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U.S. soldiers on patrol: a relatively safe mission for America

July 13, 1997

BRKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ An eight-man U.S. Army patrol, winding slowly through the remnants of a bombed-out village, stops frequently to chat with returning inhabitants rebuilding their destroyed homes.

``So long as the Americans are here, everyone feels safe,″ said Zaim Avdic, a Muslim, breaking away from a group of neighbors helping him replace his pockmarked house’s torched roof.

The soldiers agreed. ``Everybody seems to be real glad to see us walking through. It can’t help but make you feel good,‴ said Sgt. John Faust, the patrol leader, whose men turn down repeated offers of coffee and sweets as they make their rounds.

Brka lies in the former no-man’s land of Brcko Corridor, the most savagely contested front line of the Bosnian war. U.S. troops mount regular patrols through peaceful farmland where Muslims peer across overgrown fields at Serb neighbors they haven’t talked to in five years.

Soldiers interviewed recently at nearby Camp McGovern _ nicknamed Camp MudGovern _ said they would gladly adopt a more robust approach to help implement the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended the 3 1/2-year war.

``A lot of soldiers really want to do more real-life missions,″ said Capt. Charlie Reynold, chaplain of this U.S. Army camp in northern Bosnia. ``The vast majority feel this way.″

Among them: helping Muslim refugees return to their former homes in Bosnia’s Serb substate and capturing wanted war criminals.

The Pentagon says no, fearing it would lead to bloodshed and disrupt the fragile peace.

The Dayton accords give responsibility for capturing war criminals to local authorities in Bosnia. NATO peacekeepers are barred under the rules of engagement from actively pursuing suspects, including former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic. They have the authority to arrest suspects they encounter if the tactical situation permits.

NATO commanders said British troops were doing just this when they mounted a surprise, commando-type operation Thursday to snatch two indicted Serb war criminals. But they insisted the operation _ in which one Serb was captured and the other died in a gunfight _ represented no change in policy.

Americans provided logistical and technical support for the operation but did not actually participate in the raid.

Serb nationalists, who want to secede and join neighboring Serbia, welcome NATO’s reluctance to do more than peacekeeping.

The Muslims, who want a reunited Bosnia, are looking for NATO help in relocating hundreds of thousands of refugees and warn that failure could trigger renewed combat once the peacekeepers withdraw.

Defense Secretary William Cohen has set a June 30, 1998, date for withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Senate in a nonbinding resolution told the administration to stick to that date.

On Saturday, however, President Clinton suggested the U.S. mission might not be completed by the deadline. ``I believe the present operation will have run its course by then, and we’ll have to discuss what, if any, involvement the United States should have there,″ he told reporters at the end of an eight-day European trip.

Despite initial reservations about dangers U.S. troops would face in Bosnia, the uneventful Brka patrol has been typical of a mission that has been among the safest in the history of overseas U.S. military deployments. Total casualties so far: 6 deaths _ none in combat _ and 16 injuries among 8,500 troops.

``The Pentagon, by and large, wants two things: to limit the use of American forces and have them do as little as possible associated with the nonmilitary provisions of Dayton. And they want to get out,″ said Mort Abramowitz, former head of the Carnegie Foundation in Washington.

``But the issue is if we get out without a significantly greater effort to implement Dayton, hostilities will resume,″ he said. ``So if we want to get out without leaving behind a war, we’re going to have to do much better than we’ve been doing.″

Pentagon opposition to what it describes as mission creep has sparked friction with the State Department, which worries that a do-nothing attitude on crucial elements of the peace agreement could lead to resumed war after American forces leave.

NATO allies in the 31,000-strong force have warned that efforts to ensure the return of refugees could result in clashes with the Serbs, a major worry for the administration. It fears that casualties among U.S. troops could lead to moves in Congress to terminate the mission immediately.

NATO commanders also are leery of losing the good will of the Serb military, without whose cooperation the complicated process of maintaining the peace would have been much harder.

This leaves the troops at Camp McGovern stuck with the noneventful daily patrol routine.

When asked if he would prefer more challenging duty, Pvt. Eloy Ojeda, the patrol’s machine gunner, grinned. ``Oh yeah,″ he said, ``I’d rather be doing that.″

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