The U.S. Must Not Allow Bosnia to Become Another Afghanistan | Opinion

Christian Schmidt, the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina and international peace overseer for the country, recently warned that if the international community does not curtail threats of separatist measures by Bosnian Serbs, the small Western Balkan country could face the worst "existential threat of the post-war period." His report was supposed to be read in front of the United Nations Security Council, but it was taken off the agenda after pressure from Russia.

The man behind the crisis is Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who serves as a member of the tripartite Bosnian and Herzegovinian Presidency, an institution he is actively trying to weaken even as he enjoys the benefits of the position. Dodik has threatened to re-establish the Bosnian Serb Army which was found by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as the key agency responsible for mass atrocities including the notorious Srebrenica genocide in which more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were executed and their bodies concealed in mass graves.

In 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords were concluded in Ohio, ending the bloody three and half year war. However, this peace agreement has, over time, reinforced divisions. Post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina is administratively divided into two entities—the Republika Srpska and the Federation. The population in the former are primarily Bosnian Serbs while the latter is primarily Bosniak and Bosnian Croat. The state-level government, initially rather weak, has been strengthened over the years, mostly with the help of U.S. and European Union pressure via the Office of the High Representative. In the initial period, everything seemed to be going well. The economic and political situation progressed slowly in a positive direction. Perpetrators were being arrested and tried for their crimes. EU and NATO membership seemed to be around the corner. At least that was what we were told.

A crucial turning point was in 2006. The British High Representative Paddy Ashdown left his position. General elections were held, in which wartime political leader Haris Silajdžić was elected as the Bosniak member of the tripartite presidency, while Milorad Dodik became prime minister of the Republika Srpska. Silajdžić campaigned to abolish the Serb entity while Dodik campaigned for independence. It was a political win-win and their campaigns brought each other into power through divisive rhetoric. For the past 15 years, Dodik has continued to dominate the political scene continuing the same narratives, which has led to Bosnia's immediate post-war progress stagnating over time.

Meanwhile, the rise in far-right nativist ideologies and Islamophobia in Europe and globally gave the Bosnian Serb leadership an ideal opportunity to dehumanize Bosniaks. By labeling them "radicals" who want a "Muslim state," the Bosnian Serb establishment has played squarely into the fears of the increasingly high number of right populists in the West. Bosniaks, who are predominantly liberal, and promote Bosnia and Herzegovina as a secular state, have been ignored while the country has instead been represented as a "terrorist" hub, a safe heaven for militants and illegal migrants alike.

Bosnian woman touches casket
A Bosnian woman, survivor of the massacre in the western Bosnian town of Prijedor in 1992, touches the casket of her relative covered with the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the village of Kamicani, on July 20, 2020. ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images

The current crisis unfolding in Bosnia and the rhetoric reminds us of the 1990s where genocidaires accused Bosniaks of fundamentalism. The Bosnian Serb military operations were mainly comprised of mass incarceration, mass execution, mass rape and mass graves. The latest rhetoric along with the general global and regional political situation has caused fear among the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As he takes steps toward weakening state-level institutions further, Dodik has built alliances with autocrats in Europe. In September of this year, the Fourth Budapest Demographic Summit was attended by nativist leaders with a special attendance by former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Dodik was in attendance as well. He posed a question to the audience: "Who will live in Europe 50 years from now? Will there be Europeans? I live in a region only four and a half hours from here, where migrants come from the Middle East. Do you think it is far from Europe? No, it is not."

This demonstrates Dodik attempting to export his dangerous rhetoric beyond Bosnia's borders. His recent decisions have raised concerns among Bosnian citizens and international observers. Threats about the potential seccession of the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina pose a serious security risk in the region, with major long-term implications. They also carry an implicit threat to the non-Serbs living in this entity, including returnees of the Srebrenica genocide, Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats and multiple minorities.

Dayton was spearheaded by the Clinton administration. It is time for the Biden administration to step in and support its allies in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to uphold peace and its own legacy. Otherwise, Bosnia and Herzegovina could spiral and become another Afghanistan.

Hikmet Karcic is a genocide scholar based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and author of the forthcoming book Torture, Humiliate, Kill: Inside the Bosnian Serb Camp System (University of Michigan Press, 2022). He is a senior fellow with the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. He was also the 2017 Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation-Keene State College global fellow.

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