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Clinton Decides to Keep U.S. Troops in Bosnia

By Peter Baker and Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 16, 1996; Page A01

President Clinton yesterday broke a self-imposed deadline for withdrawing U.S. peacekeeping troops from Bosnia, deciding "in principle" to keep them there until mid-1998 or at least 18 months longer than he originally promised.

A scaled-down contingent of 8,500 soldiers will participate in a NATO-led international force charged with helping to cement a fragile peace in the country, which was ravaged by ethnic warfare until last year's Dayton accords and the peacekeepers' arrival.

The renewed U.S. deployment — about half the size of the current contingent in Bosnia — will be reduced gradually and withdrawn entirely by June 1998, the president said during a nationally televised statement at the White House.

"Bosnia's bitter harvest of hatred . . . has not disappeared," said Clinton, shortly before departing on a 12-day trip to Hawaii and Asia. "For the last 12 months the killing has stopped and with time the habits of peace can take hold."

Flanked by Vice President Gore and top national security officials, Clinton added that the current NATO-led force has "plowed the field in which the seeds of peace have been planted. The new mission will provide the time for them to take root."

It was the second time in three days that Clinton has committed military forces to help solve an intractable world crisis, and the president also used the occasion to explain his earlier decision to send several thousand U.S. troops to provide emergency relief in Central Africa.

Asked if the African operation was still necessary amid reports of refugees returning to Rwanda from Zaire, Clinton called the reports "very good preliminary news" but indicated U.S. troops might still be sent to assist the relief effort.

In general, Clinton tried to make the case for a vigorous U.S. involvement in global hot spots, arguing that the world's last superpower has a duty to prevent a new outbreak of war in the Balkans and head off widespread disease and famine in Central Africa.

But it was a message that he rarely delivered during the just-completed campaign season, which focused almost exclusively on the economy, taxes, education and other domestic concerns. The president was hard-pressed yesterday to defend himself against accusations that he had violated his original stipulation that troops come home from Bosnia by next month, and that he deliberately played down the likelihood of renewed foreign intervention until after the votes were counted Nov. 5.

Clinton asserted that he was explicit before the election that he might keep a presence in Bosnia. He said many reporters and voters did not pay much attention to his statements, because his opponent, Republican Robert J. Dole, took essentially the same position.

"There was not a difference of opinion on it, so I think it did not become more hotly debated in the campaign . . . but the issue was out there," Clinton said.

NATO officials had publicly raised the issue before the election and pressed the United States to keep troops in Bosnia. Throughout the autumn, though, White House and Pentagon officials brushed off discussion of a follow-on force as premature.

The U.S. contingent in Bosnia will remain the largest single part of the NATO-led force, which will shrink to 31,000.

Clinton said the revised operation must be "clear, limited, achievable," before he gives final approval, the same words he used a year ago to describe the original intervention.

As his aides have done previously, the president engaged in a bit of semantics to suggest that he actually is keeping to his original promise to withdraw next month because the follow-on force represents "a different mission," a distinction that seems to persuade few outside the White House.

Clinton and his top defense advisers sought to portray the continuation of U.S. troops in Bosnia not as a sign the initial military mission had failed but as a consequence of a lagging economic and political reconstruction effort.

In many ways, the initial NATO force has succeeded, Clinton maintained. Warring Serb, Muslim and Croat soldiers have been separated and their weapons withdrawn. National elections were held, and a new government has been formed.

However, as a deadly firefight in the Bosnian town of Gajevi earlier this week demonstrated, the situation remains volatile at best. Municipal elections have been postponed, the economy remains in tatters and the effort to bring war criminals to justice has made little headway.

Despite what he called "remarkable achievements," Clinton acknowledged that rebuilding the country "is taking longer than anticipated."

"For a time," he said, "they will need the stability and the confidence that only an outside security force can provide."

At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary William J. Perry acknowledged having been wrong in recommending to Clinton last year that a one-year military mission would be sufficient to stabilize Bosnia.

"It was right in the sense that all of the specific tasks spelled out we did do in 12 months," Perry said. "It was not right in the sense that those tasks were enough to allow us to safely leave the country."

He said Bosnia remains an unstable place, with "hot spots" that could erupt into fighting and a crippled economy that is employing only 10 percent of the work force.

"The conditions for peace still do not exist in Bosnia," Perry told reporters, "and there's still the danger that if our troops were to leave Bosnia next month, the war would resume. . . . Putting it in simple terms, the operation was a success, but the patient is still in danger of dying."

The main mission of the renewed allied force, defense officials said, would be to deter resumption of hostilities and provide "a safe and secure environment" for the resettlement of refugees, municipal elections and other civil efforts. Reflecting the change in mission, the allied operation will change its name from Implementation Force, often shortened to IFOR, to Stabilizing Force, or SFOR.

Nonetheless, many of the specific tasks that U.S. forces will be asked to undertake will be the same they have been performing for months since supervising the withdrawal of combatants and establishing "zones of separation" among Bosnian Muslim, Croat and Serb forces.

"There will be patrols, but not quite as many," said Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "There will be checking on cantonment areas, but not as often as before."

Also as before, the replacement force will have no orders to track down and arrest suspected war criminals. Nor will it be responsible for enforcing freedom of movement in individual cases, Shalikashvili said.

Just which U.S. troops will be assigned to Bosnia next year has yet to be decided, defense officials said, but the most likely option is to keep in place elements of the 1st Infantry Division already moving in to serve as a "covering force" for the 1st Armored Division's withdrawal. The scaled-down force would retain the NATO chain of command and "very robust rules of engagement" of its predecessor, Shalikashvili said, adding that Gen. William Crouch would remain the top U.S. commander in Bosnia.

"It is envisioned that after approximately one year, we'll be able to replace this 31,000 force by a yet smaller force with an even narrower mission, a mission of deterrence," the general told reporters. That operation is planned to involve 5,500 U.S. forces in Bosnia and a total allied contingent of 13,500 troops.

"Our recommendation now is that the mission end in June 1998, and that shortly thereafter, all troops withdraw from there," Shalikashvili said.

Asked how anyone could have confidence in a new withdrawal date given the Clinton administration's inability to meet the last one it set, Perry said the key this time would be the pace of economic reconstruction which, he added, needs to accelerate.

On Capitol Hill, some leading Republicans expressed strong reservations about the president's actions, although Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he thought Clinton "made the right decision" in regard to both Bosnia and Central Africa. He said Clinton may pay a high price for acting without having first involved Congress in the decision.

By putting off the Bosnia redeployment decision until after the elections — and announcing it at a time Congress is out of town — "he's out there by himself again," Lugar said. "If you take unilateral responsibility, you take unilateral blame."

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, faulted the president for not acknowledging last year that U.S. troops would have to stay in Bosnia for more than a year, but said "we probably have no choice" but to continue the deployment.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), another Armed Services Committee member, criticized Clinton for not sufficiently defining the objectives and ground rules for continued U.S. involvement in Bosnia.

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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