Generals battling the bureaucracy

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'WILL YOU leave as another frustrated general?'

'I certainly won't'

Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, taking over as the UN commander in Bosnia- Herzegovina last week was supremely confident. But then, generals have to appear so. His two predecessors left under something of a cloud: General Philippe Morillon of France and Lieutenant-General Francis Briquemont of Belgium. So will their superior, General Jean Cot of France, presiding over all the former Yugoslavia from Zagreb, when he leaves in March, to be replaced by the commander of France's Rapid Reaction Force.

'The UN gobbles up its generals. After dumping a Turk, an Italian and a Belgian, now it's the turn of a Frenchman (to be dumped)' said Francois Leotard, France's minister of defence.

But why does the UN gobble up its generals? Or is it that in former Yugoslavia, a Tardis-like counterpane, distances that appear minute on the map turn out to be time-consuming black holes, a nightmare of muddy, icy roads, near-vertical slopes, fickle alliances and perfidy?

Last week in Sarajevo, General Cot said something cryptic: 'I have asked for numerous reforms of the structure of the UN in Yugoslavia, especially in the use of information, the capacity to analyse and reflect, the use of supporting force (against hostile warring factions). These reforms are in the process of being made.' General Cot was referring to what soldiers call a 'concept of operations' - and to intelligence.

In UN operations you are not allowed to mention intelligence, because the 45-year-old UN Charter forbids intelligence-gathering - even though it is vital in any military operation, and more so in this four-sided conflict.

You talk about 'milinfo' instead. But you get the the impression that the information gathered by the Nato jets roaring uselessly overhead ends up in a file at the Nato 5th Air Force headquarters in Vicenza, Italy, and never reaches the people on the ground.

As he arrived at his main headquarters at Kiseljak, a lovely little town once famous for its mineral water, Lt-Gen Rose said a 'lot of nonsense' had been talked about Lt-Gen Briquemont. Asked if he had left a frustrated and broken man, he replied 'not so'.

But exhaustion with the UN and the local warlords undoubtedly played a part in Lt- Gen Briquemont's resignation, while Gen Cot's dismissal was demanded after he dared to request close air support for his troops.

So far, the nearest the UN has got to authorising air strikes was in mid-December, when a Canadian and a Nordic battalion convoy were stopped and shelled by the Serbs near Srebrenica. US A-10 aircraft took to the air and locked on to two or three Serb tanks.

As the request for air support chugged up the command chain towards UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, negotiations continued and the problem was resolved.

Mr Boutros-Ghali has now said he is 'not against air strikes', provided the UN draws up 'a very detailed plan'. But how else did he suppose the air controllers on the ground and the Nato aircraft above proposed to do it?

Another example of the frustrations felt by commanders is the current log jam over the 11 Danish Leopard tanks still stuck in Split after gargantuan efforts had been made to get them around the Serbs by carrying them on trains and boats half-way round Europe.

Because the Serbs do not want those tanks in north-central Bosnia, they have threatened not to let out the Canadians who are still trapped in the Srebrenica pocket if the tanks come up the road through central Bosnia - even though they will go nowhere near Serb lines until the very end of their route.

Clearly there is something about the top UN jobs in the former Yugoslavia that makes generals profoundly uncomfortable. In straightforward war, once the dogs are let slip, the generals have a fairly free hand.

In national operations, notably the Second World War, grand strategic issues - the interaction of allies, the post-war settlement - are of interest both to the generals and to their political masters who, like Eisenhower, Churchill and Stalin, become super-generals.

There is creative tension, but no insuperable conflict. The golden rule in military operations, as in all management, is 'let the managers manage'.

But the vast UN bureaucracy, from the petty bureaucrats in Zagreb to the more important bureaucrats in New York, violate that principle at every turn. The last fortnight has seen the nations contributing troops to Bosnia call for air strikes, then hint at withdrawing their troops.

The European Parliament bumbled on to the scene, telling Lord Owen to leave. Nato reaffirmed its preparedness to launch air strikes in defence of the so-called safe areas, which include Sarajevo (in fact they are anything but safe), but even several atrocities later, the great power at the UN's disposal has still not been used.

The generals are caught between the UN and the forces operating on the ground. That is why the attrition rate is so high.

If you talk to the British battalion at Vitez, they are fairly clear about what they have to do - 'create the conditions for the passage of aid'. They wish more would pass up the route once it has been secured, but that is not their problem. In the words of one soldier: 'We just retreat into the battalion'.

The new overall commander in Bosnia, Lt-Gen Rose, has responsibility for this battalion and all its support stretching back to the Adriatic, plus the Spanish, the French, the Canadians, the Nordic battalion at Tuzla, the Malaysian battalion moving in to Srebrenica, Dutch transport forces . . . He spends much of his time negotiating with three sides, who are all slippery customers. And then he has to face the UN.

If the UN wants the Bosnian operation run effectively, it should allow the the generals to be generals. Lt-Gen Rose believes he has the mandate he needs, and enough troops.

So let him try, cut loose from everyday interference from New York. If he fails, he will be another gobbled-up general. But at least, to paraphrase a song playing incongruously on the cassette player as we set out in search of the latest reported massacre, 'He did it his way'.

(Photograph omitted)