While any discussion of the "post I-For" options and "Day 366" is still regarded as heresy in official circles, it is looking increasingly likely that a smaller European Nato force, led by Britain and France, will stay.
A decision on the exact nature of foreign involvement in Bosnia after I-For's mission ends will need to be made soon, probably at the Peace Implementation Review Conference in Rome in June.
The Nato Secretary-General, Javier Solana, said in February that there would be no public discussion of the post-I-For question until 18 April, the deadline for withdrawal of all the former warring factions' heavy weapons. If the 60,000 mainly Nato troops and tens of thousands of vehicles are to be withdrawn by the end of December, they will have to start withdrawing in August.
Michael Portillo, the British Secretary of State for Defence, and his advisers still favour the "in together, stay together out together" policy which drove the deployment of I-For. They have so far rejected the idea, which has been widely mooted, of European states maintaining a military presence after a US withdrawal following the US presidential election.
When I-For was deployed the idea was to make a spectacular demonstration of joint force, and to stick together for a year before withdrawing - a policy which, so far, has seemed to work.
Some commentators believe the contributor nations are sticking to that line in order to maintain respect from the former warring factions.
But Michael Williams, a former UN director of information in Zagreb who is now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, yesterday said "it is imperative there be some continuing military presence, preferably under the Nato umbrella, post-December. Dayton has secured a ceasefire which is now in its sixth month. I believe we are far more likely to have a durable peace in Bosnia if there is a military presence there for another 12 months."
The practised organisation of Nato has proved highly successful in establishing an unchallenged authority in Bosnia, respected by the Bosnian government,Croats and Serbs.
The inchoate organisation of the civilian reconstruction effort, under the "high representative", Carl Bildt, has not, according to observers. Therefore, to forgo the authority and efficiency of Nato and hand over to a disparate civilian organisation would be foolhardy.
While a renewed UN presence to co-ordinate any remaining military components with civilian aid organisations cannot be ruled out, experts consider it unlikely. Nor, they believe, would there be any value in transferring the Nato flag to that of the Western European Union (WEU).
However, Nato has had remarkable success so far. And, for the first time in 30 years, the French now work in harmony with the Atlantic alliance.
Nato is also a good guarantee of continued US involvement in non-direct military roles, such as transport, medical aid, air cover and intelligence.
A Nato force of 20,000 to 25,0000 troops, without US troops on the ground, therefore looks a feasible option.
Britain and France could provide such a force alone, if necessary, to maintain the success which Nato's reputation and organisation has achieved, sources said.
Once the warring factions are separated and their heavy weapons destroyed or corralled, I-For will have fulfilled the main part of its mission and can be diverted to other tasks, including reconstruction and securing and investigating the sites of alleged atrocities.
If reconstruction goes according to plan, the main requirement by December will be for a large civilian construction effort and assistance with policing and law and order.
Separated by a four-kilometre wide zone, and with their heavy weapons in storage, the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian government forces will find it difficult to menace each other. Hostility is more likely at a lower level, and between Muslims and Croats, who will not be separated cleanly by the demarcation lines in the Dayton agreement.Reuse content