By U.S. Army Center for Military HistoryMay 17, 2017
Bosnia-Herzegovina was the scene for the most violent armed conflict in Europe since World War II. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the end of the Soviet Empire and its forcible control of Eastern Europe.
Even as the Soviet Union was breaking apart and its satellite states were shedding the vestiges of communist rule, the nonaligned Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia also showed cracks in its national structure.
Comprised of six "republics" and two autonomous regions, Yugoslavia had created a favorable impression throughout the world as a model state with diverse ethnic groups.
In spite of a historical legacy of ethnic conflicts, the country of the "South Slavs" could claim over forty years of peace and harmony. This way of life, however, changed in the last decade of the twentieth century.
In a complex series of diplomatic and political maneuvers, four of the six republics--Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia--separated from Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1992.
Each secession was contested, with the most horrific destruction and violence occurring in centrally located Bosnia-Herzegovina. At least half of the entire population--more than two million people--was directly affected by a civil war that lasted from April 1992 to November 1995.
Efforts by the United Nations and the European Union were ignored, cease-fires were not honored, civilians were massacred, and entire villages were destroyed. The ethnic cleansing that ravaged the country defied any semblance of restraint or responsibility.
Spurred by U.S. leadership, a peace agreement was signed in December 1995 authorizing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, to intervene.
As called for in the agreement, the NATO Implementation Force consisting of 60,000 military personnel, one-third of them American, was to enforce the peace and to facilitate the reconstruction of the country.
To this end, a total of three successive peace enforcement operations were undertaken: Joint Endeavor, Joint Guard, and Joint Forge.
The peace enforcement operations--Joint Endeavor, Joint Guard, and Joint Forge --were atypical military campaigns. In the spectrum of armed conflict, political and diplomatic issues significantly influenced the Army's actions and created an inverted role in which the absence of fighting was the measurement of success.
The U.S. Army, trained to fight, used its resources to avoid conflict, to minimize confrontation, and to keep the peace. It did its job well.
Bosnian casualties plummeted with the arrival of the Implementation Force, and IFOR/SFOR casualties were fewer than the respective number for either the civilian populace or the opposing paramilitary groups. Not one American soldier was killed by hostile fire.
However, there were problems. Random acts of violence and vandalism continued throughout the peace enforcement operations, albeit with a gradual decline in their frequency over the years. Although the Dayton Peace Accords called for the free movement and settlement of all ethnic groups and refugees within Bosnia, very few people were able to return to and resettle in their former homes or communities.
Secret arsenals, illegal weapons, and pervasive land mines kept IFOR/SFOR personnel constantly busy--and vigilant. The peace was maintained, as one brigade commander ruefully observed, "partly because the sides want peace, but also by cajoling, coaching, and outright compelling peace." It was difficult work.
Unlike other campaigns in American military history, the Bosnia operations created an environment in which company-grade officers were directly involved every day in actions that could have strategic implications.
Other IFOR participants were amazed that the U.S. Army would entrust captains, lieutenants, and noncommissioned officers with authority and responsibility in various scenarios that could permanently alter the operational tempo and adversely affect the peace in Bosnia.
The Army was aware of this great responsibility placed upon junior leaders and tailored its training accordingly.
Joint Endeavor, Joint Guard, and Joint Forge were career defining experiences for many of the IFOR/SFOR Soldiers.
The multinational effort behind these peace enforcement operations represented NATO's first out-of-sector deployment, deemed to be a success by all participants.
Yet the tenuous cease-fire in Bosnia continues only because of the presence of the NATO-sponsored peace force.
As one brigade commander affirmed, "When somebody sees U.S. Army soldiers' boots on the ground, it shows a level of commitment that goes beyond any other level of commitment. People know that we're here to stay, that we're here dedicated to a purpose and dedicated to an accomplishment of a mission. That is not lost on local civilians."
More importantly, peace enforcement in Bosnia may have been a harbinger of future military operations. In waging modern wars in the twenty-first century it no longer is enough to simply win the battles and go home.
Peace enforcement operations are not mechanical exercises that permit precise planning or exit strategies. With the stand-down of Task Force Eagle in November 2004, conditions today are certainly better than they were more than a decade ago, but there are still people in Bosnia who nurture past grievances and who may seek to resolve them in the future. Until the ethnic groups are able to enforce their own peace, the outside stabilization forces must remain.
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