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Tipping the Bosnian Balance

US support puts Bosnian Muslims near battlefield superiority

The Clinton administration is right to focus on maximum implementation of the Dayton peace accords before the mandate of the current NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia runs out next June. Yet, one critical element of US policy in Bosnia is receiving no attention at all.

US military assistance to the Bosnian Army is working at cross-purposes with our goal of stability in that war-torn country. It is shifting the military balance of power in favor of the Bosnian Muslims at a time when the Bosnian Serbs are deeply divided and getting weaker - and when both sides are losing interest in the Dayton accords.

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Increasingly, Muslims see an opportunity to reclaim all of Bosnia by force.

In the interest of averting a resumption of war, President Clinton should drop the US military assistance program to "train and equip" the Bosnian Muslim forces.

The administration began the program under pressure from Congress soon after the Dayton accords were signed in December 1995. The purpose of the $400 million program was to help the Muslim-Croat Federation make up equipment deficiencies from the war and improve its ability to defend against future attack. The program has provided federation forces with tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, small arms, ammunition, communications equipment, and will soon provide long-range artillery.

To many, the train and equip program seemed like a good idea at the time. It helped persuade the Bosnian Muslims to sign the accords, helped persuade key senators to support US participation in the Bosnia peace implementation force, and provided political leverage to force the removal of all Iranian and unauthorized foreign forces in Bosnia and to begin Muslim-Croat defense cooperation.

But alarm bells are now ringing. Top-notch training, by 170 retired US military personnel, is giving Bosnian-Croat forces key battlefield skills.

Thanks to US-furnished artillery and tanks, those forces are now developing offensive military potential. US government experts believe that Muslim forces have now reached rough military balance with the Bosnian Serbs and will achieve decisive battlefield superiority in perhaps a year. This is contrary to the original defensive goals of the train and equip program. Nearly all our NATO allies - who have never supported train and equip - share this negative view of the program.

Our policy should emphasize reducing forces, as mandated by Dayton, not adding weapons to a volatile region already saturated with them.

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MANY Bosnian Muslim leaders see an opportunity to reclaim all of Bosnia and view the train and equip program as tacit endorsement of this option. They're ready for payback - ready to resume the war when NATO peacekeepers leave.

The Bosnian Serbs are clearly in decline. This summer, the Bosnian Serb entity virtually split in two between supporters of President Biljana Plavsic and supporters of former President Radovan Karadzic. The police and military are divided. The Bosnian Serbs suffer from a failing economy. Right now, they're a threat to no one but themselves.

Bosnian Serbs suffer from international isolation for good reason. They've refused to implement key Dayton provisions, particularly the return of refugees and the surrender of war criminals. They continue to hold out for an ethnically pure mini-state. If President Plavsic wins the power struggle, perhaps this situation will change. Yet it is not in our interest to encourage the Bosnian Serbs to give up on the Dayton accords.

The rapidly changing military balance underscores the dangers if NATO ground troops leave Bosnia in a year as planned. The field would then be left to the Bosnian Muslims just as they were gaining military superiority.

The US should terminate the train and equip program. A military balance in Bosnia helps keep the parties focused on peace. If we persist in changing that balance, we're likely to see more war - for which we'll have to take some responsibility.

* Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana is ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

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