NATO Should Redeploy to Bosnia | Opinion

For more than three months and counting, Bosnia and Herzegovina's state-level institutions have been paralyzed. The decision of Bosnian Serb officials to block the functioning of institutions is a direct retaliation for the imposition of a genocide denial ban last July. The ban was imposed by the Office of the High Representative (OHR)—an ad hoc international body overseeing the implementation of the Dayton peace accords—in an effort to counter widespread genocide denial in the post-war country.

The Dayton peace accords handed to the Bosnian Serb entity—Republika Srpska—a large degree of autonomy and a veto over the country's state-level institutions. Over the course of the past several weeks, this boycott has morphed into a far more dangerous gambit. Bosnia is now facing its worst political crisis since the end of the war in 1995. The spiral of escalation shows no sign of abating.

Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader and a member of the country's tripartite presidency, made his intent clear: to undermine and dismantle state institutions and to empower Republika Srpska. He announced that the entity-level assembly will pass legislation to prevent the functioning of state-level judicial bodies, intelligence and police forces on the territory of Republika Srpska. Furthermore, he made clear his intent to establish a Republika Srpska Army and thereby essentially dismantle the joint Armed Forces of Bosnia.

Many analysts in Bosnia and beyond are convinced that these are decisive steps toward secession which threaten peace in the country. In response, Bosniak-majority parties and leading officials have vowed to protect Bosnia's territorial integrity by all available means.

The international response to the crisis has been mute. In no instance since 1995 has the OHR been so ineffective as it is now. This ad hoc body had wideranging powers including to dismiss elected officials and to impose sanctions. Now the OHR is a shadow of its former self and is presiding over its own decline into complete irrelevance.

State flags of Bosnia and Herzegovina flutter
State flags of Bosnia and Herzegovina flutter in the wind. ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images

The European Union (EU)'s strategy toward the rapidly deteriorating crisis has been to hope for the best. A high-ranking EU official was dispatched to Bosnia last week in a half-hearted attempt to deal with modifying the country's election law. The official's mission and the pressing security challenge posed by irredentist policies underscored how misplaced the EU's focus has been in its approach to Bosnia.

This leaves the U.S. as the only credible power to safeguard peace in Bosnia and the Balkans. Of all the American interventions since the Cold War, Bosnia and Kosovo have been the most successful. America invested heavily in Bosnia since the mid-1990s and the country made slow but significant steps forward. The country remains pro-American and pro-Western and it is imperative to salvage peace in this corner of Europe.

The Biden administration should step in now to avert a disaster. Peace can be secured if the U.S. leads NATO into a new mission to Bosnia. The main reason that peace was established in Bosnia after 1995 was the presence of American-led NATO troops in the country. The transfer of the mission to European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR) in 2004 has come to be seen as a major strategic mistake. The presence of EUFOR lulls the population into a false sense of security while the mission is strategically incapable of dealing with a major crisis.

Now is the time to redeploy NATO to Bosnia. NATO need not develop new plans for redeployment. In fact, the alliance can repeat the blueprint of the post-war deployment. NATO should establish its presence in Sarajevo and use the airport in the norther city of Tuzla. The strategic town of Brčko in Bosnia's northeast should be secured and a NATO presence established there. With minimal resources, NATO could avert Bosnia's slide into uncertainty and ensure that the Western political and military investment in peace in southeastern Europe is safeguarded.

Hamza Karčić is an associate professor at the faculty of political science at the University of Sarajevo.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.