Festering Balkan Tension a Warning on Afghan Withdrawal

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits the Balkans this week, she’s seeing how hard it is to build durable peace, democracy and prosperity where ethnic and religious rivalries still fester.

November 21 will be the 17th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian War and the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II, and its aftermath may hold lessons for the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the peace deal midwifed by American, European and Russian officials halted the ethnic and religious slaughter that claimed almost 100,000 lives, it also helped entrench the region’s ethnic and religious divisions.

Postwar Bosnia is a reminder to U.S. officials that a peace deal alone can’t produce stability and effective governance, according to former diplomats and Balkans specialists. After U.S. and allied forces withdraw, former warring parties may continue to seek by other means what they failed to achieve in open warfare. Power-sharing deals intended to satisfy rival ethnic groups also can lead to political paralysis.

“Ending a war is only the beginning,” Bruce Hitchner, director of the Dayton Peace Accords Project at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, said in an interview. “Winning the peace” requires “more sustained investment and commitment, and more patience. If there is one lesson that the intervention in Bosnia has taught us, it is that if you take too long and move too cautiously in the postwar phase, you will lose effective control of the postwar process. And that’s what happened in Bosnia.”

Some Bosnian Serb leaders have carried on a “longstanding, peaceful counterinsurgency” to “undermine and divide Bosnia,” Hitchner said.

‘Totally Unacceptable’

Traveling together in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo this week, Clinton and the European Union’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, are encouraging leaders to respect peace agreements and borders and adopt political and economic reforms required to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“It is totally unacceptable that, 17 years after the war ended, some still question Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Clinton said yesterday in Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, a message aimed at Bosnian Serb leaders agitating to secede and form an independent state. “Such talk is a distraction from the problems facing this country, and serves only to undermine the goal of European integration.”

U.S. and European officials have criticized Bosnia’s postwar leaders -- Muslims known as Bosniaks and Christian Serbs and Croats who govern under a power-sharing agreement -- for putting their own interests above the nation’s and failing to govern effectively without international overnight.

No Government

The Bosnian economy is depressed, and for 16 months after elections in October 2010, the country had no government. The current leadership is “more than shaky” and has made no headway on any significant project, said Alexandra Stiglmayer, a senior analyst with the European Stability Initiative, a research group based in Berlin.

Bosnia is divided into two autonomous regions, a Serb Republic and a Muslim-Croat federation, held together tenuously by the weak central government. Unlike in Iraq, where Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Kurds are dueling after the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of last year, an international High Representative for Bosnia has far-reaching powers, including the right to impose legislation by decree and dismiss officials.

Clinton and Ashton met with the country’s three co-presidents from each ethnic group, as well as international officials, including international community High Representative Valentin Inzko, who has warned that Bosnia lags behind its neighbors in meeting requirements to join the EU and NATO.

‘Opportunistic Leaders’

“We -- I will be honest with you -- have been frustrated” by the Bosnian leadership’s dragging its feet on reform, Clinton said at a press conference.

The reason for that gridlock, Stiglmayer said in an interview, is “not ancient religious and ethnic rivalries,” nor is it the fault of the power-sharing design of the Dayton Accords. The fault, she said, in a comment that’s relevant to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, lies with “opportunistic leaders” who have exploited ethnic fears “and an international mission with far-reaching powers” that has prevented Bosnian institutions from functioning by themselves.

Stiglmayer, who covered the Bosnian War as a journalist and worked for the international High Representative in Sarajevo, said Clinton should say, “It is up to the Bosnians to make their country work.” Clinton and Ashton can “lend a helping hand, but no more.”

Human Rights

Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe director in London for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, said the U.S. must press Bosnia’s leaders to respect human rights, including for gays and lesbians and for minorities, including Jews and Roma who are barred from running for public office unless they declare themselves a member of one of the three main ethnic groups.

A disheartening example of segregation 17 years after the Dayton agreement is in education, Ward said. Children in the Muslim-Croat federation attend separate schools under one roof with different curricula and no mixing. “And these are kids who were not alive during the war,” he said.

Dayton’s defenders say the agreement was the only way to halt the genocide. Dayton’s success -- and the success of the U.S. intervention in Bosnia -- is that peace has held.

“We led an intervention in Bosnia to stop a civil war that was pumping out refugees throughout Europe and threatening to destabilize the region,” James Dobbins, who served as a U.S. special adviser on the Balkans and a special envoy to Bosnia, said in an interview. “It’s mission accomplished -- there are no refugees, no civil war, and no destabilization.”

Dysfunctional System

“You’re not going to make Muslims, Croats and Serbs love each other” after the atrocities that were committed during the war, he said. The “most you can expect is to make them stop killing each other. Maybe generations from now, you’ll have a less divided society.”

While Dobbins acknowledged that ethnic divisions have created a dysfunctional political system, he said that “all societies tend to be divided along some lines -- ideological, class, sectarian, religious,” and any democratic system is prone to gridlock.

“But the fact remains that” no one in Bosnia “is happy with” the system there, said Marko Prelec, the Balkans project director for the International Crisis Group, a global non-governmental organization focused on conflict zones.

The Dayton accord, he and other analysts said, is a qualified success that may serve as a guide to winding down some other military interventions.

Higher Stakes

The stakes may be higher for the U.S. in Iraq, where 4,486 Americans died according to, the local al-Qaeda affiliate is rebuilding and Iranian influence is growing. In Afghanistan, where according to the same source 2,244 Americans have died, the central government remains weak and the Taliban and other extremist groups remain strong, while militants have a safe haven in neighboring Pakistan.

One lesson for the U.S. as it withdraws from these other conflicts is that any peace agreement in Afghanistan would have to be supported by its neighbors, said Dobbins, who also served as a special envoy to Afghanistan and is now director of the security and defense policy center at the Washington office of the Santa Monica, California-based RAND Corp., a policy institute.

Bosnia’s peace deal worked, Dobbins said, because U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke and other negotiators were able to strong-arm the leaders of neighboring Serbia and Croatia to compel local warring parties to make peace.

Pakistan, Iran, Russia and India all have clients and influence in Afghanistan, and would have to support a peace deal, Dobbins said.

“It may be too late already,” for America’s efforts at nation-building in Iraq, said Hitchner at Tufts University. “But for Afghanistan, it means pursuing in tandem with Kabul and our allies a clear strategy for neutralizing the Taliban politically that will be achieved within, say, the next five years, not 17 years and counting.”

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