White House Seeking Consensus On Size of Cuts in Bosnia Force
By Bradley Graham and John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 9, 1997; Page A27
Although they have generally agreed on the need to keep U.S. troops in Bosnia past next year's scheduled withdrawal date, top administration officials still lack consensus on how many of the 8,500-member U.S. contingent -- plus more than 22,000 other NATO-led peacekeepers -- can be cut without jeopardizing many of the obligations that the international military force has assumed in Bosnia.
President Clinton, presented one draft set of options recently, pronounced them too limited and ordered his national security team to explore a broader range of ideas. The central issue, according to senior officials, is how to balance the desire for a smaller force against the reality that ensuring stability in Bosnia still requires a substantial international presence of some kind.
The Pentagon has told the White House that it cannot responsibly reduce the force by more than a modest amount unless current peacekeeping assignments are markedly narrowed. One idea that administration officials are studying is whether the unarmed international police force in Bosnia can be strengthened by greater European involvement to allow it to assume more tasks, which would lessen the need for U.S. and other NATO soldiers.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said last week that a consensus was developing within the government to keep U.S. troops in Bosnia past the June 30, 1998, deadline set last year. Albright's statement was the first public acknowledgment of what had become an increasingly widespread expectation in the United States and Europe. But White House officials say that Clinton has yet to reach a final decision on the issue of participation, and that his deliberations are linked to the question of how large the force will be and what it will do.
"There is a relationship between force size, force structure and mission," said one senior official, adding that a vigorous debate about all three is underway among administration policymakers.
Describing the competing pressures on Clinton as he approaches one of the most critical foreign policy decisions of his second term, officials said domestic political considerations argue for at least some reduction in troop numbers to support the president's case that progress is being made in Bosnia and to rebut congressional critics who contend U.S. forces are becoming mired there.
At the same time, Bosnia's still fragile two-year-old peace imposes limits on just how far U.S. officials can safely hope to trim the force. Further, the insistence of European allies that the United States retain a substantial role in the peacekeeping operation works against shrinking America's participation much below its current one-quarter share.
Administration officials say their thinking is tugged by conflicting goals. For instance, they want the entire NATO force to remain under the command of a U.S. general if U.S. troops stay in Bosnia. But they also would like to see the Europeans take on a greater share of the peacekeeping effort.
The options under consideration, one senior official said, range from a smaller deterrence force that would be responsible for little more than keeping the lid on renewed outbreaks of ethnic fighting to a force about the same size as now that would take an active role in helping supervise elections, maintain a more open media and monitor local police.
Administration officials had expected that a consensus among the United States and its allies would be forged at a meeting of NATO defense ministers next month. But senior officials said yesterday that this timetable is in some doubt, in part because U.S. planning has been slowed by an unrelated crisis over Iraq's refusal to comply with United Nations weapons inspections.
After reaching a peak of about 20,000 troops in early 1996, the size of the American contingent in Bosnia has remained at roughly 8,500 for much of this year and even rose a bit in September during the municipal elections. U.S. officials say troop reductions were not possible sooner because of delays in scheduling the elections and added demands on the peacekeeping force.
While U.S. commanders managed to restrict their responsibilities in the first year of the peacekeeping operation to separating the opposing factions, collecting heavy weapons and supervising the exchange of territory, they have been drawn this year into broader tasks that Pentagon planners initially thought would be handled by international civilian agencies or Bosnian authorities.
These tasks include helping resettle refugees, setting up elections and sorting out control of local broadcast stations, all regarded somewhat uncomfortably by defense officials more as policing actions than the type of work best suited for a military force.
Moreover, pressure has grown on the peacekeeping operation to assist in, if not spearhead, the arrest of the dozens of war crimes suspects.
Administration officials have yet to agree which of these missions would have to be cut were the NATO force reduced.
Among other unresolved major concerns is how to define a credible exit strategy for an operation that already has seen two withdrawal deadlines come and go. Administration officials say they will not try to set another deadline, and it is doubtful another such attempt would carry any authority with a skeptical Congress and American public.
Instead, officials are attempting to list criteria against which to measure results in Bosnia and assign stages for withdrawing U.S. and other international troops. Robert Gelbard, the State Department's point man on Bosnia, put together a book of end-state goals last summer to assess progress and develop time lines. The book is classified.
Asked at a House hearing on Friday to assess, on a scale of 10, Bosnia's ability at the moment to maintain peace if NATO forces were to withdraw, Gelbard replied: "Five and moving up."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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