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Balkan peacekeeping lessons for Iraq

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Montgomery Meigs warns against limiting the number of troops we keep in the country, and setting artificial deadlines for completing their mission.
/ Source: contributor

In moving Iraq toward a democratic government, the U.S. needs to apply lessons from our experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo. And that means setting clear goals, keeping our troops there in sufficient numbers, and avoiding artificial deadlines for their mission to be completed.

FRICTIONS INSIDE THE BELTWAY in Washington can sap energy in the field. The Deputy Secretary of Defense has opined that the Defense Department and State Department are of one mind on the issue of unity of command — which is heartening news.

So often in Bosnia, State and Defense gave us conflicting guidance. State usually wanted action right away. Defense generally proved risk averse. Often as we struggled to turn conflicting strategic guidance into orders that made sense on the ground, our allies watched with amazement and calculation.

Make no mistake, commanders will need continued involvement by the White House to ensure that clear, disciplined, strategic intent reaches the forces in the field. Without that unifying intent, our allies and our opponents exploit seams caused by intra-governmental friction back home.


The administration also has a point in its reluctance to turn the effort over completely to an international body. The U.N. and European Union bring international support, additional funds, and a host of agencies with dedicated professionals. But U.N. and E.U. leadership also exact a price in effectiveness. So often in Bosnia, officials of the E.U. and the U.N. were not helpful.

One Thursday we invited the E.U.’s High Representative to our headquarters in Sarajevo. We had bad news. Officials of the Republika Serbska Assembly planned a soft coup to remove their prime minister. This leader had frustrated various gambits of the hardline SDS, the party of indicted war criminals Karadic and Krajisnic.

On hearing the news, the High Representative cheerily wished me well, grabbed his coat, and announced that he was off for a long weekend.

With a full court press by the Deputy High Representative, the U.S. and British ambassadors, and the head of OSCE (the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), we prevented the coup. The High Rep returned Wednesday happy with the result.


As the Iraqi peacekeeping operation develops, we must maintain the right level of force in the field. The Army Chief of Staff estimated that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in postwar Iraq. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has stated that it is too early to give hard numbers without a troop-to-task analysis. I hope this response indicates a new reality.

In Bosnia, force ceilings were dictated again and again in advance of any assessment of what we needed on the ground, often with the statement that, “it’s locked in concrete with the Hill (Congress).”

For instance, in Kosovo in the summer of 2001, we argued that Task Force FALCON, the U.S. contingent, needed two more companies of infantry, about 300 troops. “Do less,” we were told.

Doing less meant exposing our troops to greater risk on a border where firefights occurred frequently. Without the extra infantry, we were unable to run operations inside Kosovo to interdict the internal movement of arms and Albanian-Kosovar fighters to Macedonia. As usual, the troops made things work but by a very slim margin.


In tribal societies the survival of family and ethnic group has the highest social value. Straying from this rule of obligation and obedience means dishonor — and with dishonor comes enforcement or vengeance.

In the Balkans, we uncovered an unholy trinity of organized crime, secret intelligence services and paramilitaries, and corrupt senior military and political officials. Radical and corrupt politicians used this trinity for enforcement and as their base of power.

In any demonstration against SFOR, we watched police take off their uniform coats and join and lead the crowds — usually consisting of refugees or high school students paid by secret service operators with cash and all they could drink.

Often, we found that the special operations personnel threatening and assaulting our soldiers were in fact in the employ of secret intelligence services, often paid as unregistered special police. The recent assassination of the prime minister of Serbia is a reminder of this problem. We can expect similar, though culturally distinct, patterns of this trinity in Iraq.

When commanders of the Stabilization Force in Bosnia attacked this unholy trinity, Washington did not always support us. In late 1999, after almost a year of careful intelligence work, SFOR planned a punitive operation against the Bosnian Croat Intelligence Service. This organization had actively opposed our attempts to ensure a safe and secure environment in Eastern Herzegovina. Bosnian-Croat thugs even assaulted soldiers and threatened with them with proximate deadly force.

The night before the operation, I was asked what would happen when the American Special Forces troops kicked the door in — “What if someone comes up with a gun?” We explained that bureaucrats manned the office. Violence was unlikely, but pointing a weapon at our soldiers could trigger the use of lethal force.

In that case, Washington replied, the risk was too great — pull the U.S. troops.

Fortunately, Paris agreed to provide Foreign Legionaires to conduct the forced entry. On the day of the raid, the clerks could not have been more docile. SFOR seized 35 cubic meters of computers and records, a windfall for NATO intelligence services and a huge setback for the forces attempting to thwart progress toward democratic government.


Pre-empting the dirty tricks of the old regime’s enforcers and protecting our troops on the ground requires superb intelligence. Over the long term, maintaining the quality of the intelligence effort becomes very hard. In SFOR in 1998 in our intelligence analysis cell, we had two analysts. We needed six. One, from a National Agency, had a heart condition. The other, a non-commissioned officer in the Air Force, had no background in unconventional warfare. Neither had any experience with unconventional warfare, nor did they speak or read Serbo-Croatian.

Constantly, we used informal networks of friends in Washington and jawboning to obtain qualified personnel for the most important positions, leaving many U.S. billets empty. In peace enforcement, gaining actionable intelligence requires a significant investment by national agencies and the services who must give up essential talent back home to work in the field. When all the agencies provide quality people and services, the result is magic. When the campaign fades in national priority, the effort downrange degrades quickly.

Now as the guns go silent, we must make a national commitment for the campaign for the long haul to provide quality people and priority for intelligence support.

Finally, in spite of the many commendable things the administration has done to ensure a coherent plan existed before peace enforcement began, one general theme seems discordant. Officials of the Clinton administration promised Congress that we would be out of Bosnia in a year. From a narrow military perspective, the timeline was not improbable. However, given the task of ensuring a safe and secure environment conducive to the development of democratic institutions, the one year promise was hopelessly optimistic and unfortunate.

That promise bedeviled us for years, causing the aversion to risk that arguably kept us from doing things that could have accelerated progress and with it our departure. We still do not have a truly functioning democratic government in Bosnia Herzegovina, one that exercises a unitary sovereignty recognized by all factions.

Administration officials now argue that we will form a new Iraqi government in six months. Without the stiffening presence of U.S. and coalition troops, will this interim authority be capable of maintaining the order needed for the transition to democratic governance?

Do we not serve the troops and national goals best by admitting we are in this campaign for the long haul and that we will invest the effort to ensure unity of command and provide the leadership, soldiers on the ground and intelligence assets needed to get the job done?Retired U.S. Army General Montgomery C. Meigs is the Tom Slick Visiting Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, and a consultant for NBC News.