Bosnia...Kosovo...Iraq...
Connecting the Dots Constructively

An article based on an interview with John Lampe, current Wilson Center Fellow and former Director of the East European Studies Program

Dec 23, 2003

While the United States and its allies struggle in Iraq, many commentators are scrambling for guidance in "nation-building," an enterprise better described as state-rebuilding. Looking at the most recent past and present, it only makes sense that many would look to the peacekeeping and rebuilding experiences in Bosnia-Herzogovina and Kosovo. Given the myriad of differences inherent among states and regions---its peoples, history, conflicts, economies----it is "risky business" making such comparisons, says John Lampe, Balkans expert and history professor at the University of Maryland. But that caveat does not preclude some relevant lessons from the last ten years of reconstruction and reconciliation in Southeastern Europe.

Fundamental Differences

Although there are some relevant lessons from Bosnia and Kosovo to apply in Iraq, the differences between the two situations should be admitted at the outset.

First and foremost, is the lack of security in Iraq. The daily attacks on U.S., international forces, and now cooperating Iraqis contrast with the zero incidence of attacks on peacekeeping troops in either Bosnia or Kosovo. Ironically, the U.S. was concerned with preventing violence in Bosnia, whereas in Iraq, U.S. forces were prepared only for a food shortage and a refugee crisis. Peacekeepers in Bosnia did not in fact experience open hostilities as in Iraq, in part because, Lampe noted, there was a war-weary population in Bosnia. Whether or not the capture of Saddam Hussein will reduce the level of violence in Iraq remains to be seen.

More important is the contrasting attitude toward outsiders between the people of Iraq and those of Eastern Europe. Given Iraq's semi-colonial history, there is a profound resentment and resistance to any "occupier" in Iraq, particularly a Western nation. This distrust of the West did not exist in Bosnia, where there are shared Western European traditions. There was initial distrust on the Serb side, but according to Lampe, this was overcome by cooperation and flexibility on the part of coalition forces on the ground.

Another notable difference is the relative size of the nations and populations. Iraq is eight times the size and has six times the population of Bosnia and is still bigger than Kosovo. A comparable force in Iraq to that in Kosovo would be 450,000 troops and 160,000 civilians, Lampe said.

The regional support and incentive of EU membership as an influence on behavior is also not present in Iraq as it is in the nations of Eastern Europe. Finally, on the positive side for Iraq, there are no significant refugee problems.

Despite these differences, Lampe believes that there are lessons that can be applied to present-day Iraq.

Lessons

Problems with Elections

A particularly valuable lesson for the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lampe observed, is that early and frequent elections ought to be avoided. As Kosovo and Bosnia made clear, early elections often work against their intended effect, as was seen in the initial post-war elections in Bosnia in 1996 and 1997, which merely served to solidify the legitimacy of the nationalist parties. The U.S. and its allies, through its peacekeeping and nation-building activities, need to focus primarily on the establishment of the rule of law, which is a fundamental principle for ensuring stability, and be less concerned with elections and political parties. In Iraq, Lampe said, "We need a transition strategy, not an exit strategy."

Police Training

Just as in the Balkans, the US military needs to be better prepared to carry out non-traditional nation-building and military tasks in Iraq. To accomplish this, the US military must be prepared to assume greater responsibilities for policing and police training, as well as developing better coordination and establishing firmer liaisons with local power establishments.

Lampe pointed out that the restoration of law and order in Bosnia was due to the IPTF (International Police Training Force) effectiveness in training reliable local police. "The most significant measure of their success has been the return of minority refugees to majority areas----400,000 in all, with nearly 90 percent of outstanding property claims settled."

The specific lesson from Bosnia, Lampe said, is that "a relatively small number of regular U.S. troops can learn to carry out the civil-military and police functions that are so badly needed in Iraq today."

To support this approach in Iraq and elsewhere, Lampe endorses the immediate training of a brigade of 5,000 regular army troops in civil-military and military police functions---military police, civil administrators to train local police and to work with local administrators to restore law and order. A recent study by the Pentagon's Office of Stability Operations puts forward just this proposal.

International Cooperation

The most important lesson from Bosnia and Kosovo, according to Lampe, is that the U.S. and its international partners work effectively together once they are on the ground together. Both the U.S. and its allies need to preserve unity and the essence of the transatlantic alliance if we are to have any hope of effectively resolving or containing instability in Southeast Europe as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. will not be able to accomplish its goals by itself.

"However difficult the international cooperation was at the start in Bosnia—the UN, EU, OCSE, World Bank—after an admittedly slow start---came to work together very constructively. They also developed flexibility in dealing with situation on the ground," Lampe said.

He went on to say, "There is no substitute for having representative figures from all sides on the ground. As reluctant as the American side may be to agree to terms with an international presence---the lesson form Bosnia---and later applied to Kosovo----was that the U.S. can work successfully with international partners."

Strong Leadership

Strong leadership in the form of the High Representative in Bosnia and the Director of UNMIK in Kosovo has proven to be an essential part of moving forward. Leadership can help to avoid the kind of confused environment and working at cross-purposes which emerged in the early days of Bosnia.

Standards Before Status

Lampe agrees with a recent State Department report that proclaimed a policy of "standards before status" in Kosovo. Standards such as the rule of law, the protection of minorities, the establishment of a judicial framework need to be in place on both the Serb and the Albanian side before status—whether that be an independent Kosovo or a partitioned Kosovo---can be determined.

Finish What You Start

Bosnia and Kosovo have taught us that there can be no hasty exit from complex-security- and nation-building endeavors. The nation-building efforts in the Balkans have proven that in Iraq we need to finish what we start, no matter what the cost.

In Bosnia, the peace process has continued for eight years and will continue for several more. Lampe predicts that we should remain in Bosnia for another 2-3 years and another 5 at least in Kosovo. Whether that shorter or longer period will be needed in Iraq is not yet clear.

It is Lampe's belief that we can learn from examining the past ten years of experience in the Balkans rather than focusing on the last frustrating ten months in Iraq. The lessons from our Balkans experience can help us to proceed more constructively in Iraq from this point forward.




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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant