U.S. considers returning troops to Bosnia after withdrawal deadline Participation is likely in 'follow-on force'

September 01, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Although U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Bosnia at the end of this year, officials say the Clinton administration is keeping open the option of participating in a subsequent military force to maintain stability in the strife-riven Balkan nation.

U.S. and European officials will begin to discuss the options seriously after the first postwar Bosnian national elections are held Sept. 14.

"The question of a follow-on force will be addressed once the election results are in," a senior administration official said this week. The official, who declined to be quoted by name, added: "We and the allies will look at the situation and the continuing security risks."

At the Democratic National Convention last week, President Clinton claimed credit for helping to bring peace to Bosnia by sending in 20,000 U.S. troops to help implement the peace accords reached among Bosnia's Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Dayton, Ohio.

But a number of European officials and U.S. analysts fear that the success to date brought by Clinton's decision last year could fall victim to renewed ethnic violence unless the United States and its allies maintain some military presence in Bosnia with the so-called "follow-on force."

"There will be one. The only question is what the American participation will be," predicts Susan Woodward, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has followed the Balkan conflict closely for years.

She expects that the United States will provide not only logistics, airlift and air support but also some ground troops. "If the United States isn't there, the credibility is gone," she said.

A European diplomat agreed, saying, "In together, out together."

A NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was more circumspect, but said the prevailing view among alliance leaders in Europe was that it would be "inconceivable" for the alliance "to leave whatever was accomplished by [the international force] undefended."

The last few days have focused new international attention on Bosnia's potential instability.

On Tuesday, international election supervisors postponed municipal elections scheduled for Sept. 14, citing widespread registration irregularities, mostly caused by Bosnian Serbs seeking to maintain control of particular areas. These elections are distinct from national elections, planned for the same day.

While national elections will proceed as scheduled, some experts predict that the results will entrench ethnic hard-liners. A U.S. official acknowledged recently that the elections "won't be 100 percent peaceful, open and fair," and that in some cases Americans won't be happy with the results.

On Thursday, after weeks of small-scale ethnic clashes, NATO troops detained 65 Serbs who had assaulted Muslim refugees seeking to return to a Bosnian Serb-controlled village. In response, other Bosnian Serbs surrounded a hotel, trapping inside several members of a United Nations police task force.

The Clinton administration has repeatedly said that the current U.S.-led force of about 60,000 troops will end its mission at year's end. Pentagon officials say a force of about 5,000 will be sent into the Balkans to cover the withdrawal of American participants in the NATO force, but insist this is not a prelude to a follow-on force. Nevertheless, the Clinton administration hasn't ruled out some kind of American participation in a subsequent force.

A congressional ally of the administration, Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, wrote in a July 31 op ed article in the Washington Post: "After IFOR [the international peacekeeping force] leaves early next year, some effective, follow-on NATO force -- with U.S. participation -- will be needed to allow civilian peace efforts to continue and to prevent the war from restarting."

American officials insist that no serious discussion of a possible follow-on force will begin until after the national elections Sept. 14, since so much of Bosnia's future governing structure will ride on the outcome.

But Clinton doesn't have the luxury of waiting until after the American elections in November to prepare for a follow-on force, if there is to be one.

"They have to make a decision on a follow-on force before November," said a Pentagon official who declined to be identified.

Serious consideration is expected to start Sept. 25, when defense ministers of North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries meet in Bergen, Norway.

A Clinton adviser, speaking anonymously, acknowledged this week that the history of the European-led U.N. peacekeeping effort in Bosnia showed that Europeans couldn't maintain Balkan stability without American involvement.

"The debate will proceed with these basic realities in mind," the adviser said. That doesn't mean that the United States would have to maintain any ground troops in Bosnia, however, officials said. One possibility under discussion is a rapid reaction force nearby that could deal with emergencies.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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