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History Warns That Fighting in Bosnia Would Be `Quagmire'

PEOPLE of goodwill in the West are pained by the nightly television pictures of the citizens of Sarajevo suffering under the pounding of Serbian artillery and slowly freezing and starving to death in the bitter Yugoslavian winter.

The sight of emaciated and brutalized prisoners in concentration camps seems a replay of the atrocities of Nazi Germany earlier in this century and leads even the most dovish of Western politicians to advocate some sort of direct military intervention to put an end to these atrocities. The critical question is whether the Clinton administration ought to be guided by the heart or by the head in this matter. History provides ample reasons for caution about military intervention in Bosnia.

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Some suggest that the recent humanitarian intervention in Somalia sets a precedent for more vigorous Western military action in Yugoslavia. But Somalia is fundamentally different from Bosnia. The deserts of Somalia are inhospitable territory for guerrilla warfare and the enemy are the lightly armed, poorly trained, and loosely organized gunmen of the rival clans and warlords.

Unlike Somalia, Yugoslavia is an extremely mountainous and densely wooded country which provides excellent cover for guerrilla fighters. Moreover, the Yugoslav Army and Serb irregular units against which United States or United Nations forces would have to contend are heavily armed, highly-trained, and extremely well-organized. The Serbs besieging Sarajevo and other Croat and Muslim towns and villages are mostly veterans of the Yugoslav Army and were trained and equipped during the cold war to fight a pr olonged guerrilla war in defense of their country against an invasion by the Soviet Union.

This leads Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and others to argue that intervention in Yugoslavia by Western ground forces would produce a quagmire like Vietnam. They are right, but there is an even more relevant historical example.

During World War II, the Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia in April of 1941, defeated the Serbian government, divided the country, and established pro-Axis regimes in Croatia and Serbia. While the initial invasion met with little opposition, the Nazis and their Axis partners never succeeded in eliminating the various resistance movements which held out for almost five years against nearly 30 Axis divisions, eventually driving them out and liberating their country.

Admittedly this comparison is not perfect. But the historical experience of the Axis powers in Yugoslavia during World War II should give pause to those like French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas and former US Secretary of State George Schultz who advocate sending Western ground forces into Bosnia.

But what about limiting Western military intervention to the use of air power as Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, former Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Duggan, and many others recommend? The problem is that none of the options discussed - bombing Serbia directly or attacking Serbian forces in Bosnia - is likely to be successful.

RATHER than leading the Serbian people to put pressure on the hard line Milosevic government to halt the war, air strikes against Serbia itself are more likely to unite the Serbian people behind those policies. Air strikes to interdict the supply routes between Serbia and Serbian forces in Bosnia will also prove fruitless. Like the US air campaign against North Vietnam between 1965 and 1968, which failed largely because the Viet Cong in the South were capable of continuing their guerrilla war against the

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pro-US regime without substantial aid from the North, efforts to cripple Serbian forces in Bosnia by bombing Serbia are also bound to fail.

Nor would air strikes against Serbian forces in Bosnia accomplish much. The numbers of targets - such as tanks and heavy artillery - vulnerable to Western air strikes are small. The majority of Serb irregulars in Bosnia are conducting their war of ethnic cleansing with small arms and in small groups. Against these sorts of forces, air power is almost useless.

Unfortunately, there is probably little the West can do militarily to end the slaughter in Bosnia. It is not even clear that the US has any real national interest in becoming deeply involved in the Byzantine conflicts of the post-Yugoslav Balkans.

However, one humanitarian option the Western states might consider is the arming and training of the Muslim forces - similar to the successful program to aid the Afghan mujahideen. The West could give them the capability of defending themselves more effectively and making the war so costly for the Serbs that they decide it is in their interest to sit down and negotiate a reasonable agreement as to how to manage the breakup of the old Yugoslavia. Realistically, this is all the West can and should do.

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