NATO attacks remind experts of U.S. bombing of N. Vietnam

September 12, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The allied airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs are reminding military analysts inside and outside the Pentagon of the extensive bombing raids that North Vietnam absorbed without giving in.

Two weeks and more than 2,000 sorties after the raids began, the Bosnian Serbs have not moved their armor and artillery out of the United Nations-declared safe area around Sarajevo. Their air defense system may be in ruins, their communications all but silenced, their ammunition dumps exploded, but they refuse to be dislodged.

"What does it remind you of?" a senior Pentagon officer asked. "Vietnam."

"This is still being run by committee, a NATO committee," he said. "Originally, they thought you drop a few bombs and that would work. I don't think [the Bosnian Serbs] care how many bridges get blown up. We may never know what makes them 'get it.' They may never 'get it.' "

Recalling the North Vietnamese "waiting us out, figuring we would crack first," Andrew J. Bacevich, executive director of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said:

"It seems some of the same dynamic is at play here. It's the Vietnam thing all over again."

One major difference: Allied commanders, he said, are limiting the scope of the raids in Bosnia for political and diplomatic reasons and are particularly anxious to avoid civilian casualties.

"From the Bosnian Serb perspective," he said, "all that says is, 'If we hang tough, there is the possibility that we will be able to have NATO and the U.N. blink and not follow through.' We are seeing the limits of air power, especially when the purposes are other than to achieve a military solution. We are using air power to send signals, to inch people to the negotiating table, to coerce, all political stuff, and I don't have confidence that it is going to be successful."

Noting the lack of public information on what damage the raids are inflicting on Bosnian Serb targets, he asked: "What the hell are we hitting? And what's the relevance?"

Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman, disputed the parallels with Vietnam, saying: "We are dealing with a completely different type of enemy, in terms of its armaments and technology. We are dealing with an entirely different political situation. We are able to be much more precise and effective [in hitting targets].

"We have always said that we can't bomb our way to victory. But we think it can have an important equalizing effect. It can help compensate for the disadvantages that one side or the other has. We don't think we can bomb them into a peace agreement, and that is not the goal of these strikes."

NATO officials point out that since the raids began Aug. 29, the Bosnian Serb shelling of Sarajevo and other safe havens has all but ended, and the major parties to the war have opened peace talks.

They also point to an apparent split in the Bosnian Serb civilian leadership, which wants the weapons withdrawn from the safe areas, and the military leadership, which refuses to comply.

The pressure on the Bosnian Serb commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, was increased over the weekend, when 13 U.S. cruise missiles were launched against Bosnian Serb military targets. The pressure will be ratcheted up again if the United States sends F-117A "Stealth" fighters to Italy for possible use in future airstrikes.

The NATO strikes, according to allied officials, will continue until the Serbs retreat from the safe areas and allow freedom of passage into and out of Sarajevo. Bosnian Serb tanks and artillery in the exclusion zone are on the target list, but have not been hit heavily, they say, because they are elusive, and it is more cost-effective to bomb larger support targets, like command-and-control posts and ammunition dumps.

"I don't believe the Bosnian Serbs should feel their heavy weapons are safe," said Mr. Bacon. "We have not hit those targets yet. It doesn't mean we won't."

The impact of the airstrikes inevitably will be limited, according to Dov Zakheim, a Bosnia expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, unless they are accompanied by Muslim advances on the ground.

The problem, according to Mr. Zakheim, is that the allies do not want to weaken the Bosnian Serb army so much that the Bosnian Muslims anticipate an outright military victory rather than a negotiated settlement. A Pentagon official confirmed that maintaining a rough balance of power on the ground was part of the formula used for choosing Bosnian Serb targets.

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant defense secretary during the Reagan administration, said: "You have done air power, you have done cruise missiles -- then what do you do? You are trying to get them to talk while bombing them at the same time. That's what we thought in Vietnam. We kept ratcheting up the pressure, not realizing these people were prepared to withstand quite a bit of pressure."

Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, said yesterday that it was incomprehensible for the allies to launch a cruise missile attack while peace negotiations were going on.

He warned that the Bosnian Serbs might have to "reconsider" their participation in the talks.

The American public, Mr. Korb suggested, would be "dumbfounded" if they knew that American pilots had flown most of the 2,500 missions over Bosnia in the past two weeks.

"You would think the president would be on TV telling us we have a pretty big bombing mission going on, with 90 percent of the missions being flown by the U.S. But you don't want to get people focused on it. There are a lot of similarities with Vietnam."

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