Showdown (Simon andSchuster, 1996), p. 252.

  2. 13

    See Silber and Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, p. 352.

  3. 14

    Silber and Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, p. 352.

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