False steps that could lead to a quagmire in Bosnia

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The Independent Online
THERE have been few more effective metaphors in the debate over the use of Western military force in Bosnia than that of a 'quagmire'. It conjures up an image of soldiers caught in a conflict from which they cannot withdraw, but which they lack the strength to win. The metaphor became popular during the Vietnam war, and now it pops up every time there is a proposal to intervene in a conflict. It was used by the Bush administration to explain its refusal to give direct support to the Kurds and Shias in Iraq when they rose up against Saddam Hussein. It has been used again to deflect demands to intervene in the former Yugoslavia.

George Bush's critics also warned that a conflict over Kuwait could turn into a quagmire, but here the administration felt more secure. Coalition forces were decisively superior to those of Iraq and the objective for which they were used - the liberation of Kuwait - was both clear-cut and attainable through conventional military means.

Neither the liberation of Iraq nor intervention in Bosnia comes into that category, partly because of the different type of warfare required, but mainly because of the countries' complex social composition. Intervention threatens entanglement in a civil war. In the past, such entanglements have yielded several lessons: these wars are the hardest to resolve; when the roots of antagonism run deep, just solutions are elusive; foreign troops are likely to be neutralised by the superior local knowledge of their opponents; any government or faction that needs outside assistance is unlikely to survive without them; it is far easier to send in troops than to extricate them.

But this describes a risk rather than an inevitability. The risk arises when political leaders employ forces that are inadequate to the task, and it becomes even greater when confusion surrounds the task. When an intervention force gets into trouble, a quagmire can be avoided either by escalation or withdrawal. The problem with escalation is that it raises the profile of the operation, making later withdrawal more difficult. Still, withdrawal is the main safeguard against a quagmire. Thus in 1984, the multinational force in Beirut, which combined a vulnerable military position with a muddled political role, made its excuses and left.

Therefore, the way to avoid a quagmire in Bosnia is to ensure that political objectives are clearly set and sufficient forces sent in to meet them. The objective of intervention would be to enforce respect for borders and minority rights. In the peace conference that opens in London tomorrow, the proposed settlement, which has existed in outline since March, will see Bosnia split into three cantons, each notionally multi-ethnic but with one group pre-eminent. Such an agreement would require the Serbs to release a large part of the territory they have seized, and the Bosnian government to accept effective loss of control over most of the country.

The United States and the European Community are adamant that they will not sign anything which formally acknowledges a Serbian victory, especially in the face of sustained international pressure. Until now, this pressure has depended solely on economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Unless the West is prepared to go further, it is hard to see how Serbia will agree to relinquish its gains.

The level of forces required for a decisive intervention is controversial. Some suspect that Serbian capabilities have been overestimated, but the professional military - which must prepare for the worst - is more cautious. If intervention were agreed, the best strategy would be to insert the largest available sustainable force, combined with assurances to the Serbs that their legitimate concerns would be met.

A lack of confidence that diplomacy can work, and alarm at the possible extent of a military commitment, has led Western governments to rule out such intervention. That caution may have removed the last chance to rectify a series of policy mistakes which began almost as soon as Yugoslavia started to disintegrate.

Instead, a different kind of commitment has been accepted: one of organising relief to the victims of this war. Such intervention is described as being solely humanitarian. The 1,800 British troops committed will not pick fights, only help to ensure the safe passage of food and medical supplies to beleaguered communities.

However honourable the motives, such a use of troops is likely to complicate both relief work and the drive for a settlement while endangering the troops. Britain and the EC do not view this crisis in purely humanitarian terms. They still insist on a settlement that would requires significant Serbian concessions.

British troops will inevitably be seen by Serbs as representing a government sympathetic to the enemy. They cannot expect to be seen as neutrals, especially if they become involved in supply operations that could frustrate Serbian plans. Then they will become targets and will have to defend themselves or withdraw. Nor can they expect to finish the job quickly, for without a political settlement there will be no reason to leave.

If a breakthrough is achieved in London this week, then a vast international effort will be needed to underpin it. Without progress, the EC will have to reassess its objectives and consider the risk of the conflict spreading further. A dangerous precedent could be set for others tempted to follow the Serbian example.