Operation Deliberate Force: Foreword

Operation Deliberate Force: The UN and NATO campaign in Bosnia 1995

”Maybe Airlines”. A UN Iluyshin II-76 transport aircraft at Sarajevo Airport. Photo: Tim Ripley

”Maybe Airlines”. A UN Iluyshin II-76 transport aircraft at Sarajevo Airport. Photo: Tim Ripley

FOREWORD by Nik Gowing
(Diplomatic Editor, Channel Four News 1989-96) London

I remember the UNPROFOR officer who lied to me. Deceit was often the way of both life and war in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995.

None of us who were involved in some way should ever have believed otherwise. Outsiders grew to expect deceit in the Balkans from the warlords, thugs and vicious types from each of the three different ethnic sides who were fighting for what they believed was theirs by right.But deceit was less easy to accept from a western officer in a blue helmet who travelled around in a white-painted military vehicle with the two letters U and N painted in black shades on the sides. Given their “humanitarian mission” somehow it seemed wrong even to dare to think that he and his colleagues could be anything but both straight with information and committed in helping those from all sides who were suffering.

Yet sometimes there was a nastier, dirtier side to the UNPROFOR mission. From within the walls of the UN compound in Zagreb, and behind The Residency walls of the headquarters in Sarajevo, and beyond the sandbags protecting the many scores of UN barracks or outposts across Bosnia, the blue helmets were progressively having to fight a war without ever declaring it. Simultaneously they also fought for political ground among themselves while trying to outflank the warring factions.

As I confirmed during my own nine-month investigation for ITN’s Channel Four News through 1995, the US had latterly been conducting a covert war in support of the Bosnian Muslims. The secret US weapon drops, training missions and moral support were in defiance of the agreed international arms embargo. They were also conducted in direct contravention of the policies agreed with UN and NATO partner nations. Traditional US allies especially Britain were furious at being misled and deceived.

19th Regiment Royal Artillery fire at Serb targets in the opening hours of Operation Deliberate Force. Photo: Sgt Steve Dock/UKLF Media Production Cell/Crown copyright

19th Regiment Royal Artillery fire at Serb targets in the opening hours of Operation Deliberate Force. Photo: Sgt Steve Dock/UKLF Media Production Cell/Crown copyright

The international military and diplomatic experience during the Bosnian war added a new interpretation to the well-worn phrase ‘the fog of war’. Not only did diplomats and political leaders often allow themselves to be misled about their own level of knowledge and understanding of Balkan intentions and motivations. They then went on to deceive and manipulate both allies and colleagues with whom they were meant to be working harmoniously.

We discovered the new truth about alliances and multi-national operations: namely determination to pursue national agendas over and above obligations to alliances.

In the new generation of intra-state war, conflict, humanitarian crisis or what has now become known as a ‘complex emergency’, the public and media have tended to assume that governments, politicians and diplomats possess as much insight, firmness of resolve and clarity of understanding as their public statements and actions suggest.

In communiqués we heard of their “determination” to take action or their “warnings” to warring parties, or “united international” commitment through the United Nations, European Union or NATO. At the same time,  correspondents like myself were duty bound to report in good faith such expressions of resolve, just as we reported Serb leaders like Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic attending peace negotiations and declaring “of course we want peace” in good faith. Surely there could have been no alternative?

But in reality, behind the scenes, there often was weakness, indecision, a lack of consensus, and a determination to do the minimum possible, because the consequences of doing the maximum necessary were considered politically too costly.

Many asked with good reason: surely none of this could have been possible, when evidence of ruthless, savage horrors being perpetrated in the cause of ethnic purity was so stark? Yet in the international actions in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 until 1995 and now at the time of writing in Kosovo from 1998 to 1999  illustrate savagely how flawed, fallible and wrong-footed the world’s leading powers can readily become. Humanitarian palliatives were more attractive than decisive actions to end the fighting once and for all. Determined belligerents and genocidal warlords bent on a course of action frequently showed how well they understood their enemies in the UN and NATO. I can never forget a chilling five hour meeting with the Bosnian Serb military leader General Ratko Mladic overlooking the River Drina at Zvornik in June 1993. “You have to realise,” he sneered as we ate lunch, “I understand the West better than the West understands itself”. He was probably right. The Achilles’ heel of any alliance is the multi-national nature of the alliance itself.

The claimed 20/20 insight of western information warfare dominance, the world’s best intelligence and signals interception capability, and the most advanced analytical skills are still thwarted by the devious skills of the warlords and clan leaders who are determined to pursue the most obscene campaigns of ethnic division and annihilation. Do the institutions of government, politics, diplomacy and military strategy learn from their errors. They should, but do they? Kosovo in 1999 seems to confirm not just the limits, but the diplomatic impotence beyond a certain ill-defined point. After Bosnia we have to wonder, and wonder in a painful, soul searching way. Could anything be worse than Bosnia, we all asked? In Kosovo during 1999 it has been, and many of the same Balkan figures have been doing their evil work again.

A British Warrior infantry fighting vehicle takes aim at Serb positions near Sarajevo. Photo: ULK Media Production Cell / Crown copyright

A British Warrior infantry fighting vehicle takes aim at Serb positions near Sarajevo. Photo: ULK Media Production Cell / Crown copyright

So did we learn from Bosnia? And if we did, what did we learn?

In this volume, Tim Ripley has assembled  through a remarkably extensive set of candid interviews with central military and political players in the Bosnian tragedy a deeply depressing catalogue of the new limits to diplomacy and military strategy. There is deceit against each other by partner nations who are meant to be allies. There are the sorry tales of how instead of pursuing multi-national policies which they had signed up to, governments secretly pursued national strategies that in some cases directly contradicted the policies they claimed to be upholding. There is also self-deception when confronting evidence of what took place.

n Bosnia the international community learned the hard way how little they knew or understood about the strategies and tactics of the those determined to commit crimes against humanity in a corner of Europe. During the deepening of the Kosovo crisis through 1998 and into early 1999 they discovered how they could not believe that Bosnia 1992-1995 would be repeated on an even more appalling scale.

This book is distressing piecing together of a chronology and its realities that many of those involved might prefer was not told. Yet a large number of people acceded to Tim Ripley’s request to be interview, and have revealed their part in the appalling western political and military jigsaw that was Bosnia.

Nik Gowing (Diplomatic Editor, Channel Four News 1989-96) London


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