Breaking the Serbs: The High Price of a Single Misjudgment Reply

Map of Bosnia

By Chris Simmons

For weeks, anticipation had been building within the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR). One of the deadlines for demilitarization was now just days away and it was unclear whether the rival blocs that constituted Bosnia-Herzegovina would meet the suspense.

“Bosnia” actually consisted of three distinct governments: a weak state-level institution (i.e., Bosnia) with two highly autonomous parts, the Croat-Bosniak Federation and the Serb-majority Republika Srpska (RS). Each entity had its own government, parliament and presidency. The redundancies were mind-numbing. It was a bureaucracy gone mad, making interactions between NATO and the Bosnian governments problematic at best.

On Monday, the entities were to inform NATO whether they would meet the demining threshold required by the Dayton Peace Accords. The Croat-Bosniak response came first:  they were done, three days ahead of schedule. Then we learned the RS Minister of Defense would appear via Video-Teleconference (VTC) during the evening meeting at NATO’s Sarajevo headquarters. This, we all knew, was not a good sign.

That night, the Minister came on the VTC and told the SFOR Commander the Republic of Srpska (pronounced “Serp-Ska) would not meet the deadline. He professed his desire to help, but said the Justice Minister had ruled the Dayton Accord’s demining requirement unconstitutional. The SFOR Commander, who saw the action as nothing more than political brinksmanship, was not amused. He reminded the RS General that his government had signed the Accord four years earlier. “You will meet your obligations,” the Minister was told before the SFOR Commander abruptly ended the broadcast.

Turning to his Intelligence Staff, the SFOR Commander asked how close the RS was to meeting the suspense. “No where close,” he was told. A weapons specialist stood and advised the General the RS had well over 200,000 mines that still needed to be rendered safe. “There isn’t a country in the world that could de-militarize that many landmines in three days” the analyst concluded. It was clear to everyone the RS had been planning to obstruct the peace treaty for some time.

The SFOR Commander directed his staff to identify the three best units in the RS Army and to secretly make plans to seize their equipment and start discharging their personnel at 12:01am Friday morning. For the next two days, their Defense Minister continued to blame the Justice Ministry. Finally, at Thursday’s VTC, the RS General gleefully announced that the Ministry had reversed itself – the Dayton Accord was constitutional. All he required was an extension of the suspense. The SFOR Commander responded with words to the effect, “You’ll have my answer tomorrow.”

At one minute after midnight, NATO forces surrounded the garrisons of the RS’ three premier units. Entering the compounds, the soldiers were awakened and all of their weapons and equipment seized. Standing in formation, they learned they were being discharged – effective immediately. By dawn, the “crown jewels” of the RS military had ceased to exist.

This bold move broke the back of institutionalized resistance by the RS government. Henceforth, they were as compliant – if not more so, than their Croat-Bosniak counterparts. And the RS military set a record for the fastest destruction of 200,000+ landmines……

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