How much longer?

International | But U.S. and NATO military presence may be beneficial in one respect: stopping the forced Islamization of Bosnia

Issue: "School shooting," Dec. 13, 1997

The Norwegians may have kept the showers cleaner, but that's history. It's the Americans who now feel like they own the place. Eagle Base in northern Bosnia, once home to a Soviet MiG fighter squadron, then to United Nations troops from Finland and Norway (who frowned on Yankee hygiene when the Americans first came on the scene), has been headquarters to thousands of American soldiers in a deployment that enters its third year this month.

What began as high drama-with the Army Corps of Engineers stretching a pontoon bridge across the Sava River and soldiers unfurling bale upon bale of razor ribbon at U.S.-manned checkpoints-has settled into the everyday and the routine. U.S. soldiers continue to patrol many of the checkpoints separating Serbian from Muslim-Croat Federation zones under the Dayton Accords. They also are still busy with detonation of land mines left over from the war. But American forces move more easily through the rural parts of northern Bosnia they control. The American presence is so entrenched that nary a local eye batted when cargo planes landed carrying Thanksgiving dinner for the nearly 7,000 U.S. soldiers camped in or around Eagle Base. The feast included 7,500 pounds of turkey, half that amount again each of ham, cornish hens, and steamship round, along with a literal ton of shrimp.

Despite appearances of putting down roots, for the American military contingent one question hangs in the air as palpably as fumes from the salt refineries of nearby Tuzla: "How much longer?"

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When President Clinton committed U.S. troops to Bosnia under the Dayton Accords, he said in a Nov. 27, 1995, televised address, the mission "should and will take about one year." Before that mission expired, however, the president had asked for and received reluctant permission from Congress to extend U.S. military presence in Bosnia another year. Last year Secretary of Defense William Cohen promised his former Senate colleagues that troops would be out by next June. With the current stint set to expire March 1998, the administration looks poised to again break its promise.

In a November meeting with Tuzla Mayor Selim Beslagic and other Bosnian and Croatian leaders, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said U.S. forces would stay in the region another year. When NATO officials met last week to discuss what form next year's deployment would take, Defense Secretary Cohen was the only NATO member not publicly endorsing the plan. Mr. Clinton met with members of Congress in early November to discuss his options, but he has not formally asked Congress to approve the extension, although it is expected he will do so.

NATO officials reduced the number of troops this year to 34,000, down from 53,000 in 1996. American soldiers make up 7,000 of this year's force. Next year's force will likely be the same size or smaller.

The diplomatic presence in Bosnia is on the rise. Last month the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo tripled its staff. Observers agree, however, that in the last year too little has changed overall.

"Just as it was a year ago," said Peter Kuzmic, "the civilian and political side are lagging behind the military." NATO forces, he acknowledges, preside over a superficial peace that is likely to unravel if troops are withdrawn. Mr. Kuzmic is a Croatian pastor and professor who divides his time between the United States and the Balkan region. He attended Mrs. Albright's meeting with Bosnians and Croatians after Mr. Beslagic, Tuzla's mayor and a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, won the Averell Harriman Award in Washington.

Mr. Beslagic is credited with preventing ethnic cleansing in Tuzla during the war. He has welcomed Serbs back to the predominantly Croat and Catholic city by promoting what he calls "multiethnic democracy."

But multiethnic democracy is not taking hold elsewhere. Mostar in the south continues to be a divided city, with NATO soldiers posting guard outside its four-star hotel. Just two weeks ago, Croats in Jajce, 60 miles northeast of Mostar, expelled 300 Muslims recently returned as part of the Dayton Accords. One elderly man burned to death in the incident, according to The New York Times, and Croatian police reportedly distributed free beer to the agitators.

In the last month Muslims have clashed with Croats as displaced families have tried to return to their homes in five cities that have been declared "open" in Bosnia. And although Muslims have most often been seen as victims during the months leading up to the Dayton talks in 1995, disturbing new reports are forcing a reassessment of that view. Canadian peacekeeper James R. Davis describes in his new book, The Sharp End, incidents of Muslim soldiers' attacking their own civilians-including children-in order to win public sympathy.


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