COMMENTARY : Western troops risk paying for political fudge

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic Editor

The old military maxim that a general should never reinforce failure appears to have been forgotten by the politicians who are now dispatching thousands of young men to the Balkans.

Two weeks ago it seemed courageous and prudent to reinforce the beleaguered UN peace-keepers in Bosnia. They would convey an impression of resolve to the Bosnian Serbs. It would strengthen the hand of European nations who sought to persuade President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia to abandon his kinfolk and agree to a Bosnian settlement. Now, even though the Serb cause is fragmented, it looks as if the troops are entering a battleground as unpredictable as it is dangerous.

The talks with Mr Milosevic ended without agreement several days ago, apparently as a result of American reluctance to make further concessions over the mechanism by which UN sanctions on Serbia could be eased. The Foreign Office murmurs about leaving doors ajar and the possibility of minor adjustments to the sanctions formula. But the fact is that these negotiations have stalled.

Nobody in London or Paris will admit as much, but this means that the political plank on which their reinforcement strategy rested has been kicked away. Without clear linkage between their diplomatic and military objectives, the British and French find themselves pouring soldiers into a mission whose deficiencies are a source of public wonder.

Even worse, the 10,000-strong Rapid Reaction Force's task has yet to be defined in a manner that would have satisfied any theatre commander in a "real war". These troops remain peace-keepers, not combatants. But they are expected to be "robust", to purge France's contingent of faintheartedness, to resist humiliations that brought British soldiers to captivity. It seems the intellectual clarity of Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose has been discarded in favour of a deadly fudge.

At the same time, the familiar old sound of compromise and backstage agreements echoes from Sarajevo to New York. The Bosnian Serbs are proffering their familiar "permission" for convoys to pass, assurances invariably extended and broken in the past. Astonishingly, senior UN officials have entered into the same old false bargain. What happens when the Serbs inevitably dishonour their promise? Will UN soldiers resort to "all necessary means" to get convoys through? Nobody in officialdom seems to have an answer.

The Anglo-French initiative, backed up by the Dutch and the Spanish, was intended to break this futile pattern. But as meeting has followed meeting, banquet has followed diplomatic breakfast and clarification has supplanted declaration, it too has become entangled.

So now, the UN mandate will not be changed at all. That would offend the Russians. The texts will be altered formally to increase the numbers of troops. There will be more "robust" - tedious word - language in the preamble. There will be UN flags but no blue helmets, UN insignia but no white vehicles. The UN chain of command will continue to be invoked at moments of crisis.

John Major and Jacques Chirac decided to get tough because they had no choice but to confront hostage-taking and because they also calculated that a political solution via Belgrade could be imminent. They desperately need to get the diplomats back into action. Those who have seen the confidential troop figures know that 10,000 men, however brave, cannot match the armies deployed by warring parties in Bosnia. To put them in harm's way without a radical change in the politics of this mission is simply to reinforce failure.