Getting The Job Done

NATO HAS A LOT TO boast about in Bosnia in the two weeks since D-Day, or Deployment Day, as the troops refer to the Dee. 20 handover of power from the United Nations to NATO's IFOR (Implementation Force). By the weekend, NATO troops had either shut down or knocked down every military roadblock in two thirds of the country. For the first time, Muslim civilians could travel from Sarajevo to the Gorazde enclave across Serb territory. The drive from Zagreb to Sarajevo, which once took two days and many prayers, was reduced to four hours. NATO soldiers occupied a key dam to prevent Croat troops from sabotaging it. Serbs and Muslims helped IFOR map their minefields. The belligerents, renamed in NATO-speak as the FWFs (Former Warring Factions), sat down to hash out their withdrawals from the confrontation lines, due in two weeks. One British veteran of the Bosnian conflict came away from one such meeting amazed: "They always try to outnice each other."

All this took place without any direct input from the U.S. forces, who are still struggling to finish reaching the country; only 4,400 of the projected 20,000 American troops had arrived last week in their sector, around Tuzla. Many of the deadlines set by the Dayton accords for the first 45 days seem likely to pass without a full U.S. contingent on hand to oversee them. Some of the warring parties are still manning checkpoints in the northern sector, and around Zavidovici and Zenica in the American area, truckloads of Muslim mujahedin still cruise around looking for trouble--despite U.S. demands that they leave. While some U.S. Army Special Forces teams, in Bosnia ahead of D-Day, have gotten involved with civil affairs and psyops, little has been done on the ground in the U.S. sector.

The French and British snicker about the Sava River bridge, which the Americans initially vowed would take a day or two to build but ended up taking a week. After the French-built Bijela Bridge was washed away Dec. 27 by an overflowing dam, they rebuilt it in two days. From their Gornji Vakuf headquarters, British troops quickly took over the Bocac Dam, guarding it so that once Croats hand it back to Serbs it will still be in one piece. Within hours of the handover, French tanks controlled the notorious Sierra checkpoints run by the Serbs in Ilidza, outside Sarajevo--effectively ending the siege of Sarajevo in one stroke. The Americans were still on rail-heads in Hungary and Austria. "It's perhaps wrong of us to mock the Americans," said a British major in Gornji Vakuf. "We've been here so long that we've forgotten we were probably exactly the same when we came in."

No one is suggesting that the Americans shouldn't be in Bosnia, or aren't needed; no NATO deployment would have been possible otherwise, and the American contribution in materiel and air and naval support is immense. "None of us would be here in green vehicles marked IFOR if it wasn't for the Americans," said a French officer. "We don't even have to see them for there to be a difference." So far, the news has been mostly good. If the Americans share in the credit for that, no one can blame them. They'll also get a share of the blame if it all goes wrong.