Bosnia: no way to run a war: As the Serbs threaten to fight on, Paddy Ashdown sees critical UN failures undermining its successes

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The Independent Online
THE NATO air strikes that forced the Bosnian Serbs to return their seized weapons on Friday showed what the international community can achieve when it acts with unity of purpose, clear resolve and firm support for commanders on the ground.

Similarly, concerted pressure on the Serbs in Belgrade has driven a wedge between them and their Bosnian Serb clients in Pale. That is critical for a settlement in Bosnia. These have been signal successes for the United Nations. There have been many others over the two years since the war began.

The UN has prevented a humanitarian catastrophe in central Bosnia; it has succeeded in keeping alive 2.7 million people through two fierce winters; it has kept the supply routes open to Sarajevo and Bosnia, despite frequent attacks on its convoys and aircraft, the death of more than 70 soldiers and some of the most difficult terrain in the world. It has even restored a semblance of normality, albeit fragile, to the great European city of Sarajevo, which has been under siege longer than Stalingrad. And throughout, it has held together a tricky international consensus on the Bosnian operation.

There are 22,500 UN troops in Bosnia - soon to rise to 24,000 - including Ukrainian battalions, Bangladeshi units, Dutch companies and even detachments of Nepalese. Yet Bosnia has dangerously exposed the UN's weakness in fulfilling its function as our only means of enforcing international law and preventing conflict in an increasingly interdependent and tribalised world.

As we approach the third winter of the war, UNHCR warehouses in Sarajevo are again empty, as are the rear supply warehouses on the Adriatic coast. Has no one learnt from the past two winters? Empty warehouses leave the city at the mercy of the snow and fog which so frequently block roads and close the airfield. They also mean that every passing Serb whim to strangle the city, again threatened last night by Dr Karadzic, is immediately felt by its inhabitants.

Liaison between the UN's organisations in Bosnia has become byzantine, overburdened with bureaucracy and infected by almost as much Balkan intrigue as the conflict in whose midst it is operating. The British Overseas Development Administration, under UN mandate to improve the Sarajevo water supply, shipped out urgently needed chlorine gas. The only way to get this into the besieged city was by UNHCR plane. The RAF agreed to fly in the gas and UNHCR headquarters in New York agreed. But a local official refused because he did not consider the gas 'vital humanitarian supplies'. So flights came into Sarajevo with space to spare, while the city's water supply remained unpurified for nearly two hot summer months.

UN operations remain unstructured and poorly co-ordinated. There is no adequate record-keeping, so all too often new units and senior officials have to reinvent the wheel, as vital information and experience is lost for future operations. It appears likely, for instance, that effective action on Bosnian war crimes will be severely hampered because few proper records were kept, and many that were are lost. The perpetrators of some of this half-century's most bestial war crimes are likely to go unpunished.

The UN's military effectiveness has been hampered - and respect for the organisation reduced - by poor quality national forces, the pursuit of national agendas and national rivalries. At least one brothel was known to be operated by UN troops in Sarajevo; the early Ukrainian battalions ran the city's black market. Nor is the pursuit of profit from the war confined to poorer countries. The French were recently caught out dressing up officials from a private water company in UN soldiers' uniforms in order to gain access to the city to look for contracts.

Most worrying of all, the gap between the political direction of the UN operation and its military conduct on the ground has grown dangerously wide. One lesson stands out from nearly 50 years of post-colonial peace-keeping: success depends critically on the closest harmony between the politicians, who decide, and the military, which has to act. No such thing exists in the Bosnia operation.

When General Sir Michael Rose sought to repeat at Gorazde the success he achieved at Sarajevo in removing Serb guns from around the city, the UN and its member governments (including, crucially, our own) refused to back him. Only since General Rose's success in forcing the Bosnian Serbs to return the weapons stolen from UN stockpiles has the operation begun to recover lost credibility.

Political direction for the operation is supposed to come from the Security Council. But this has been subsumed by the five-nation 'contact group', which recently issued a set of ultimatums from Geneva. Ask any commander on the ground and he will tell you that what the contact group called for cannot be carried out with current force levels and the practical limitations of the UN mandate.

Many governments are now threatening withdrawal. Leaving aside the fact that most of the military on the spot believe this would lead to a widening war which could threaten the whole Balkan peninsula, UN commanders will also tell you that withdrawal is militarily impossible without unacceptable losses. The UN has allowed itself to become as much a hostage in Bosnia as those whom it went there to protect.

The UN cannot go on like this. War is a serious business and it must start taking it seriously. It is being drawn more and more into the area of peace- making; but it is still using the old structures and doctrines of peace- keeping. What it will need, if it is not to encounter the disaster it has so far avoided in Bosnia, is a proper military command structure, effective co-ordination of aid and other agencies, troops of the right quality, an effective method of payment for UN operations, a staff college to pass on and develop the techniques of peace-keeping and an effective information and intelligence structure of its own.

If we do not learn the lessons of Bosnia, we will be condemned to repeat its failures, and it will be only a matter of time before failure becomes disaster.

Paddy Ashdown has just returned from his sixth visit to Bosnia.

(Photograph omitted)