NATO plans to trim its troops in Bosnia

500 U.S. peacekeepers among 3,000 to be cut from combined force


BRUSSELS, Belgium - Although the Pentagon has said it wants to reduce NATO's peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, the alliance has decided that only modest cuts can safely be made at this time, Western officials say.

Under a plan approved by NATO ambassadors last week and expected to be announced Tuesday, the alliance's peacekeeping force will be reduced from 21,000 to 18,000. The U.S. contingent in Bosnia, which is in the process of being cut to 3,600 troops, would be reduced to 3,100.

And although NATO will consider steeper cuts later, the alliance's top military commander cautioned that they cannot be carried out until Bosnia has an effective police force and a functioning judicial system.

"We need a functioning system of law and order" in Bosnia, said NATO commander Gen. Joseph Ralston. "I want those conditions as soon as we can get them, but I don't have a time frame for it."

NATO's decision is expected to be disclosed formally when foreign ministers meet this week in Budapest, Hungary. It will have important ramifications for the Balkans, which are also torn by tensions in Kosovo and fighting in Macedonia.

The decision about the size of the Bosnian deployment is also the latest chapter in a dispute over peacekeeping that continues to divide the Bush administration.

The United States played a central role in negotiating a peace settlement for Bosnia and commands the international peacekeeping force there. When NATO dispatched 60,000 troops to Bosnia in the mid-1990s, 20,000 of them were American.

Since then the NATO force has steadily shrunk, as has the U.S. contribution. U.S. forces no longer make up a third of the peacekeeping force; they are about 18 percent. Some Bush administration officials find that figure too high. But reducing troops is difficult because experts say Bosnia is not stable enough to function without a substantial NATO peacekeeping force.

Pondering its options in Bosnia, NATO conducted a six-month review. One option was to keep the current force. Advocates of that option noted that the alliance has yet to fulfill some of its plans.

A second option, and the one recommended by Ralston and approved by NATO ambassadors, was to make modest reductions in the force.

Under this plan, one battle group is to be removed from each of the three peacekeeping sectors in Bosnia. That will reduce the force under Ralston's command from 21,000 to 18,000.

The U.S. contingent will be reduced by an additional 500 troops, shrinking to 3,100, or 17 percent of the NATO total. Even so, the deployment is costing about $1.5 billion a year and the United States still will be the largest single troop contributor in Bosnia.

Ralston considered, but rejected for now, options for deeper cuts. NATO has prepared plans for a "deterrent force." This option would involve slashing the force to 12,000 while maintaining the ability to rush more troops to Bosnia if trouble breaks out.

A Western diplomat said that the Pentagon accepts Ralston's recommendation. But the Pentagon, he added, would still like to put the "deterrent force" in place within the next six to 18 months.

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