WASHINGTON -- As international troops stream into Kosovo, plans are under way to pull thousands of U.S. and allied soldiers out of Bosnia and Herzegovina, prompting fears that a tenuous peace and unfinished business in the former Yugoslav republic may be sacrificed on the altar of a new peacekeeping effort.
About 34,000 NATO-led troops -- including 6,200 Americans -- are patrolling in Bosnia, enforcing the Dayton peace accords that four years ago halted fighting between Serbs, Croats and Muslims that cost 250,000 lives and produced 2.7 million refugees and displaced persons, nearly a million of whom have not returned to their homes.
NATO military planners are looking at "very substantial" reductions in allied troop levels, said a senior Pentagon official, noting that the numbers may be decided by late summer. They will likely be more than the 10 percent reduction last December, officials said.
"It's a drain on our resources and we'd like to reduce as much as we can," said one Defense Department official, pointing to the $2 billion-a-year price tag for the American contingent.
Military officials say it's time for civilian administrators to resolve the refugee problem and encourage the reluctant parties to work harder toward forging a multiethnic society.
When the peace deal was signed in 1995, a 60,000-member peacekeeping force was assembled for Bosnia that included 20,000 U.S. troops. The numbers have been pared down since then.
Said one top Army official, "We've pretty much completed our military mission in Bosnia."
But Balkans experts and some administration officials say it is not the right time to make further cuts in the number of troops.
The United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies must redouble their efforts, they argue, concerned that international fatigue and lethargy are hampering efforts in Bosnia as a new mission begins in Kosovo.
Tensions are still running high in Bosnia and fighting could break out in disputed areas, they argue. Troops should assist in helping the nearly 1 million refugees who are afraid to return to their communities where they are a minority. Indicted war criminals remain at large while peacekeepers have done little to apprehend them.
Jim Hooper, executive director of the Balkan Action Council, a nonpartisan education group, said cutting back on the troops "would send the wrong signal." The allies must work harder to get the refugees back home, he said, a point administration officials concede is key to a lasting peace.
While ethnic Kosovar Albanians are returning home in large numbers, the refugee problem in Bosnia "sticks out like a sore thumb," said Hooper.
"People are ignoring Bosnia. Bosnia's been a failure," argues Bill Steubner, a retired U.S. Army major who served in Bosnia and is now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent group financed by Congress to promote the peaceful resolution of international conflicts.
"We never carried out the real promise of Dayton to get people home again. We never created the security environment they have to have," he said.
Under the accords, Bosnia was divided into two entities, one controlled by the Muslim-Croatian Federation and the other by Republika Srpska (Serb Republic). Bosnia and Herzegovina has a tripartite presidency and a central legislature in which each ethnic group is represented.
Pentagon and State Department officials, while conceding progress has been too slow and much work remains to be done, point to some encouraging developments in Bosnia.
Milorad Dodik, the Serb Republic's new prime minister, is a moderate who has pledged to work with the West to rebuild the economy and create a multiethnic society. He replaced the republic's hard-line president who was fired in March by the senior Western diplomat overseeing the implementation of the accords.
Ante Jelavic, a Croat who last month became chairman of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia, also has promised stronger ties with the West. "Will he take the high road?" wondered a Pentagon official. A few days after he posed that question, Jelavic was denounced by the top Western representative for attending a fund-raiser for Croatians indicted for war crimes.
The allies are also working to create a multiethnic police force and hope to forge a "permanent secretariat" for the Serbian, Croatian and Muslim armed forces for better communications and possible military exercises.
Some minority refugees are returning, said a Pentagon official, noting that Serbs by the hundreds are going back to the Croatian-controlled town of Drvar in southwest Bosnia, though the Pentagon official conceded that the return of the hundreds of thousands of refugees would take time.
"You cannot force refugees back into communities that are extremely hostile to them coming back," said the official, dismissing the suggestion that NATO soldiers could assist in those efforts. "I don't think more troops is the answer. It's a question of will."