Old GIs fade away - to Bosnia Consultants: With the Pentagon's blessing, former U.S. Army soldiers are rebuilding the Muslim-Croatian Federation's defense force into a modern army capable for beating its Serbian rivals.

Sun Journal

November 12, 1997|By James Drake | James Drake,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PAZARIC, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Old soldiers never die -- they simply become "consultants."

Hunkered down in a bunker 25 miles west of Sarajevo, Col. Clark Welch -- late of the U.S. Army's Special Forces -- is plotting the downfall of the Bosnian Serb army. "Eight hundred hours tomorrow, we 'move to contact,' " cackles the ebullient Vietnam veteran to a group of staff officers gathered around a pin-riddled wall map. "They'd better be ready, 'cuz we're gonna kick the crap out of them."

Fighting talk. But for now at least, Welch is just playing war games, his only enemy a series of red blips on a computer screen in front of him. The grizzled survivor of real-life combat won't spell out just what the dummy targets represent. "I am teaching these guys how to repel anyone that is stupid enough to attack," he protests with a coy grin. "Now, that could mean anybody."

It's a fine point that is lost on many observers. In fact, the colonel's rhetoric, and his presence in this high-technology boot camp -- where wartime leader Radovan Karadzic once orchestrated the Serbian siege of Sarajevo -- are making America's European allies very nervous.

Welch arrived in Pazaric last year to set up Washington's "train and equip" arms and expertise package for the Muslim-Croatian Federation, the United Nations-brokered state that now occupies half of partitioned Bosnia and Herzegovina. The $100 million program was devised to appease U.S. congressmen who insisted that the federation be able to protect itself after peacekeeping troops leave.

It also was intended to sweeten the shotgun marriage between the Croatians and Muslims, who during the Yugoslav civil war spent almost as much time fighting each other as the Bosnian Serbs. If the Bosnian Muslims and Croats could be molded into one fighting force, Pentagon officials argued, they would be less likely to clash again in the future.

American arms shipments so far have included advanced armor and aircraft, and the virtual-reality battlefield-simulation software the North Atlantic Treaty Organization used to prepare for Desert Storm.

Capable of measuring such minute variables as the effect of humidity on artillery fire and even the number of bandages left in mobile field stations, it has been adapted to replicate conditions and terrain along the "inter-entity" line dividing the Muslim-Croatian Federation from Republika Srpska, the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

To round off the deal, President Clinton sanctioned the dispatch of about 180 "military advisers," that familiar Cold War staple of clandestine conflict. All retired U.S. Army personnel, they concentrate on teaching their trainees the basics of coordinating troop movement and firepower, something none of the rival factions was able to do consistently during the war.

"Typically, we'll place the battalion commander in a central box, equipped only with a map, while his company commanders in separate boxes around him feed him information via computer ** link," explains Col. Dick Edwards, the former artillery commander who directs the simulation exercises.

"Now during the war, the brigade commander usually wasn't a qualified officer. Often he got chosen because he was the bravest guy in the unit, or even just the guy who had the fanciest weapon. Everyone else was reluctant to offer advice. We're trying to get everyone to contribute to the decision-making process."

Theory aside, Pazaric trainees seem more interested in the firepower the Americans brought.

"In 1992, I lost almost all of my friends. The Serbs drove in tanks and we had one anti-tank rocket. We had to decide when we would fire it," says Capt. Adis Ducic, a Muslim. "If they attack us, we won't let them do that to us again."

Unlike their counterparts in Indochina and Central America, Welch and his colleagues dress in civilian clothes and draw their pay from Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), an Alexandria, Va., firm that operates under a license from the Pentagon. But their official task of "containment" remains the TC same as in the 1960s -- although in Bosnia, as in Vietnam, few people seem to believe in it.

Under the Dayton accords, Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croatian Federation are supposed to reunite in the future. But the reality is far different. Bosnian Serb leaders are obstructing efforts to build joint structures; Muslim and Croatian refugees are still barred from returning to their homes in Serbian-controlled territory.

Indeed, European leaders warn that if Washington wants to keep the new-look federation army from taking action, it may have to reconsider its plan to withdraw U.S troops in June, the deadline set by Clinton.

" 'Train and equip' could start an arms race," contends Carl Bildt, former U.N. high representative to Bosnia. "It is inflaming a situation which is already inflammatory. That's not what it was originally designed to do."

The Americans counter that if they had not stepped in, far more sinister forces would have.

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