1994: U.S. Troops in Bosnia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

At dusk on the evening of April 10, 1994, two American F-16 jets from the American air base in Aviano, Italy, flew over Gorazde, Bosnia. The planes dropped three five-hundred-pound bombs on Serbian positions used to bombard the city, which had been designated by the United Nations as a safe zone for Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). The strike, under North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) auspices, brought the United States military further into the civil war being waged in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia. In February, 1994, U.S. airplanes had shot down Serbian aircraft violating the “no fly” zone established by the United Nations. The April 10 bombing was the first time in forty-five years that NATO air forces attacked ground targets in Europe.

At dusk on the evening of April 10, 1994, two American F-16 jets from the American air base in Aviano, Italy, flew over Gorazde, Bosnia. The planes dropped three five-hundred-pound bombs on Serbian positions used to bombard the city, which had been designated by the United Nations as a safe zone for Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). The strike, under North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) auspices, brought the United States military further into the civil war being waged in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia. In February, 1994, U.S. airplanes had shot down Serbian aircraft violating the “no fly” zone established by the United Nations. The April 10 bombing was the first time in forty-five years that NATO air forces attacked ground targets in Europe.

The attack occurred after repeated warnings from the United Nations, NATO, and American president Bill Clinton to the Serbs that continued bombardment of Gorazde would bring retaliation. Gorazde was one of several regions the United Nations had designated as havens for Muslim refugees and was garrisoned by U.N. peacekeeping troops.

When the Serbs refused to stop their bombardment, Yasushi Akashi, the U.N. representative in Bosnia, advised U.N. secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali to call NATO strikes. NATO charged the American command to carry out the task, and Admiral Leighton Smith, Jr., commander of the NATO southern forces, ordered the strikes.

The bombing at first appeared to stop the Serbian shelling, but the Serb leader in Bosnia, Radovan Karadžić, claimed that the strikes brought the United Nations into the war on the Bosniak side, and he threatened retaliation against U.N. forces. President Clinton responded that the air attack was a clear expression of the will of NATO and the will of the United Nations. When Serb shelling resumed, a second attack was carried out on April 11.

Centuries of Conflict

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 revealed longstanding national and communal hostilities that dictatorship had hidden for forty-five years. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Federation of Yugoslavia, a collection of six republics that was home to eight major nationalities. Created after World War I, Yugoslavia never came to grips with its nationality problem, a major reason the country fell prey to fascist aggression in World War II. After that conflict, the powerful and charismatic communist leader Tito was able to maintain stability in the country.

After Tito died in 1980, Yugoslavia began to unravel because of national differences. Hostilities that extended back to the Middle Ages appeared in full bloom once more, and the republics declared their independence. The first serious war between the republics erupted in 1991, pitting Serbia, led by Slobodan Milošević, against Croatia, led by Franjo Tudjman. Croats and Serbs are members of the same nationality but differ in religion (the Croats are Roman Catholic, the Serbs Eastern Orthodox) and historical experience. Both republics claimed territory in Bosnia.

Bosnia itself was a republic Tito had created in 1945 for the Bosniaks, descendants of Serbo-Croatian Christians who converted to Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Milošević and Tudjman considered dividing Bosnia between them. In response to this possibility, Bosniak leaders headed by Alija Izetbegovic declared Bosnia’s independence from Yugoslavia and appealed to the nations of the world for recognition. This was slow in coming because of the problems the former Yugoslavia presented on the international stage at that time. European nations approached the situation carefully because traditional alliances divided them between the Serbs and the Croats. These peoples, especially the Serbs, reacted to Bosnian independence by launching a war against the Bosniaks. Serbs living in Bosnia soon formed an independent force under Karadžić. Milošević came to his aid with all the resources of the Yugoslav state and military. As violence increased, especially toward civilian populations, the United Nations placed an arms embargo on the area. This worked to the advantage of the Serbs, and attacks against the Bosniaks increased. The nations of the West finally recognized Bosnia, but the civil war continued.

Western nations were forced to act by the pressure of public outrage, fanned by detailed media reports of atrocities, particularly the systematic raping of Bosnian women by Serbian soldiers and the deaths and maiming of hundreds of children. NATO voted to take military action but not to send in ground forces against the Serbs. Pressure was applied on Serbian leaders in Belgrade to stop the support of their conationals in Bosnia.

Numerous plans for a negotiated settlement failed. Serbian military units surrounded Bosniak cities, including the safe zones the United Nations had established, and bombarded them from the surrounding highlands. NATO then decided to attack these Serbian outposts from the air. President Clinton agreed and, when asked, ordered American planes to begin raids.

Consequences

The action had little effect in lessening the war. Serbs continued their onslaught with success, with ground forces increasing the territory they controlled. In December, 1994, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter visited Bosnia to mediate a peace and worked out a cease-fire with Karadžić, only to see it fail within a few weeks. An airplane piloted by American Scott F. O’Grady was shot down in June, 1995, but he was rescued after a six-day ordeal hiding in the mountains. In July, the Serbian forces captured Gorazde and then moved on to the other safe areas. Within the United States, Congress, administration officials, military leaders, and numerous presidential candidates debated the course of action to take–lift the arms embargo, continue existing policies, commit ground troops, or simply ignore the war. NATO forces, with a large U.S. contingent, entered Bosnia in December, 1995, to enforce a peace agreement.

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