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More at Stake Than Bosnia for NATO-Led Force

December 17, 1995|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZAGREB, Croatia — The general said it all.

"We're totally new," he commented. "There's absolutely no doctrine for what it is we do."

The statement, made by U.S. Major Gen. William N. Farmen, referred to the daunting challenge of how to get the 60,000 troops of the NATO-led peace implementation force into Bosnia-Herzegovina to police the Dayton peace settlement, but it applies to far more.

Indeed, led by the United States, the world's most powerful nations have effectively launched themselves on a new course--in which the Balkan mandate may be merely a first step, a testing ground for a new era of maintaining peace in Europe well into the 21st century.

Because of this, the stakes of the military operation now underway in Bosnia are enormous.

"The implications of this mission go well beyond Bosnia," summed up the Atlantic Alliance's senior military commander, U.S. Gen. George A. Joulwan, speaking at his headquarters in Mons, Belgium, last week. "This is not just about Bosnia, it's about the future in Europe. If this is successful, we've got an entirely new security situation in Europe."

U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry, speaking earlier this month in Brussels at a meeting of foreign and defense ministers from North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations, called it "a moment of truth for our alliance."

It's not hard to understand such comments.

*

In military as well as political terms, the NATO-led peace implementation force, known as IFOR, is about as close to a "dream team" as any Western policymaker could hope for. If it fails, few will know where to turn.

Among its most important components:

* The active engagement of U.S. forces, a development that provides the minimum necessary military power as well as much-needed political weight to the mission. Despite the distinct lack of American public enthusiasm for the deployment, Europeans see the U.S. involvement as a new and welcome watershed in post-Cold War transatlantic relations.

* An impressive display of unity among the key European powers, marked by the French decision to play a central role in a NATO military operation for the first time in 30 years and the presence of combat-ready German forces in a mission outside alliance territory for the first time since World War II.

* The participation of Russian forces effectively operating under NATO command (they will be attached to the U.S. 1st Armored Division). This arrangement adds to the political legitimacy of the Bosnia mission but also opens the door to a form of cooperation in security matters across the old East-West divide. Many of those directly involved in the Bosnia deployment believe this could be the single most significant development to come from the mission.

Perry met with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, on four separate occasions to settle on the ground rules for Moscow's involvement.

"We spent so much time on this because it will affect security relations in Europe, the relations between Russia and NATO, and those between the United States and Russia for years to come," Perry explained after the agreement finally came.

* The agreement of 12 other non-NATO European nations, many of them former Soviet bloc states, to join the operation, which also extends the force's military effectiveness and political legitimacy.

The combination of these factors, wrapped in a tough United Nations mandate that gives IFOR the freedom to actively enforce the Dayton accord in no-nonsense terms, only enhances the expectations.

These hopes are all the stronger because they come after nearly four frustrating years in which the world's leading powers variously bickered among themselves and watched seemingly handcuffed as all sides of the Balkan conflict toyed with the lightly armed U.N. peacekeeping force.

They also follow the broken promise of the Maastricht Treaty, in which the richest European nations pledged to join in a common foreign and security policy and, by implication, develop the ability to keep regional peace by themselves.

Because of all this, the Brussels meeting of NATO foreign and defense ministers ended earlier this month amid a sense of accomplishment and barely contained elation.

"IFOR is one of our greatest endeavors and will ensure NATO's role in maintaining security in Europe for years to come," declared the alliance's acting secretary-general, Sergio Balanzino.

This upbeat mood is also driven by the fact that alliance planners have managed to anticipate, and therefore train for, at least some of what is about to unfold in Bosnia.

For example, meshing of Russian and other non-NATO units is expected to be eased by training exercises conducted over the past 18 months under the Partnership for Peace program that has brought together the armed forces of some Central and East European countries with those of alliance nations.

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