Dim prospects in Bosnia Triangle of hate: Serb, Croat, Muslim enmity undiminished despite end of major combat.

March 31, 1996

AMERICAN POLICY in Bosnia is built upon a shaky framework of political fiction, unrealistic deadlines and military muscle. Only the latter category is succeeding. The NATO-led force of heavily-armed troops has separated the Serb, Croat and Muslim armies along 1,000 kilometers of ethnic hostility. But the danger remains that this huge effort may be in vain -- that once international peacekeepers depart, Bosnia's warring tribes will resume their struggle.

The chief political fiction is a Croat-Muslim federation that Gen. George Joulwan, the supreme NATO commander, charitably describes as "very fragile." Animosity between these two

factions is matched by the enmity between Muslims and Serbs and between Serbs and Croats in an equilateral triangle of hate. Yet because the federation is a key element of the Dayton peace accords and a counter-weight to a very real Bosnian Serb republic, Western diplomats try valiantly to keep up the facade.

As for deadlines, they are time-bombs waiting to explode. It took 2,600 air flights, 200 trains and 50 ships to deploy the Implementation Force in the midst of a Bosnian winter. Now, because of a pledge by President Clinton to end the Bosnia mission by next December, military planners have begun preparations for an equally arduous winter exit. In the nine months remaining, civilian authorities are supposed to begin cooperating, elections are to be held in September and an international relief crusade is to start a long rebuilding process.

The future of all three efforts is "dim" -- the very word used by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in forecasting prospects for "a viable, unitary Bosnia beyond the life of IFOR." Suspected war criminals remain contemptuously at large. Various factions set up checkpoints to block the free movement of civilians promised in the Dayton accords. Partition is the rule.

Already, the Clinton timetable is starting to fray. General Joulwan concedes "there may be weeks" before all U.S. troops are withdrawn after a Dec. 19 deadline. The French and British governments hint they, too, will withdraw unless a standby American force is maintained nearby to provide at least logistical support.

All this means the Bosnia operation is in trouble -- and will remain so. American troops had to go in once President Clinton put American credibility on the line. But his judgment in making this decision remains in question.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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