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The Austrian Armed Forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina

From the conflict in former Yugoslavia to the operation Althea

The Austrian Armed Forces have participated in the international operations aimed at ending the war of disintegration in Yugoslavia since 1996 with one troop contingent. After the implementation and stabilisation of the provisions of the Dayton Agreement under NATO command (keywords: IFOR and SFOR), the European Union now provides security through Operation EUFOR Althea, currently under Austrian command.

After the foundation of the first autonomous Serbian regions in Bosnia on 27 July 1991, tensions between the ethnic groups intensified until the proclamation of the Serbian Republic in Bosnia in January 1992. The declaration of independence by the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina on 5 April, 1992 meant a distinctive caesura in the power conflict raging in the disintegrating state. This, however, did not trigger assumptions concerning the start of operations by Serbian forces on 7 April 1992, which had certainly been in planning a long time before. During the previous months, the latter had been receiving considerable support in terms of personnel and materiel from the former Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA). Within a few weeks, they were controlling more than half of the territory of the Republic recognised by the United Nations.

After the Serbs had gained control of huge parts of Serbian settlements in the regions of Knin, Lika, Krajina, and Western Slavonia (Pakrac Mountains) through combat action in Croatia since April 1991, securing the lines of support was in the focus of the operations conducted by the Yugoslav People’s Army. These lines of support made war history under the names of Northern Corridor and Eastern Corridor, respectively. While the Eastern Corridor runs through Serbian territory only, the Northern Corridor leads, over long distances, through Bosniak and Croat settlement areas, respectively. Between Prijedor and Knin it traverses all four Dinaric mountain ranges and thus can be easily closed. This circumstance, as well as the fact that the only route circumventing the ranges ran through Croat territory, would prove a grave operative disadvantage for the YPA as the fighting continued.

At the beginning of the Serbian operations, the two Krajina corps in Banja Luka and Drvar as well as the operative group of Knin were brought into play. After their dispatch from Serbia, corps were stationed in Bijeljina, Pale, Nevesinje and Bileæa. The Army Headquarters was established at a spacious bunker facility near Han Pijesak. The aim of the operations was, first of all, to advance to Central Bosnia, via the Bosna Valley, from Banja Luka via the Vrbas Valley, and from Bosanski Grahovo via the Livansko Polje. These advances were delayed by Croat forces at Jajce by six months and, finally halted at Livno, Bugojno, and Maglaj. In April 1993, heavy fighting broke out between Croats and Bosnian Muslims. In this phase of weakness, the Serbian forces succeeded, in July 1993, in closing in on Sarajevo almost completely, maintaining their position until the end of the war in September 1995. Only the area north of Bihaæ was held by the forces of the V. Bosnian Corps during the complete duration of the war. The Croat area of influence shrank to a strip of Dalmatian hinterland between the Neretva and the Livno area.

Efforts to stem the conflict

Through mediation by the European Community the Brioni Agreement was finalized on 8 July 1991, entailing a ceasefire in Slovenia and, in the end, due to the decision of the Yugoslav Federal Presidium, the withdrawal of the Federal Army from Slovenia on 18 July.

The recognition of the Republics of Slovenia and Croatia by the European Community and twenty other states on 15 January 1992, however, only led to a temporary ease of tensions, since another conflict, the one in Bosnia, became apparent only a few weeks later.

The mostly unfortunate deployment of ECMM observers (European Community Monitoring Mission) represents one of the tragically failed attempts to ease the conflict by means of good offices and to mediate between the conflicting parties.

Only in the last phase of the war in Croatia or at the climax of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), respectively, did the political and military intervention by the U.N. reach a level that pointed to an attempt at containment.

On 8 October 1991, former U.S. State Secretary Cyrus Vance was sent to Croatia as a personal emissary by Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali. The Vance-Owen Plan (Lord Owen had been EU emissary since the end of August 1992), submitted in 1993, which envisaged a split of Bosnia and Herzegovina according to (recently evolved) ethnic principles, was - like the Vance-Stoltenberg Plan of July 1993, aiming at a confederation of three republics for Bosnia and Herzegovina - eventually rejected by all three parties to the war for differing reasons.

UN Security Council Resolution 743 of 21 February 1992 led to the set-up of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), whose so far 21,000 troops should have taken military control, mostly of the outer regions of the zones conquered by the Serbs in Croatia. In June 1992, the mission was extended to the area of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its overall strength increased to over 38,000.

Main tasks should be:

  • the securing of Operation Provide Promise (support of Sarajevo by air, via the airfield from 3 July 1992 to 9 January 1996; this support constituted the longest in duration since Berlin 1948/49);
  • the creation of safe areas in six cities (Srebrenica, ®epa, Gora¾de, Tuzla, Bihaæ, Sarajevo) to function as security zones for the Bosnian-Muslim population (UN Resolution 824 of 6 May 1993);
  • the prevention of all military flights (Deny Flight) above Bosnia and Herzegovina, which, however, was ensured by NATO air force units.

Contrary to initial intentions, UNPROFOR units were more and more drawn into the hostilities or became the direct target of mostly Serbian units, respectively, and, at times, suffered many casualties (167 dead and numerous wounded before March 1995).

In the Adriatic Sea, NATO naval units were conducting Operation Sharp Guard to monitor the EU embargo against Yugoslavia, which had been in force since 1991.

Conclusion from the war

While the losses caused by the fighting in Slovenia were negligible, with only few civilian casualties, the war in Croatia and, particularly, in Bosnia, cannot be denied - at least throughout certain phases - the quality of a war of destruction.

Innumerable murders of civilians and imprisoned combatants were carried out only after the end of the fighting. It is difficult to number the human lives lost, however, they can be estimated at a minimum of 180,000 between 1991 and 1995. Other estimates, which also include the casualties in Kosovo, speak of 250,000, whereby those missing to this day are also accounted for.

According to statistics of the UN in Geneva, the destiny of about 25,000 persons (20,000 of which come from the Bosnia and Herzegovina area) was unaccounted for at the beginning of 1997. The Red Cross has over about 16,000 missing person reports.

The number of systematically committed rapes is said to rank between a minimum of several thousand and a maximum of 70,000 cases.

The term ethnic cleansing made an inglorious entry into European language usage in 1992.

The number of refugees and displaced persons, as a result of the fighting between 1991 and 1995, amounted to 3.8 million in former Yugoslavia, in August 1994 alone. About one million people had fled to various European states.

The fact that brutal prisoners’ camps - proper concentration camps - had been established became known worldwide in the summer of 1992.

When the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague started to punish individuals for their crimes, this only represented the tip of the iceberg of a series of almost incomprehensible incidents.

Situation in the spring of 1995

After almost four years of combat action, only interrupted for certain periods, it became clear that the territory of Serbia and Montenegro was not directly affected.

Meanwhile, Serbian influence in Bosnian areas had, by now, almost reached its maximum. Comparing the international reactions so far, one was not wrong to assume that, at that point of time, Bosnian-Serb leaders were most likely to hold on to their already achieved aims.

The last, partly successful, attempts by Bosnian-Serb units, in the spring and summer of 1995, to regain initiative in the operation, were single attacks against the zones, guaranteed by UN troops to be safe areas (Gora¾de, Tuzla, Srebrenica, ®epa). The massacre by Bosnian-Serb troops inflicted on Bosnian-Muslim prisoners after the conquest of Srebrenica on 13 July 1995 (the death toll amounted to several thousands) finally led to a massive intervention by NATO, using air force and single land force units.

After Operation Lightning in the spring of 1995 had caused the expulsion of the Serbs from Western Slavonia, the war was decided in Western Bosnia. At the beginning of August 1995, corps-size forces were provided for the Operation Storm, in the Gospiæ area, two brigades in the areas of Karlovac and Sisak, as well as one regiment in the Livno area. These Croat units rapidly advanced to Western Bosnia on 4 August 1995 and succeeded in isolating and destroying the Serbian corps, weakened by supply problems. On 6 August, already, they were united with the V. Bosnian corps in the Bihaæ area, which itself advanced to Sanski Most and Bosanski Petrovac (B.P.) in mid-September. As a preparation for Operation Storm several deep thrusts were carried out, as early as 30 July, into Bosanski Grahovo (B.G) and Drvar. Between Karlovac and Sisak six militia regiments were employed to prevent Serbian forces from swerving into Croatia. All in all, the operation was completed on 8 August 1995. Smaller Croat-Bosniak advances as well as air raids by NATO units finally led to a ceasefire at the end of September. One considerable consequence of the operation was the expulsion of approximately 200,000 Serbs from the Lika to Northern Bosnia.

NATO intervention

From 12 April 1993 to the beginning of March 1995 NATO air forces had already conducted more than 52,000 attacks. The air operations that NATO air force units conducted for the protection of UNPROFOR since the spring of 1993 as well as the monitoring of the flight ban for the warring parties over Bosnia (Deny Flight) can partly be called successful; similarly, the establishment of an air lift into Sarajevo for the supply of the civilian population since the summer of 1992. Finally, Operation Deliberate Force, tasked with the elimination of the Bosnian-Serb command and control structure (Command, Control, Communications - C3), the ammunition depot, the bridges and the individual air defence positions, brought about the military decision from 30 August 1995.

Via U.S. mediation (by mediator Richard Holbrook), and probably due to massive economic and military pressure, the Dayton Agreement (Ohio, U.S.) was initialled on 21 November 1995. The final peace agreement ceremony took place on 14 December 1995.

Operation Joint Endeavour, too, organising the transfer of IFOR (International Peace Implementation Force) to Bosnia, from the end of 1995, can lastly be considered successful - in contrast to previous operations. During the relief of IFOR by SFOR (Stabilization Force), from 20 December 1996, the former strength of IFOR was halved from 60,000 to 31,000 troops. Until the mandate for NATO intervention would expire, the SFOR operation was continued through the participation of numerous states that had signed the Partnership for Peace Agreement (PfP).

Operation EUFOR Althea

During a solemn military ceremony on 4 December 2004, the EU took over the lead of the forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina which so far had been under NATO control. From the point of view of international law the operation is authorised by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1575 (2004) to implement the military aspects of the peace agreement. Like SFOR, EUFOR operates on the basis of Chapter VII (peace enforcement) of the UN Charta.

With the takeover of the operation in Bosnia, the EU provides - besides the civilian reconstruction aid and the police mission of the EU (European Police Mission - EUPM) - also the military component since the beginning of winter 2004. The transition into a new operation was not hampered by huge difficulties regarding personnel, since more than 80 per cent of the soldiers of SFOR come from EU member states already. The Headquarters of EUFOR is identical with that of NATO, Camp Butmir, near the airport region of Sarajevo.

However, Bosnia and Herzegovina have now been exclusively defined as the area of operations. Croatia is still only used for the transit of troops and supply goods to Bosnia and Herzegovina. What is politically relevant is the fact that, with the takeover of SFOR by the EU, a complete European package was assembled.

EUFOR Althea was formed on the basis of the Berlin-Plus Agreement. To avoid parallel structures, the EU accesses NATO resources and capabilities. The Operation Commander (Operational Command - OPCOM) is, like in Berlin-Plus operations, the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR).

NATO continues to play an important role in Bosnia and Herzegovina, since this country, too, should be given the outlook to a later membership in the North Atlantic Alliance. NATO military and civilian expert teams were employed to help local governments reform their defence sector and prepare them for membership with the Partnership for Peace programme. The NATO force of approximately 150 troops is located on the same premises and in the same buildings as the EUFOR Headquarters.

The task of EUFOR Althea is to create a safe and secured environment, in which Bosnia and Herzegovina can implement its efforts regarding a long-term aim of EU membership. This perspective of EU accession has become the most important engine for reforms in Southeast Europe.

Present mission of EUFOR

The task of EUFOR Althea is to contribute to the creation of a safe and secured environment, being necessary for the core tasks within the Mission Implementation Plan of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and the stabilisation and association process to be fulfilled.

This follows from the mandate of EUFOR Althea, based on the Joint Actions of the Council of 12 July 2004 and of 8 November 2007.

EUFOR Althea continues acting in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charta, with the latest basis being UN Security Council Resolution 1895 from 18 November 2009. This latest UN resolution authorises EU member states or states that have cooperated with the EU to continue the operation for another twelve months.

The General Affairs and External Relations Council of the European Union last confirmed the European perspective for Bosnia and Herzegovina on 26 April 2010. Operation Althea still is an important component of the comprehensive approach undertaken by the EU in Bosnia and Herzegovina for further progress on the way towards integration of this state into the European Union. Thus, the country’s efforts to maintain a safe and secured environment are supported and the executive mandate of the operation is continued, in agreement with UN Security Council Resolution 1895. In this matter, the Council supports the High Representative (HR) and EU Special Representative (EUSR), Valentin Inzko (Austria). For example, the Council requests all parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina to obey all decisions taken by the HR and not to call his authority into question.

Furthermore, the Council decided to support the capability development and training of the Bosnian Armed Forces. The EU Foreign Ministers emphasised in this context that the security sector reform represented an important component of the general reform process in Bosnia and Herzegovina and that the military commitment of the EU was to contribute to an increase in local autonomy and local capacities. If the situation calls for it, the EU will be prepared, on the basis of a UN mandate, to continue to play a military role with executive authority in order to support these efforts even after 2010.

Thus, the EUFOR Althea Command presently focuses its work on the planning and leading of a multinational force and on coordinating this force, which comprises 25 different nations. An additional challenge poses the implementation of a new staff branch and mobile training teams for the education and training of the country’s security personnel (police, military etc.).

The security situation in the area of operations

The security situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is largely stable. For the international community and for EUFOR there is neither an imminent threat nor have there been any incidents which might have interfered with the safe and secured environment. The population has a particularly positive attitude towards EUFOR. It is a fact, however, that the three ethnic groups are still living next to each other rather than with one another and that they are lacking a common vision for the future. This has not changed, despite institutional reforms, like that of the defence and police sectors. On the contrary, the rhetoric has turned increasingly nationalistic and aggressive.

Political failures of the past months, like

  • the failed Butmir Process (reform treaty regarding the stabilisation of state institutions),
  • denied admission to the so-called White Schengen List (visa liberalisation),
  • no invitation to join the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), or
  • the perspective for EU accession granted to Serbia in December 2009

were all setbacks for the country and have not really contributed to a better political atmosphere. In view of the result of the general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina in October 2010, considerable progress is not to be expected within the next months.

One of the presently debated and controversial topics is, for example, the still unresolved question regarding Yugoslav government property, which even the Steering Committee of the Peace Implementation Council failed to tackle at its meeting of 25 to 26 February 2010. The government of the Republica Srpska (RS; Bosnia and Herzegovina are internally split into two entities, the Federation Bosnia and Herzegovina, dominated by Bosniaks, and the Republica Srpska, dominated by Serbs) officially refuses to base any further discussions on the inventory of the government property created by the OHR.

Further topics are:

  • the energy question in the Brèko district,
  • the census intended for 2011,
  • the lay-off of approximately 2,500 soldiers of the BiH Armed Forces and their protests, which have been either staged or, at least, announced,
  • the debates concerning referendum and constitution.

As long as no progress is being made, no decision can be taken to close down the OHR (Office of the High Representative), which, in turn, would be the precondition for a rapprochement of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the EU and NATO.

The referendum, a topic of concern for years and repeatedly announced to take place within the Republica Srpska by the Prime Minister of the Republic, Milorad Dodik, causes agitation with both politicians and the international community. The subject of this referendum has not been determined yet. Possible topics are the decisions taken by the High Representative and the EU Special Representatives at the so-called Bonn Powers from December 2009 concerning the extension of the mandate of foreign judges and attorneys and/or NATO membership. In the end, it is feared, the question might arise, whether the Republica Srpska should split from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosniaks, however, consider this law as a basis for secession of the Republica Srpska. The referendum debate is supposed, on the one hand, to mobilise the electorate for the forthcoming election campaign, on the other hand, as it seems, to fathom the level of tolerance of the international community. In fact, the conduct of any referendum could be interpreted as an attack on the Dayton Agreement and induce uncontrollable developments. Thus, from the point of view of the international community, this referendum has to be prevented. Nevertheless, the legal and technical prerequisites for the future conduct of referenda are being worked out presently.

For international obligations towards the EU and NATO to be fulfilled, fundamental changes must be made to the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Butmir Process, an EU-U.S. initiative with the aim to start a comprehensive constitutional reform, was rejected by the Bosniak, Serb, and Croat parties. Recent efforts, however, to implement the then proposed measures have failed. It is important, though, that a kind of Post Butmir Process be continued on a technical level. Not only has the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was practically written by the international community itself, turned out to be extremely complicated and expensive (rotating presidency, governments both for the individual identities and the central state), but it also violates the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights "Sejdiæ-Finèi against Bosnia and Herzegovina” of December 2009. In this ruling, Bosnia and Herzegovina were sentenced for the discrimination against minority groups that do not belong to any of the three ethnicities. For minorities to gain access to political offices, their equal chances have to be implemented in the constitution. If implementation of the ruling fails, this might entail - as a most radical measure - a suspension of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. The implementation of the ruling is in progress, presently.

Despite the overall difficult situation, progress is being noted in certain fields.

Good examples for this are:

  • the adoption of laws necessary for the grant of loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund,
  • the adoption by the RS of the amendments to the Citizenship Act (which represent a condition for the ending of the supervision of the Brèko district by the OHR), or
  • progress concerning the roadmap for visa deregulation.

While the citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro can travel without visa since 1 January 2010, Bosnia and Herzegovina are still not exempted from the visa requirement. Indeed, this requirement concerns primarily Bosnian Muslims, since the other part of the population additionally owns Serbian or Croat passports, thus not being subject to such regulations. The checks recently conducted during the deregulation phase by expert teams of the European Commission showed positive results. However, the liberation from the visa requirement aspired by Bosnia and Herzegovina for as early as July 2010, will, from the current perspective, not be possible.

Perspectives for EUFOR

In view of the latest decision by the EU Foreign Affairs Council of 26 April 2010 to not only leave the existing tasks of EUFOR Althea unchanged but also to extend them through further training tasks, a few technical adaptations have to be made. The new training activities and the new military tasks are incorporated into the existing spectrum of tasks. The focus lies, above all, on tactical training (command-and-control as well as information systems, medical evacuation, weapons training etc.).

Task fulfilment proves difficult, due to the troop withdrawal of some EU member states. A EUFOR presence until after the election period (October 2010) seems, from the point of view of most EU member states, essential and logical. In this context, 190 additional Austrian soldiers are, amongst others, dispatched to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The author: A short version of the historical development of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the development of international interventions up to the deployment of EUFOR Althea are taken from the TRUPPENDIENST paperback "EUFOR-Althea/Das Buch zum Einsatz”. The contribution beginning with "Present Mission of EUFOR" comes from the Political Advisor/HQ EUFOR Althea, Mag. Patrycia Ciempka.

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