In a high-tech boot camp 25 kilometers west of Sarajevo, Colonel Clark Welch--late of the U.S. Army Special Forces--is plotting the downfall of the Bosnian Serb army with a group of staff officers gathered around a pin-riddled map. "At 0800 hours tomorrow we move to contact," barks the avuncular Vietnam veteran. "We're gonna kick the crap out of them."
Fighting talk. But for now at least, Welch is just playing war games. In fact, the grizzled survivor of real-life combat won't spell out just who the dummy targets represent. "I'm teaching these guys how to repel anyone who's dumb enough to attack," he says with a coy grin. "Now, that could mean anybody."
It's a fine point that's lost on many observers. Welch hit town last year to help head up Washington's $100 million Train & Equip arms and expertise package for the Muslim-Croat Federation, the U.N.-brokered statelet that now occupies half of partitioned Bosnia-Herzegovina. The program was added to the Dayton Peace Agreement to sweeten the shotgun marriage between ethnic rivals who, during the Yugoslav conflict, spent almost as much time fighting each other as they did the Serbs. It was also devised to placate the U.S. Congress, which demanded that the federation be able to protect itself after peacekeeping troops leave. So far, American shipments have included advanced armor, artillery, and the virtual-reality battlefield simulation software that NATO used to prepare for Desert Storm.
FEW BELIEVERS. To complete the package, President Clinton sanctioned the dispatch of 180 military advisers, that familiar cold-war staple of clandestine conflict. Unlike their spiritual forbears in Saigon a generation ago, however, Welch's colleagues dress in civvies and draw their pay from Military Professional Resource Inc. (MPRI), a private company that operates under license from the Pentagon. But their official task of "containment" remains the same as in the 1960s--although in Bosnia, as in Vietnam, few people seem to believe in it.
"Our mission is to deter and defend, but I don't like being only on the defense," says Goran Medic, a colonel in the Croat Defense Council, the wartime ethnic force that is scheduled to merge with the largely Muslim Bosnian army by 1999. "In the next war, I want to go forward, to destroy."
If there ever is a next war over remaining territorial disputes, it may not last long, given MPRI's track record. In 1995, Croatia hired the Alexandria (Va.) company to prepare its forces for a series of blitzkrieg offensives that recaptured large swaths of Serb-held land and forced Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadic to the negotiating table. Now, as the Serbs' morale and firepower follows their economy down the tubes, the Sarajevo government has just made a deal to extend MPRI's contract for 12 months.
Meantime, recent graduates of Welch's academy are already testing out their new toys in the mountains of northwest Bosnia, a short air strike away from the hard-line Serb redoubt in Banja Luka. With NATO scheduled to pull out in eight months, Karadic's stomach must be churning.
So far, Washington has run Train & Equip strictly by the book. Under Dayton, the Bosnian Serbs were to scale down their armaments and army, while the federation brought its up to parity strength. Even so, the Americans are considering pleas from their allies to stay on beyond next June to keep the revitalized federation army from taking action. "The Europeans' feeling is: Why place more arms in a country where you already have a festering conflict?" says Christopher Bennett, a Bosnia analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank.
The Americans contend that if they hadn't stepped in, more sinister forces would have. Before committing to the agreement, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic had to assure Washington that Iranian mujaheddin who fought alongside the Muslims during the war had been expelled. Now, with the fanatics supposedly sent home, observers are hoping any future clashes will be more businesslike. "Train & Equip is about building a Western-style, disciplined army that won't waste a lot of time raping and looting," argues Bennett. "Well, that's the theory, anyway." There are, he points out, a lot of old scores to be settled.