How the war in Iraq unintentionally helped stabilise Bosnia

Back in March 2003, George W Bush’s “coalition of the willing” launched an invasion of Iraq, the consequences of which reverberate to this day. The now-ubiquitous US military presence in the Middle East began in earnest following the invasion, and it could be argued that much of the current instability in the region can be traced back to the war that followed. But new research shows that the conflict had another, very different effect: it was the most significant step in stabilising the Balkans since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.

The 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was brought to an end by the Dayton Agreement, which not only halted the conflict, but also laid the foundations of the post-war Bosnian state. In an arrangement that’s been described as “the world’s most complicated system of government”, the country was divided into two entities, the Republika Srpska, which is predominantly Bosnian Serb, and the Federation, which is mostly administered by Bosnian Croats and Muslims (Bosniaks). The central government had little authority; most power, including control of the armed forces, was delegated to the entities and other local governments.

While Dayton was a complex agreement, its overwhelming priority was the cessation of hostilities, meaning many key issues were purposefully disregarded or left ambiguous. One such issue was the future of the three armies – the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Army of Republika Srpska, and the Croatian Defence Council – which fought each other in the war: as Dayton made no real stipulations about their future, they simply remained in place.

Richard Holbrooke, a key American mediator in the peace negotiations, later lamented that “the most serious flaw in the Dayton Peace Agreement was that it left two opposing armies in one country”. The Peace Implementation Council, the international body responsible for overseeing post-war Bosnia, warned of “the instability that is inherent in having two – and in practice three – armies present in one country”.

Yet despite the evident risks, the armies were left largely untouched, and they continued undermining the authority and legitimacy of the Bosnian state – until the prelude to the invasion of Iraq.

Forcing the issue

In September 2002, as hundreds of coalition planes bombed Iraqi air defences in preparation for the US-led invasion, details began to emerge from the US embassy in Sarajevo that a Bosnian company, the Orao (Eagle) Aviation Institute, was suspected of breaching the 13-year arms embargo, sparking a scandal known as the “Orao Affair”.

During the Cold War, Iraq and Yugoslavia had developed a range of bilateral agreements, ranging from the construction of infrastructure and bunkers in Iraq to the maintenance of Iraqi Migs (Soviet-designed fighter jets) in Yugoslavia. It emerged that the leadership of rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) had quietly continued the relationship with Saddam Hussein, and had facilitated a deal worth US$8.5m in which Orao engineers had travelled to Iraq to “get the damaged fleet of Migs back to the heavens”.

The ensuing investigation implicated much of the Bosnian Serb leadership in the trade, and unveiled numerous attempted cover-ups. With evidence mounting, the potential for Bosnia to face economic sanctions became a real possibility, leading international officials to statethat Bosnia was facing its “most severe crisis since the war”.

As US forces entered Baghdad in 2003, the fallout from the Orao Affair was taking its toll. The Bosnian Serb member of the presidency, the Minister of Defence of Republika Srpska, the Chief of Staff of the Army of Republika Srpska, and numerous other officials, ministers, and generals were all removed from their positions. 17 of them were prosecuted. International observers and Bosnian citizens alike demanded reform, and just a week after the invasion of Iraq was declared over, a Defence Reform Commission was established. It recommended a complete restructuring of Bosnia’s armed forces, which was duly implemented by the Bosnian parliament.

The result was the demobilisation of a considerable number of soldiers, and the creation of a unified Bosnian army. The largest multi-ethnic institution in the country, it benefited from a clear chain of command, which led all the way up to the presidency via a single Ministry of Defence. The new military was modernised and professionalised with external assistance, and in 2006 it joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace. The Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina have since been deployed in numerous peace-support roles across the world including Iraq.

Post-Dayton Bosnia was a fragile and unstable country brimming with soldiers and weapons, and to some extent, it still is – but it’s nonetheless a much more stable and secure state than it was after the peace in 1995. Strange to think that it owes much of its improvement to something as destabilising as the Iraq War.


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