On May 22, 1995, fifteen months after Bosnian Serbs—bowing to an ultimatum from Western leaders infuriated by the televised carnage of sixty-eight dismembered bodies at Sarajevo’s Markela marketplace—had withdrawn their tanks and cannons and mortars from the mountains and ridges above the city,1 heavily armed Serb soldiers in camouflage uniforms forced their way into a United Nations “weapons collection point” and, strolling like leisurely weekend shoppers among artillery pieces and armored vehicles, picked out from the tempting array two cannons. Laughing off the protests of humiliated French UN “blue helmets” charged with “monitoring” Serb weapons, they hitched them up to their trucks and drove out the gate.
The following day Serb troops visited other “collection points” and made off with more weapons. On the day after that, General Ratko Mladic, the swaggering, bull-necked commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, ordered his rearmed and repositioned artillerymen to unleash on Sarajevo a merciless barrage, and they complied by battering the city with nearly three thousand shells. Some were fired from cannons and mortars they hadn’t even bothered to remove from the charge of the United Nations “blue helmets”; the Serb troops took pleasure in destroying the city shell by shell from under the noses of those who were meant to protect it.
On May 24, Lieutenant General Rupert Smith, an unusually imaginative and strong-willed British officer who had succeeded General Sir Michael Rose as commander of United Nations ground troops in Bosnia, announced another, more pointed ultimatum. If the Serbs did not cease firing on Sarajevo, NATO fighter planes would attack them the following day. And when the Serbs, as was their custom, contemptuously ignored the United Nations order, General Smith startled General Mladic and much of the rest of the world by doing what everyone least expected: he sent NATO planes to attack.
Nor did he send them to drop a bomb or two on some isolated mortar or tank—the kind of timid and vaguely risible “pinprick” response that the hapless General Rose, on the few occasions he found himself unable to avoid ordering air attacks, had favored. To the intense annoyance and embarrassment of General Mladic, General Smith had the temerity to send his fighter planes swooping down at four twenty in the afternoon to bomb two ammunition bunkers near the Serbs’ so-called “capital” of Pale, right in self-declared Serb President Radovan Karadzic’s backyard.
The furious General Mladic immediately got on the radio and ordered his soldiers, perched as they were on the hills and ridges surrounding all six of the United Nations-designated “safe areas”—Bihac, Gorazde, Tuzla, Zepa, Srebrenica, and Sarajevo itself—to unleash their guns on the towns, and this (with the exception of Zepa) they promptly did. They pounded the Srebrenica city center with half a dozen well-placed rounds and lofted into Tuzla a mortar shell that exploded among a crowd of young people who were hanging out on a cobblestone street before a popular pizza joint, killing seventy-five teenagers (whose shattered remains went unobserved by any television camera and who thus remained, unlike the celebrated sixty-eight dead of Sarajevo, a little-known statistic).
General Smith didn’t hesitate: at half past ten the following morning he sent NATO warplanes back to Pale to bomb the remaining six bunkers in the depot. And, with that, General Mladic ordered his Bosnian Serb soldiers to take a step anticipated by virtually all the international leaders involved in Bosnia—UN special envoy Yasushi Akashi, his military commander, French General Bernard Janvier, President Bill Clinton (who had been pushing the allies relentlessly for air strikes), the leaders of Great Britain, France, and other allied powers (who opposed air strikes because they had “troops on the ground”), as well as General Smith himself.
Mladic ordered his soldiers to surround the outgunned and outnumbered United Nations troops and take them hostage. And within hours people around the world turned on their television sets to see the soldiers of France, Britain, and various other proud Western countries chained to hangars, ammunition depots, bridges, and other strategic targets that NATO might be tempted to bomb. “It is not us who will carry out the executions,” one of Dr. Karadzic’s advisers warned reporters, “but NATO.”
As Tim Judah points out in his book The Serbs, this vivid display was in large part a well-planned propaganda exercise, designed specifically for the cameras:
In fact many of the prisoners had been chained up only during the filming. One was teased later as he drank beer with his guards who said that he had caught a suntan while being forced to pose. The propaganda value of such clips was obvious—its commercial value was even greater. Dragan Bozanic, the political editor of TV-Pale, had sold the film in an auction to the international news agencies with offices in Pale.
Not for the first time Bosnia had become a hall of mirrors. For despite the teasing over suntans Bosnian Serb soldiers had indeed taken prisoner some 374 United Nations troops, and as his men drank beer and laughed with the “blue helmets” General Ratko Mladic loudly vowed to execute them if General Smith sent his planes to attack.
This “UN hostage crisis,” as the press inevitably christened it, was surely the most anticipated and long-awaited crisis in the history of the war, for its politically intimidating specter had dominated the imaginations of Western policymakers since their troops had arrived, under United Nations aegis, to begin accompanying “humanitarian shipments” in late 1992. It had begun to loom larger in Spring 1993, when Western countries, in order to prevent a Bosnian surrender and possible massacre in the eastern enclave of Srebrenica, had declared five of the enclaves (and later Sarajevo itself) “safe areas” and interposed between the Muslim besieged and the Serb besieger small, lightly armed contingents of a few hundred United Nations troops. These were the “blue helmets” who were deployed without adequate arms, without a clearly defined mission beyond “deterring” a Serb attack, and who found themselves at the mercy of Serb gunners who could (and often did) block and turn back vital shipments of food, fuel, and other supplies.
The specter loomed larger still in February 1994, when Western countries, after the Serbs bombed the Markela marketplace, had stationed a handful of UN troops on Serb territory above Sarajevo as “arms monitors.” And it first assumed a terrible reality in April and December 1994, when ferocious Serb attacks on the “safe areas” of Gorazde and Bihac forced a very reluctant General Rose to undertake “pinprick bombing” of a few “smoking guns” and the Serbs for the first time responded by seizing a considerable number of UN troops.
During the last days of May 1995, however, the Serbs faced, in General Smith, an antagonist determined to push ahead and prove that the Serbs’ threat to execute the UN troops was in fact no threat at all—for what would it do but call down on the Serbs the wrath of the world? Smith was determined to call Mladic’s bluff and, by so doing, to destroy the “air strike- hostage” cycle that was now paralyzing Western policy in Bosnia. Smith proposed, as he put it, to “break the machine.” The UN general’s attempt to do so brought clearly into the open the tangle of public posturing and private reluctance and fear that lay at the heart of Western policy in Bosnia.
Less than three months before, during the first weekend in March, the poet-psychiatrist Dr. Radovan Karadzic and the unusual group of intellectual-politicians who were his political colleagues (including Vice President Nikola Koljevic, the ardent Shakespeare scholar, and Biljana Plavsic, the biologist who delighted in seeing her image painted on Serbian tanks), together with the camouflage-garbed General Mladic and his highest staff and intelligence officers, welcomed to the resort hotel on the snowy heights of Mount Jahorina their counterparts and longtime sponsors from Belgrade for two days of serious discussion. Despite the beauty of their surroundings—it was down Jahorina’s steep slopes that, a mere decade before, the great skiers had plunged, battling among themselves, as the world watched, for Olympic medals—Serb leaders from both sides of the Drina found themselves in a less than triumphant mood.
When, three years before, on March 27, 1992, the officers of the national Yugoslav Peoples Army had launched their intricate and well-planned campaign to dismember Bosnia, the Serbs had counted on a short, intense, and successful war. And indeed they had managed, during six weeks of bombarding undefended cities and towns with tanks and heavy artillery, to seize and occupy nearly seventy percent of Bosnian territory. For Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian president, had at first organized no army, fearing to provoke the Serbs and trusting that the countries of the “international community” would step forward as one to defend a newly recognized state. But the international community—apart from imposing on the Bosnians an arms embargo that had been voted by the United Nations six months before, and that now prevented them from obtaining weapons with which to defend themselves—debated and condemned and did, on the whole, nothing at all.
By the end of May 1992, the soldiers of the newly rechristened, and supposedly independent, Bosnian Serb Army had conquered all of western Bosnia, except for Bihac, and much of the East, bordering Serbia, apart from the enclaves of Tuzla, Cerska, Zepa, and Srebrenica. At this point, as Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both write in their excellent analysis Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime,
The Serbs took their time consolidating their gains. They concentrated on ethnically cleansing their newly won territory. The summer and autumn of 1992 saw massive population movements. By the end of the year, two million people, nearly half the population of Bosnia, were refugees. The majority were Muslims. They were herded towards Bosnian-government-held territory in central Bosnia and towards the enclaves.
However impressive the scope of this “ethnic cleansing”—most of it efficiently accomplished by paramilitaries who specialized in murder, rape, and various other forms of terror—by the time they met on Mount Jahorina three years later Serb politicians and officers must have been able to see the flaws in their strategy. Triumphant in victory, the Serbs had assumed, as Honig and Both put it, that “it would only be a matter of time before [they] would get around to dealing with the enclaves.”
So instead of crushing the thoroughly unprepared and defenseless Bosnian government, as the world’s leaders had clearly expected they would, the Serbs, in order to accomplish their ideological goal of ethnic cleansing, had left aside their two prime strategic tasks: conquering the enclaves—several of which, including Srebrenica, stood near Serbia’s border and thus had to be taken in order to secure “Greater Serbia”—and forcing the Bosnian leaders to sue for peace. The delay, and the spectacular killings and tortures and rapes that were an integral part of the Serbs’ vast ethnic cleansing campaign—including, in August 1992, televised pictures of emaciated Bosnians staring out from behind the barbed wire of Serb-run concentration camps—had caught the attention of the world and forced reluctant Western leaders to respond. And though the Europeans undertook only a modest and “neutral” effort to, as the phrase went, “feed the victims,” even this minor intervention, and the odd contortions and initiatives which it had gradually imposed on leaders of the West, had managed to stalemate the Serb advance. According to Chuck Sudetic in his powerfully written book Blood and Vengeance:
All of [General Mladic’s] earlier efforts to force an end to the war had failed because intervention by the UN and NATO, however meager, had forced him to fold his hand. His bombardment of Sarajevo had failed to bring Muslim leaders to their knees, largely thanks to the UN military and refugee mission. The Muslims were still hanging on to Srebrenica and Zepa thanks to General Morillon and the UN. The attack on Gorazde had been stymied by NATO.
The Bosnian Serbs could not afford to be stymied. Their chief sponsor, Slobodan Milosevic, who was desperate to persuade Western leaders to lift the economic sanctions that had crippled his economy, had grown furious with the intransigence of his one-time protégés. Flouting Milosevic’s will, the Bosnian Serbs had rejected both the Vance-Owen and the so-called Contact Group plans, both of them diplomatic proposals to end the war through partition along ethnic lines. Milosevic in turn imposed restrictions on the Bosnian Serbs, significantly reducing the amount of weapons and supplies that made their way across the Drina.
More important, the Bosnian Serbs, though they far outstripped the Bosnian army in military equipment and training, had long been aware that they lacked the manpower to fight an extended war. Although the Serbs had launched their assault with seventy to eighty thousand men, the Bosnians now had three times that. True, the Serbs had been trained and equipped by the Yugoslav People’s Army, while fewer than half of the Bosnians had effective weapons; but as Serb soldiers, forced into the thankless task of guarding an enormously extended and vulnerable front line, or watching over and occasionally lobbing a few shells into the Muslim “safe areas,” began to desert and to ignore their draft call-ups, strongly motivated Bosnians—many of them refugees or orphans—filled the ranks of the Bosnian government’s army. And that growing army gradually became a more effective and well-organized fighting force. Most important, the Bosnians, slowly, surreptitiously, but, to their antagonists, very obviously, had begun to find ways to acquire the weapons they so desperately needed.
Beginning in the spring of 1994, heavy unmarked cargo planes descended nightly from the black sky over Zagreb airport and taxied slowly to outlying hangars, where uniformed men silently awaited them. The men ran forward, threw open the planes’ heavy doors, and began silently unloading their precious cargos: crates of assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, ammunition. After Croatian soldiers had put aside a third or more of the equipment (the Croatian army’s customary fee for playing middleman), the men hoisted what crates remained into heavy trucks, and soon the convoy set off for Bosnia, the final destination of a journey that had begun far to the east—in the vast and largely American-stocked arms warehouses of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The secret airlift, which by mid-1994 had grown into a highly organized operation that carried tons of arms from Turkey and Saudi Arabia as well as Iran, had been built on the Washington Agreement of March 1994 between the Bosnian Muslims and Croats, thus far the sole American diplomatic triumph of a war that had seen United States leaders first abnegate responsibility, then posture shamelessly, and finally quarrel impotently with their supposed allies. Bill Clinton, having attacked President Bush for doing little to stop the war, had proposed that the West support the Bosnians by a policy of “lift and strike”—lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnians and, until they could defend themselves with newly acquired weapons, striking against the Serbs with NATO fighter planes.
The British, French, and other allies would have none of it: they had “troops on the ground” and the success of their “humanitarian mission” required that they maintain a strict neutrality. If President Clinton (who refused to contribute a single soldier) wished to do something constructive, they said, he should persuade the Bosnians to accept a reasonable settlement—one, that is, that involved partition of their country—rather than take it upon himself to torpedo the only one available, as he had Vance-Owen.
If, on the other hand, the Americans insisted on intensifying the violence of the war by supplying the Bosnians with weapons, the Europeans warned, they could find themselves forced to withdraw their peacekeeping troops. And this, as they knew, the Americans would seek to avoid at all costs; for President Clinton, as the leader of NATO, had given his solemn pledge that if his allies withdrew from Bosnia—sure to be a dangerous and bloody operation—he would support them by dispatching tens of thousands of American ground troops.2 However much the President may have wished that a policy of “lift and strike” would “solve the problem from 20,000 feet,” as the European negotiator David Owen derisively put it—and it was often unclear whether Clinton really wanted to undertake that policy or simply make use of the Europeans’ rejection of it to excuse his own inaction—he could not impose it without also muddying the feet of some twenty-five thousand American troops in Bosnia, the very step “lift and strike” had been designed to avoid. He was checkmated.
So the Americans pushed for “robust action”—NATO air strikes—and the United Nations, under whose nominal authority the European troops served, resisted approval of such strikes. Against this background, three weeks after the Serbs shelled Markela marketplace in February 1994 and only ten days after they withdrew their heavy weapons from the precincts of Sarajevo, the Americans announced in Washington that thanks to months of patient cajoling and threatening by Special Envoy Charles Redman and Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith, Bosnian Muslims and Croats had come together at the White House and signed an agreement to end their war and establish a federation. The Washington Agreement of March 1, 1994, not only put an end to a particularly savage and bloody war between Croats and Bosnians and suggested a foundation for a workable Bosnian state; it made it possible for the Bosnian Muslims to receive through Croatia a “secret” but much greater supply of weapons from the nations, most of them Muslim, that had long wished to send them.
There remained, of course, the matter of the arms embargo, which had been in effect since the beginning of the war. During the last week of April, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman inquired of Ambassador Galbraith what his government’s “view would be” if Croatia resumed transshipment of weapons to Bosnia. The ambassador, well aware of the Europeans’ sensitivities, passed the inquiry back to Washington. On April 27, President Clinton, Anthony Lake, his special adviser for national security affairs, and Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state, conferred aboard Air Force One—they were returning from Nixon’s funeral—and the President decided to instruct his envoy to inform President Tudjman that on the matter of the arms shipments he had received “no instructions.” Having delivered this message but apparently uncertain whether the Croatian leader had caught the verbal wink, Ambassador Galbraith took it upon himself to advise Tudjman that he should “focus not only on what I had said yesterday, but what I had not said.”
Two years later, testifying before senators of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Talbott explained the subtle diplomatic considerations implicit in the “no instructions” instructions:
If we had said yes to the Croatians—that is, if we had explicitly, affirmatively approved the transshipment it would have put us in the position of actively and unilaterally supporting a violation of the arms embargo. The public disclosure of such a posture would have caused severe strains with our allies who had troops on the ground…. It would have triggered the precipitous withdrawal of UNPROFOR and that in turn would have required a substantial US troop deployment as part of a potentially very dangerous and costly NATO extraction effort.
…If we had explicitly disapproved of the transshipments… we would have exacerbated the already desperate military situation of the Bosnians and very likely doomed the Federation of Moslems and Croats.
The senators, not entirely convinced—particularly since many of them had been pressing, with little success, for President Clinton simply to lift the embargo on his own—concluded in their report that with the “no instructions” decision American policy had in fact “changed from one of telling other countries that the United Nations arms embargo must be obeyed to one of looking the other way as arms flowed from Iran and other countries into Bosnia and Croatia.”3
Indeed, some officials within the administration clearly wanted to go further in supporting the Croats. As the senators wrote in their report, a few months after Galbraith had given “the green light” to Tudjman (this was Ambassador Redman’s term) the Director of Strategic Plans and Policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff—though the senators do not name him, it was in fact General Wesley Clark, a native Arkansan who attended Oxford with Clinton—flew to Sarajevo to meet with Bosnian leaders, including President Izetbegovic, and United Nations officers. In these meetings, General Clark, who is now Supreme Allied Commander of NATO,
moved seamlessly from exploring the implications of a unilateral lifting of the embargo to the question of whether one could rely upon the clandestine flow of embargo-breaking arms and thus avoid UNPROFOR’s departure…. [The general] expressed a willingness to encourage greater third-party arms flows in violation of the UN arms embargo and/or to engage directly in covert embargo-busting.4
Thousands of tons of small arms and other light equipment were by now passing through the pipeline from Iran to Croatia, considerably fattening the Croatian arsenal. In November 1994, Gojko Susak, the hard-line Croatian Defense Minister, wrote to Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutsch and asked if the Americans might provide his army with trainers and equipment. According to Ed Vulliamy, who has seen copies of these letters, “Mr. Deutsch replied explaining that the embargo prevented such direct involvement, but that it could be organised through a private consultancy.”5
That very month the Croats, under a license from the US State Department, signed a contract with Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI), an Alexandria, Virginia, consulting firm made up of retired high-ranking American officers. By January 1995 fifteen former officers—including General Carl Vuono, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs and an expert on artillery warfare—had begun training Croatian officers at the Petar Zrinjski Military Academy in Zagreb.
When the story surfaced in the press, General Ed Soyster, who had served for three years as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and was now a Military Professional Resources vice president, repeatedly denied that MPRI’s officers were providing the Croats with military intelligence or intelligence contacts, or even training them in military tactics. “To do so,” he said, would “violate the international embargo against military equipment or services reaching Croatia.”6 Whatever the officers were teaching in Zagreb, however, the American training, as well as the increased flow of arms the Croats were receiving, clearly gave Tudjman new confidence in his army. In February, in an ominous sign for the Serbs, he demanded that the 12,000 UN “blue helmets,” who for three years had separated the two armies in Serb-occupied Karjina, be withdrawn.
During the second week of February 1995, American F-18 fighters reportedly accompanied a C-130 transport plane as it flew through Bosnian airspace to the eastern enclave of Tuzla, where it secretly dropped, by parachute, crates of communication gear, radar equipment, and, according to some accounts, anti-tank weapons. Though the Bosnians were still in desperate need of tanks and other heavy weapons, the communication equipment was vital, as Honig and Both note, in enabling “the Bosnian Army to coordinate offensive operations between larger units.”7
By the spring of 1995, then, the Americans had finally come decisively, if secretly, off the fence and, despite the maps that appeared every day in the world’s newspapers testifying to Serb domination of Bosnia, the Muslims and Croats were growing steadily stronger. General Ratko Mladic, as he and his officers gazed worriedly at this new alliance from their perch on Mount Jahorina that March, must have known that his Serbs were running out of time.
A few miles down from the mountain, in battered Sarajevo—its cratered streets glittering with broken glass, its high-rises blackened and pockmarked, with wisps of dirty plastic trailing from shattered windows—General Rupert Smith of the United Nations Protection Force consulted his staff officers, studied his maps and his daily reports, and came to much the same conclusion: General Mladic, with time running against him, must move to end the war during the coming summer of 1995. As Chuck Sudetic writes, the Serbs’ strategy would be obvious: “to return to their original war aims.”
The first goal was to create hardship in Sarajevo in a bid to convince Muslim leaders that further resistance was futile; the second was to overrun the Srebrenica, Zepa, Gorazde and Bihac safe areas in order to make possible the eventual merger of the Serb-held land in Bosnia with Serbia.
But to accomplish this, Sudetic writes, the Serbs “had to first neutralize the UN and NATO.” General Mladic—a gruff, bearish man whose blue eyes and savage manner had made him something of a sex symbol among many Serbian women—now faced the same task that confronted his antagonist, the handsome parachute officer General Rupert Smith: he had to “break the machine.”
And so the Serbs “put pressure” on the enclaves, cutting off food and supplies—vital not only to the miserable captive populations, swollen as they were with penniless refugees, but to the United Nations contingents as well. And in May the Serbs shelled Sarajevo more heavily than at any time during the preceding year. Then General Smith sent his planes on their unexpectedly audacious attack, and Mladic seized his hostages. And the game began.
For months Smith had been waiting for just this moment, outlining to every United Nations dignitary or allied official who passed through Sarajevo his “thesis”—here summarized by Honig and Both—that “the international community” must allow him
to bomb targets other than “smoking guns” and “escalate to success,” or, if they were not prepared to do so, “the machine would break.” In the latter case, air power would lose its deterrent effect on the Serbs and, if the international community wanted UNPROFOR to continue to function, it would be forced to create another, better machine with a broader range of capabilities and more secure bases for the UN troops in Bosnia.
Smith’s strategy, at its heart, was a political one, aimed less at the Serbs than at the Western powers themselves, and therein lay both its brilliance and—as it turned out—its weakness. The agreement on “safe areas” may have helped to prevent a massacre in 1993 but increasingly, as Serbs shelled the enclosures and Muslim troops used them as bases for raids, they had become zones of conflict. For the UN troops, the safe areas had become, in effect, “reservations” in which the Serbs, when they attacked, could seize Western hostages because Western leaders, in christening these enclaves “safe,” had failed to muster the will or the resources to defend them. Designating the safe areas two years before had been a political, not a military act; its real audience was not the Serbs—they could see the troops supplied were inadequate, and would depend on the Serb soldiers who encircled the enclaves to let pass sufficient weapons, supplies, and reinforcements. The real audience was people in the West, particularly Americans, who applauded what they saw as their leaders’ strong assertion of will.
How then to transform the safe areas from a political pretense to a military reality? Smith’s “thesis” implied two strategic phases: the first, which he called “escalating to success,” he had begun by aggressively launching air strikes—air strikes, what is more, directed at Pale itself—in the full knowledge that the Serbs would respond by taking hostages. He proposed now to press on with more air strikes—ignoring the hostages and calling Mladic’s bluff, in effect gambling the the Serbs would not risk harming the “blue helmets,” perhaps the one action certain to bring down on them a powerful Western response.
However much he may have wanted to pursue this course, however, Smith fully expected a different outcome. Since the Serbs could bring strong political pressure on Western governments by televising pictures of captive British and French soldiers, he understood that his first strategy demanded a steadfastness and political courage that no Western leader was likely to possess. And who could say what would happen if Mladic, against all rational calculation, actually began to execute the hostages?
When Western leaders failed to “escalate to success,” however (and General Smith understood they probably would fail), he would have succeeded in proving—irrefutably, once and for all—that the United Nations’ mission in Bosnia, originally conceived as “humanitarian” but now evolving, rapidly and haphazardly, into “peace enforcement,” was in its present form unworkable. In Smith’s terms, the public reluctance of Western leaders to “escalate to success” would prove that the “machine was broken.” And when they had no alternative but to accept this, Smith and his superior, General Janvier, would be ready with an alternative: another, indisputably workable “machine.”
And so it happened that on May 24, just as General Smith was announcing his ultimatum in Sarajevo, his commanding officer was presenting to the ambassadors of the Security Council in New York the alternative to “escalating to success”—what he and Smith had called, when they had met with Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in Paris ten days before, “measures to enhance UNPROFOR’s effectiveness and security”—which entailed, in the words of Honig and Both,
making UN personnel less vulnerable through redeployment. Janvier and Smith proposed concentrating their troops in central Bosnia by withdrawing their most vulnerable personnel from the weapons collection point in Bosnian Serb territory…and by greatly reducing the UN presence in the safe areas. It was better to have just a few observers and forward air controllers in the enclaves who could call in air power when the safe areas were violated. This kind of presence…would counteract the main political weakness affecting the resolve of governments to use force: the vulnerability of UNPROFOR to hostage-taking by the Bosnian Serbs.
Smith’s strategy to redeploy the United Nations troops was not only militarily and logically unassailable; it implicitly identified the true source of Western leaders’ weakness and confusion in Bosnia: their lack of will. By in effect removing UN troops to “safe areas” of their own, Smith would dramatically reduce the risk of harm to them and thereby the risk of political damage to the leaders who had sent them. He would thereby free Western leaders to make use of their fighter bombers to attack the Serbs—and finally to add to their hobbled, halting diplomacy the critical ingredient of military power.
As General Janvier discovered to his chagrin, however, amid the tumult of angry voices assailing him from all sides of the Security Council, he and General Smith had failed to anticipate one small detail.
In her furious response to Janvier’s presentation—which she declared “flatly and completely wrong”8—United States Ambassador Madeleine Albright, long one of the Clinton Administration’s leading “hard-liners” on Bosnia, embodied the deep contradiction of US policy. Perhaps the key figure in creating the “safe areas” fiction in the first place—which she had touted as a strong response to Serb attacks on Srebrenica and other safe areas but which in the end had done much to prevent the bombing she so often demanded—Mrs. Albright now accused General Janvier of wanting to “dump the safe areas.” Created as a symbol of strength, the safe areas, for Mrs. Albright and other politicians, were still seen as precisely that.
According to Honig and Both, “Albright told Janvier that while the status quo was untenable and a more effective and robust UNPROFOR required, she could not accept a withdrawal from the safe areas….” She refused to see that such a withdrawal had become the only politically workable way to make such “effective and robust” action possible. She could not give up the fiction of the safe areas for a reason that General Smith, with all his political acumen, had not anticipated: if their creation had been politically inspired, they had now become a symbol that could be made real only through an act of political courage. She must have understood, and certainly President Clinton would have, that such a step would be very difficult to explain to suspicious congressmen and commentators in the press, and even more difficult to justify as the “robust” policy the administration had for so long, and without risk, been advocating.
The Americans wished to go on “talking tough” and demanding air strikes but were still unwilling to take any political risks to make such a step possible. And as Honig and Both write, when European political leaders began to intimate they might take the extreme step of withdrawing their forces from Bosnia altogether, thus making possible the bombing the US had so long demanded, Mrs. Albright “changed her tune”; for in that case the administration would be forced to send to Bosnia tens of thousands of troops and many of them would likely die.
Although Mrs. Albright [now] stopped calling for further air strikes, she still lamely insisted that the UN Secretary General should consider the cost of backing down in the face of the Bosnian Serbs.
The vehemence of Ambassador Albright’s reaction to General Janvier’s presentation was rivaled only by that of Ambassador Niek Biegman of Holland, several hundred of whose troops now “protected” Srebrenica. Other ambassadors, who understood the logic of General Smith’s redeployment plan but had always opposed the “robust action” that would result from it, were glad to let the American and the Dutchman do the talking for them.
While the ambassadors argued and berated Janvier behind the closed doors of the Security Council, General Smith twice sent his planes into Pale to drop their bombs. He watched patiently as the Serbs collected their hostages, and waited for word from his commander in New York. On May 29, four days after he had launched the first air strike, General Smith received his answer from Janvier, in the form of directive 2/95:
The execution of the mandate is secondary to the security of UN personnel. The intention being to avoid loss of life defending positions for their own sake and unnecessary vulnerability to hostage-taking. [Italics added]
In other words, Janvier wrote Smith four days later, “We must definitely avoid any action which may degenerate into confrontation, further escalation of tension and the potential use of air power.” (Italics added)
Convinced he could persuade the Security Council representatives to decrease his soldiers’—their soldiers’—vulnerability and thereby to increase their power, General Janvier had failed. He had hoped to return from New York with permission to supply the eastern enclaves with his helicopters; to create, with his troops, a “ground corridor” into Sarajevo; and to strike with his warplanes at command headquarters, communications centers, bridges, and other strategic targets deep within Bosnian Serb territory. He returned from New York beaten, utterly without hope. His political betters had given him nothing with which to alter his basic predicament or to confront his current dilemma: the three hundred twenty-four of his men, half of them his countrymen, who remained in Serb hands.
Two days later, and a day after Serb troops attacked and seized a Dutch observation post outside Srebrenica—the UN denied the Dutch commander the “close air support” he requested—the French general traveled secretly to the formerly Muslim and now thoroughly “cleansed” city of Zvornik. He entered the Hotel Vidakovac, and sat down and faced Commanding General Ratko Mladic of the Republika Srpska, who listened patiently to his supplicant’s appeals, on behalf of the hostages, to military honor and international reputation, and then placed before him a defiantly blunt document:
1.The Army of Republika Srpska will no longer use force to threaten the life and safety of members of UNPROFOR.
2.UNPROFOR commits to no longer make use of any force which leads to the use of air strikes against targets and territory of Republika Srpska.
3.The signing of this agreement will lead immediately to the freeing of all prisoners of war.
General Janvier did not sign; he didn’t need to. By their refusal to act, the diplomats in New York had gone a long way toward accepting the agreement for him. A few days later, after Janvier brought the document back to the UN headquarters, Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi announced that henceforth Janvier’s men would strictly follow “peacekeeping principles”—that is, launch no further air strikes.
Three days later the Serbs freed half the hostages; within two weeks they had freed them all. As the fifteen thousand men of Srebrenica were very soon to discover, it was General Mladic who had broken the machine.
—This is the fifth in a series of articles.
February 19, 1998
See “Bosnia: The Turning Point,” The New York Review, February 5, 1998, the fourth of the present series of articles, which began with “The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe,” The New York Review, November 20, 1997, “America and the Bosnian Genocide,” The New York Review, December 4, 1997, and “Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster,” The New York Review, December 18, 1997. ↩
NATO officers had concluded, in their “Oplan 40-104,” that a force of 60,000 would be needed to extract the UN soldiers. Such an operation, as Honig and Both write, would “almost certainly involve heavy fighting. The Muslims, afraid of being left to their fate, would stage incidents—block-ading the UN in their bases with women and children, tempting the Serbs to open fire on UN and NATO troops—to get the UN mired in combat. The Serbs would try to lay their hands on as much UNPROFOR equipment as possible.” ↩
The new policy was kept so secret that not only did Ambassador Galbraith make no written record of it, he neglected to inform his CIA station chief—who, noticing planeloads of weapons passing through Zagreb airport, suspected the ambassador was running a convert operation, and so informed his CIA bosses at Langley. No one had told them of the policy either; and their suspicions that the administration was running a White House-based, Iran-contra style “off-the-books” covert action were confirmed by their eavesdropping on the region. The Bosnians were discussing an idea they had suggested to Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke whereby the Turks, Pakistanis, and Saudis would replace the Iranians as their main arms suppliers. ↩
The senators add that the general “twice told the Bosnian officials that he had no authority to promise anything, but the positive tone of his remarks may well have given those officials a stronger impression than he intended.” See “US Actions Regarding Iranian and Other Arms Transfers to the Bosnian Army, 1994-1995,” p. 4. ↩
See Ed Vulliamy, “How the CIA Intercepted SAS Signals,” The Guardian, January 29, 1996. ↩
See Louis J. Salome, “Ex-US Military Officers Assist Croat Army,” Cox News Service, May 26, 1995. ↩
Though the Tuzla airdrops have been widely reported, and are treated as accepted fact by Honig and Both, whose sources within the United Nations and Western ministries seem strong, the matter has been the subject of considerable dispute. Vulliamy, cited above, writes that “the received wisdom is that there were two such drops, on February 10 and 12, spotted by Norwegian UN personnel,” but that “in fact there were four.” In an “internal inquiry,” NATO’s investigators (all of whom were American) claimed the Norwegians had seen civilian traffic in and out of Belgrade—which, as Vulliamy points out, was under sanctions at the time and had no civilian air traffic. ↩
See Roy Gutman, “UN’s Deadly Deal: How troop-hostage talks led to slaughter of Srebrenica,” Newsday, May 29, 1996. ↩