Politicians 'let Nato down' over Bosnia: Military opposition to intervention is not as solid as it seems, writes Andrew Marr

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AS THE noose tightens around Sarajevo, it has become apparent that top military staff at Nato believe Bosnia has been let down by a lack of political leadership in the West. Far from urging politicians not to intervene, key commanders believed intervention was morally right and practical.

According to diplomatic insiders, the mood of frustration and gloom about Western military inaction has been growing at Nato headquarters. It is certainly intense among some troops on the ground in former Yugoslavia. Some senior officers believe that, even at this late stage, a serious threat of force could limit the Serbian victory. And the belief is widespread that, had Nato been given backing by European political leaders and clear rules of engagement, it could have policed and defended any Bosnian agreement.

The commanders base their views on the assumption that Serbian political and territorial ambitions lie at the heart of the Bosnian war. They regard the Croats as having opportunistically joined in the land grab, but see this as a less fundamental problem than Serbian expansionism.

Field Marshal Sir Richard Vincent, who chairs Nato's military committee and was before that chief of the Defence Staff in London, has privately compared the West's response to the Bosnian war to the appeasement of fascism in the 1930s. He is said to be bitterly critical of a policy of 'too little, too late' that has consistently encouraged and rewarded the Serbs.

Such views, which have been gossiped about in Whitehall for some time, are given added poignancy because, as Field Marshal Vincent has pointed out, he was a seven-year-old boy in the crowd at Heston aerodrome in September 1938 when Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich promising 'peace in our time'.

Senior diplomatic observers confirm that the Field Marshal has been fighting hard (some think too hard) in both his current and former jobs, to gain a firmer political direction. He believes that much of the problem has derived from Nato's lack of a specific military out-of-area role and that the present chain of command, involving the United Nations and Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, is cumbersome and grossly inefficient.

These perceptions are shared by other senior British military and diplomatic staff. They have affected Nato estimates of the numbers of troops that would have been needed to implement the now-dead Vance-Owen peace plan, or to seal the Bosnian-Serbian border.

Field Marshal Vincent has publicly estimated that 80,000 troops would have been needed for the former task, but is said to think far fewer would have been able to do the job had the military alliance been given clear orders by the politicians. He has cited the 14,000 troops used by the Germans to take Norway.

The number of troops needed to intervene successfully depends, of course, on precisely what intervention is proposed, and what degree of risk is acceptable. One Nato plan for intervention envisaged two divisions - 40,000 troops - to secure Sarajevo with 'maximum safety'. The Americans, who lead Nato, are known to favour 'overwhelming force'. But with skill and luck, any general will tell you, you could secure the proposed safe areas with far fewer troops.

Sir Richard is not alone. One very senior British official close to the arguments has asked whether the current situation, with a million or more refugees already outside Bosnia, is not a disaster at the heart of Europe, which will produce a security problem akin to the Palestinian one. Another military official has expressed frustration recently about the lack of will for air strikes against Serbia and the complete lack of military planning in case of war in the Serbian province of Kosovo. That is where many observers expect the Belgrade leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to turn once he has broken Muslim resistance in Bosnia.

These views seem to contrast with the explanation by ministers that Britain cannot intervene because the military assessment about costs and casualties is so grim. The Foreign Office insists that, as far as ministers are aware, the military advice has been unanimous and unequivocal against intervention. But military men and diplomats who favour intervention have complained privately that they have been warned by MPs not to speak out because their views are not welcome.

Soldiers' nightmares, page 25