Bosnia's Lesson: When American Intervention Works (Partly)

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Contrasting the U.S. experiences in the wars here, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan.


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11,541 red chairs are pictured along Titova Street in Sarajevo as the city marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war, April 6, 2012. Reuters

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina -- Seventeen years and $17 billion later, Bosnia is at peace today, but it is stillborn.

After an international intervention nearly two decades long, Bosnia offers lessons for American officials as they wrestle with continuing violence in Syria, volatile post-Arab Spring transitions and leaving behind a relatively stable Afghanistan. Stopping the killing here proved easier than expected. But halting corruption, sparking economic growth and curbing poisonous local political dynamics has proved vastly more difficult.

Today, the economy is stalled, with half of business activity generated by state-owned companies and unemployment hovering at 25 percent. The country is divided between a Serb entity whose leader talks openly of secession and a Muslim-Croat federation with worrying rifts of its own. And corruption is endemic among senior government officials on all sides.

There are successes. One, surprisingly, is security. In an outcome few expected, fighting has not erupted here since the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord ended a brutal three-year conflict. Predictions that 20,000 American troops who deployed as peacekeepers would be caught in a "quagmire" proved untrue. U.S. forces departed in 2006 without a single American soldier being killed by hostile fire.

One lesson that emerges here is timing, according to Bosnians, Americans and Europeans. If the world is going to intervene in a conflict, the earlier, they say, the better. Bosnia today shows that the longer the fighting drags on, the more tortuous the postwar peace.

On a daily basis, Muslims, Serbs and Croats interact and exchange polite greetings here, but they live separate lives. Across the country, the 100,000 killed during the war haunt the living. Admonitions to turn the other cheek are well and good, but there is little reconciliation.

Exhaustive but slow-moving international war-crimes trials have created a detailed historical record of the atrocities carried out here. But Serb, Croat and Muslim nationalists all see themselves as victims and reject responsibility for war crimes committed by their own community. Future generations, one hopes, may be more accepting.

The second lesson is that without reliable local allies implementing reforms is virtually impossible. International efforts to promote more moderate political parties have failed here. Nationalist Serb, Croat and Muslim parties have won elections, consolidated power and resisted change. Foreign powers have found that they cannot control local political dynamics. Bosnians call the state of politics today "war by other means," with nationalists continuing their struggles through words, not bullets.

"It's difficult for outsiders to rearrange the political chairs inside these countries," said R. Nicholas Burns, a retired senior American diplomat who worked on the Balkans for the Clinton and Bush administrations. "It's going to be up to local people to do that."

Today, only 600 European soldiers keep the peace. Milorad Dodik, the current leader of the Bosnian Serbs, uses veto powers and the convoluted government structure created as a compromise in Dayton to block efforts to strengthen the central government. Repeated Western efforts to update the country's postwar constitution have failed. Foreign diplomats now hope that the carrot of European Union and NATO membership will turn voters against hardliners.

A third and final lesson focuses on civilian aid. When it comes to postwar reconstruction efforts, less is more. The United States and Europe tried to quickly create virtually every aspect of a new Bosnian state: a new army, police force, economy, infrastructure and education system.

The $1.65 billion American civilian aid effort was too broad and too focused on immediate results, according to Westerners and Bosnians. (Ninety percent of the U.S. money spent here - roughly $15 billion - covered the cost of the American troop deployment.) Foreign aid programs followed a predictable but perverse pattern. Donors demanded quick results. Aid officials, in turn, designed projects that met American political needs in Washington, not Bosnian needs on the ground.

Bosnians who have helped implement foreign aid programs argue that picking a handful of projects, establishing limited goals and consistently funding them for long periods is more effective than a rushed, scattershot approach.

Some initiatives fared well. An integrated national army has been created following a massive American training effort. Some well-staffed American police training and judicial reform programs were effective. The establishment of a new national currency gave the country's economy initial stability. And one simple step - car license plates with no indication of where the driver resides in the country - greatly increased freedom of movement. In general, the more long-term the aid effort, the more successful it was.

Every nation, conflict and era is different, of course. New, unpredictable events shred pristine theories of international relations. But Bosnia's story offers the lesson that foreign interventions can stop the killing, but not control the peace.

One Western diplomat pointed out that Dodik, the Serb nationalist, was initially hailed as a moderate by the international community. Today, he is seen by Western diplomats as the single largest impediment to unifying the country.

"Like Karzai in Afghanistan, he started out as a great popular leader," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "and things went sour."

Over the last 20 years, I covered Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia. Each society is vastly different, but all three have experienced U.S.-led interventions. Iraq and Afghanistan - and the 6,400 American soldiers who have perished there and the $1.2 trillion spent - rightly cloud American views of intervention today. But not all U.S. efforts abroad have been debacles.

In the end, Bosnia is a partial success. It is not the sweeping failure that American isolationists contend. Nor is it the sweeping success that backers of humanitarian intervention hoped. An imperfect peace, though, is better than the carnage that the people of Bosnia endured.

This post originally appeared at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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