Battling for Bosnia?

15-03-1993 Unpublished

Should British troops be deployed in Bosnia? Christopher Long thinks they would find themselves bogged down in a Balkan nightmare for years to come.

[This piece was not formally submitted for publication to 'The Spectator' because the parallels with Northern Ireland were rightly deemed confusing. In any case, in some respects I was later to be proved wrong. However, enough of it remained valid to justify publishing it here.]

By Christopher Long

As the fundamental flaws and irrelevance of the Vance-Owen 'peace' plan at last slowly dawn on Western political leaders, Spring beckons in the grim little towns of Tomislavgrad, Vitez and Kiseljak. Spring is the traditional season for offensives in the Balkans and now all the talk is of full-blown Western military intervention.

For months now Western intelligence officers and strategists have combed the bleak and miserable valleys of Bosnia, snooped on Serbian gun positions and supply routes from satellites, penetrated Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo and recruited the necessary agents and informers.

The Americans first arrived, covertly, six months ago. Today they are there overtly – making contingency plans for an all-out military solution. The British and the French have been at it for much longer. The terrain is known, the targets identified, the problems assessed.

On the Adriatic coast the aircraft carriers, escorts and supply vessels are in place. The logistics are already prepared and the plans well-advanced on the ground for the unthinkable – the first full-scale war in Europe for almost fifty years.

All that is needed now is a military objective and an order to mobilise which, for all practical purposes, would come from Washington.

This map, produced by the British army and dated 28-09-1993, was one of a series of regularly updated 'sitreps' providing good and accurate information on the various conflict areas within south-west Bosnia. Its most useful function was to mark and name the main military routes throughout the sector. Since most of the main roads were closed because they ran through battlefields or lay beneath front-line batteries, the roads marked on these maps were often rural lanes or even mountain tracks.

From 1991-93 journalists had had to work out for themselves how to get from one place to another through the serpentine front-lines, avoiding destroyed roads, mine-fields, destroyed bridges, etc.

Whatever criticisms might have been made of British political policy in the Balkans, from 1993 most of us on the ground were very impressed by the efficiency of British military reconnaissance and map-making and later were still more impressed by the road-making and bridge-building work of the Royal Engineers. Maps such as these were also extremely hard to obtain unless one had good friends in the army!

From the British soldiers' point of view, the prospect comes none too soon. I've watched their mounting frustration since their arrival in 1992. With repressed fury in their faces and unashamed tears in their eyes, they've solemnly obeyed orders to stand back, armed but impotent, and witness the obscenities, the racism and the cruelty of both Serbs and Croats and the consequent streams of human misery pouring out of the mountains and valleys of ethnically cleansed Bosnia.

Relegated merely to escorting aid convoys and road construction work, they have daily suffered the indignity of having their APCs arbitrarily shot at or their relief efforts barred by drunken, uneducated oafs, and of watching their officers 'negotiating' the right to deliver food and medicines with thugs whose off-duty activities include the murder, rape and brutal persecution of old men, women and children.

No one who has lived or worked in Bosnia can feel anything but rage that the West has been so humiliated and achieved so little in twelve months. So how is it that Mr Rifkind [Britain's Minister of Defence] says this week that he will not commit British troops to a fighting role in Bosnia?

This is another British 'sitrep' map, this time dated 11-05-1995. Its chief interest lies in the large number of new routes that had been established in and around the disputed territories of the Serb, Croat and Bosnian factions since 1993.

Largely re-established by the Royal Engineers to meet British tactical and logistics requirements, many of these routes were essential to the constant re-supply required by all UNPROFOR troops (e.g. BritBat, CanBat, SpanBat, etc), and later the French Foreign Legion troops under the command of Colonel Lecerf.

But these roads were also vital to UN patrols attempting to ensure or negotiate safe access by convoys carrying the vast tonnage of aid being delivered to central, eastern and northern Bosnia by UNHCR and numerous NGOs.

However, uppermost in military minds at the time were preparations in the event of full scale armoured offensives towards Sarajevo and/or how combined British and French forces would exit the theatre (accompanied by contingents from Canada, Spain and numerous other nations).

Most personnel from Western agencies working here would dearly love to see decisive action taken. And if a NATO force had trundled down Europe's motorways from its bases in Germany to Croatia in the autumn of 1991, as it could have done and should have done so easily and effectively, untold misery for millions would have been spared.

But not now.

There are, conveniently, three good reasons why Mr Rifkind may be right.

Firstly, and not for want of trying, no one has yet devised a clear military objective.

Secondly, there's every likelihood that such a conflict would play right into the hands of the land-grabbing Serbian and Croatian leaderships. More disastrously, it could play into the hands of the mafia and local war-lords who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by bogging down 60,000 Western troops in an endless hit-and-run guerrilla war for which they are perfectly equipped and which they could, if it suited them, quickly escalate into an internationalised Balkan war.

And thirdly because there seems little likelihood that it would work. For the past twenty-two years Britain has tried to 'keep the peace' in Northern Ireland without success. It has failed despite the fact that it is operating on its own territory, among a population that speaks English and is part of the general Anglo-Saxon culture. It has control of its own borders, has an intimate knowledge of the terrain, the principal organisations, political leaders and activists. It has sophisticated intelligence gathering ability and has agents penetrating the opposing factions. Its forces operate alone, answerable only to their own commanders and to parliament, and the British troops are respected by all and at least tolerated by the majority of the Northern Irish population.

But despite all these advantages Britain is no nearer to the stamping out the criminally corrupt and institutionalised Protestant and Catholic mafias. It has made little or no progress in reducing the primitive, clannish and bigoted intolerance of a divided community. It even patrols and recognises no-go areas in Belfast which were long ago ethnically cleansed of either Protestants or Catholics. And week by week the body bags carry off soldiers and civilians – the victims of a 'war' with many parallels in ex-Yugoslavia.

Britain, of all countries, should know that until people choose to live harmoniously with their neighbours there is little or nothing that governments or armies can do to help.

But in Bosnia they would have none of the advantages they have in Northern Ireland. They would answer to the UN, to NATO, and to the EC with a continuation of all the chaotic bungling and indecisiveness that have hall-marked such UN operations for the past 45 years.

They would be operating far from home in Third World territory among populations which are institutionally corrupt, intolerant and bigoted.

They would not have the local knowledge of guerrillas who have spent 2,000 years harassing the edges of great Hellenic, Roman, Ottoman and Austrian empires.

And ultimately they would have to take sides: a risky undertaking when the 'victims' in one Bosnian valley are usually the 'aggressors' in the next.

The only matter on which the Serbs, Croats, Muslims and others agree is their universal contempt for the UN Protection Forces – so they would have no-one at all on whom they could rely on the ground.

There are no systems of justice, no respected institutions, no police, no courts, no administration with whom they could work. Indeed, it is almost impossible for anyone who has not lived and worked in this region in the past two years to appreciate the terrible reality of total anarchy.

Furthermore, it is extremely likely that intervention now would only lead, one day, to the Balkan peoples saying that new borders were imposed upon them by force. They would then 're-adjust' these borders, again by force if necessary, in a repetition of what we see today. And we should not under-estimate the very real possibility that Western nations themselves could find their own differences revealed, highlighted and exploited by Croatia, Serbia and the remnants of Bosnia-Hercegovina. All of this, without considering the implications for all of us should the festering antagonisms in Bulgaria, Albania, Greece and Turkey be awakened by any widening of the conflicts into Macedonia or Kosovo.

If I felt for one moment that the intervention of ground forces would produce a nett saving of the life of one child who would not otherwise have died, I would support intervention. As things are I feel strongly that there comes a time in the 'life' of any nation when it has to grow up, face reality and decide its own future and acknowledge the futility of persecuting and killing its neighbours.

Arm the Bosnian muslims by all means, but let us consider whether anything would have been gained by the French intervening in England's 17th Century civil war; of Britain intervening in the France's 18th Century civil war; of anyone intervening in America's 19th Century Civil War; or even, perish the thought, the USA intervening in Northern Ireland.

And in no time at all after writing this article the USA did indeed involve itself in Northern Ireland! The consequence was that it was manipulated and duped by the IRA and Anglo-American diplomatic relations deteriorated alarmingly. With regard to Bosnia, subsequent events proved some of my arguments in this article wrong. A quasi-NATO force (Anglo-French!) emerged to usurp the ineffective UN and decisive action on the ground, led by Britain and France (with air support from the USA) was enough to bring about the shaky peace of 1995 that lead to the Dayton accord. However, six years later British troops were indeed still 'bogged down in Bosnia' with no immediate prospect of withdrawal. And finally, in 1999, war did indeed return to Kosovo...

© (1993) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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Christopher Long

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