1995: NATO Troops in Bosnia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On December 14, 1995, after being delayed by foul weather, the first troops of the United States Army crossed the Sava River and entered the Republic of Bosnia. The troops were part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force charged with implementing the peace treaty agreed to by Bosnia and its neighbors the previous month. NATO planned a contingent of sixty thousand military personnel, twenty thousand of them from the United States.

On December 14, 1995, after being delayed by foul weather, the first troops of the United States Army crossed the Sava River and entered the Republic of Bosnia. The troops were part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force charged with implementing the peace treaty agreed to by Bosnia and its neighbors the previous month. NATO planned a contingent of sixty thousand military personnel, twenty thousand of them from the United States.

The first American soldiers were part of the advance group assigned to prepare the way for the remainder of the American troops. At the same time, forces from the other NATO countries entered at different locations. The NATO forces replaced the failed United Nations (U.N.) mission, which was unable to maintain peace among the communities or secure safe areas for the beleaguered Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). NATO sought to provide buffers separating the three ethnic communities and to ensure that the timetable of the negotiations was carried out.

Both Admiral Leighton W. Smith, Jr., the commander of the NATO operation, and General William Nash, the commander of the American contingent, emphasized that any attack on the troops would be met with a suitable response, including force. There was virtually no resistance to the entry by the warring Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. On the contrary, the various ethnic armies welcomed the NATO forces and promised full cooperation.

The greatest danger came from land mines strewn along the roads and fields between the points of entry and the staging areas where the troops were to encamp. Winter weather conditions also caused problems. Snow and ice jammed the river, making the crossing extremely difficult, interfering with the operation of the motorized and electronic equipment, and slowing the progress of the entry of troops as well as their travel to their destinations. Over the next days, more troops and supplies entered the country as the various contingents established their bases.

A New Initiative

In the fall of 1995, after more than three years of fighting, there appeared to be no end in sight to the war among the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks of Bosnia. Reports of unspeakable atrocities had aroused the moral outrage of the world. Attempts to bring peace through use of U.N. forces and NATO air raids had little effect. Political divisions kept the European nations from taking decisive action.

The final straw was the Serb attack against and conquest of Srebrenica, a Muslim safe area protected by the United Nations. The reported massacre of Muslim men and boys from the area by Serbs and threats to the U.N. forces drove the West to action.

It appeared to U.S. president Bill Clinton’s administration that an American initiative was necessary to bring a conclusion to the conflict. Such an initiative would be complicated by divisions in the federal government: The Democratic president faced a hostile Republican Congress and a difficult election in November of 1996. President Clinton invited the presidents of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia to come to Dayton, Ohio, to work out a new peace plan that would establish Serbian and Croatian areas in Bosnia and allow the Bosnian government to function in the rest of the country.

The negotiations were interrupted several times by disagreements among the principals, but all sides had a commitment to see an end to the war. The talks were further complicated by a military campaign in September by the Croatian army that drove Serbian families out of the Krajina region of their country. Furthermore, the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs were not invited to take part in the negotiations, and they continued their attacks on Muslim areas.

The three parties in Dayton agreed to a peace plan including a specific timetable for withdrawal from the front lines, the exchange of prisoners, and the punishment of war criminals. The agreement called for a large NATO force, including a substantial American contingent, to enforce the treaty. The commitment of American troops caused concern in the United States because of fear of becoming embroiled in an endless conflict. The failures associated with the 1993 American operation in Somalia were still fresh in people’s memories. Public opinion opposed the venture, and Congress insisted that the president get its approval before the commitment. The president realized this would not come about and insisted that as commander in chief of the U.S. military, he could commit the troops. He ordered them to Bosnia. Congress reluctantly agreed to support the troops but not the decision to send them.

Consequences

Twenty thousand American and forty thousand other troops entered Bosnia with few incidents. NATO forces, unlike those of the United Nations, responded to the occasional attacks against them. The one American casualty in the initial weeks was a soldier who was wounded by a land mine.

After the first month of the peacekeeping mission, despite some friction, the various ethnic armies cooperated with NATO and in general adhered to the timetable. Most of the difficulties concerned the investigation of Serbian war crimes, but even in that situation the Bosnian Serbian army reluctantly went along. An atmosphere of uncertainty and cautiousness nevertheless prevailed.

Many observers thought that it might take generations to sort out what had happened in the Bosnia Herzegovina war, as well as what should be done about the war’s legacy. Historians and journalists have come to different conclusions. Some speculate that there is something endemic in the Balkan character that has resulted in civil wars, religious persecution, and war crimes; others dismiss the idea of blood feuds and historic animosities, preferring to analyze how Yugoslavia broke apart after its strong communist leader, Tito, died and a power vacuum opened up that former communists and nationalists of all kinds exploited.

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