Examining the SFOR experience

Admiral Gregory G. Johnson examines problems encountered and lessons learned from NATO's operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Rapid reaction: Reinforcements arrived in Kosovo in March to stabilise a difficult situation within hours of the request by the KFOR Commander (© KFOR)

As the NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina comes to an end, there is much to celebrate and much to reflect on of relevance for future operations. In the course of the past decade, Bosnia and Herzegovina has made remarkable progress, from a nation at war to one moving rapidly towards integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. At the same time, the Alliance has become an extremely effective crisis manager able to deal efficiently with complex peace-support operations.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the end of hostilities was far more than a cease-fire. It ushered in a process of reform and reconstruction during which self-governance capacities have been developed, armaments and munitions destroyed, and war criminals pursued and prosecuted. In this way, former belligerents have been able to develop a dialogue, using the structures and instruments of the democratic process, to facilitate the path to a peaceful and prosperous future. This has been achieved through the efforts of Bosnian authorities and the international community acting in both its civilian and military capacities.

NATO's operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina - both the Implementation Force (IFOR) and SFOR that replaced it - required war-fighting, deterrence and humanitarian capabilities all at the same time. As a result, the Alliance faced a huge range of challenges that it has worked diligently to address, ensuring it is equipped to adapt to new circumstances in the most effective ways possible.

The difficulties of the logistics support required to conduct the kind of operations that NATO has been leading in the Balkans during the past nine years are of themselves daunting. Moreover, with soldiers from some 43 NATO and non-NATO countries participating at different times in IFOR and SFOR, disparities in the technology and equipment capabilities among them have also been potential obstacles. To enhance efforts to ensure the effectiveness of similar operations in the future, training will have to be more rigorous and standardised with a focus on greater interoperability, especially in Command, Control, Communication, Computers and Intelligence.

Since NATO's deployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Alliance has sought to develop a Balkans-wide, long-term approach to peacekeeping and reconstruction. Since 2001, Allied Joint Force Command (JFC) Naples has been responsible for all NATO-led operations in the Balkans and has thus been able to view the entire region as a single joint area of operations. This has enabled it to make effective use of over-the-horizon reserve forces and to contribute to a more secure environment in an increasingly flexible and agile manner. The advantages of this approach were demonstrated by the rapid deployment of four SFOR companies to augment the Kosovo Force (KFOR) during the March 2004 resurgence of violence in Kosovo. Given their proximity, troops were able to arrive within hours of the request for reinforcements by the KFOR Commander. As the first reserves to arrive, even before elements of the over-the-horizon forces or strategic reserve forces, they played a crucial role in demonstrating NATO's ability to stabilise a difficult situation rapidly and effectively.

More lessons learned

While a robust field presence was initially necessary throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO commanders immediately set about working with civilian authorities to develop local multi-ethnic rule-of-law and security capabilities. This policy proved far-sighted as minority rights and freedom of movement have tended increasingly to be guaranteed by indigenous rule-of-law institutions. Moreover, as these institutions have grown in competence and gained the trust of minority populations, SFOR has slowly been able to reduce the number of its fixed sites and proactive patrols and to hand over responsibility to local agencies. The key lesson here is the importance of developing local capabilities as soon as possible. The broader lesson is that without this concerted development effort, a cycle of dependency is created and NATO missions risk becoming unnecessarily protracted.

SFOR has made great use of forward operating bases and liaison and observation teams. These teams consist of groups of eight to ten soldiers and interpreters that operate from small houses or shop fronts in local communities, enabling close interaction with citizens and local authorities. This approach has also been adopted by other international organisations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe built a significant number of field offices coordinated through four regional centres. The Office of the High Representative also developed an extensive presence on the ground. A field-based structure enables more thorough monitoring and situational awareness, and improves the capacities of organisations seeking to oversee the implementation of reforms to do so effectively. It also sends a clear message to local authorities and citizens that the international community is committed to change and reform.

Learning the right lessons and implementing effective changes are critical to the success of any mission

From the first day of IFOR's deployment, the international military presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina had a sufficiently robust mandate to oversee military implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement and was determined to do so. By contrast, the civilian presence in the country did not initially possess similar authority. The powers of the High Representative were increased at the 1997 Peace Implementation Council meeting in Bonn, Germany, in such a way that the High Representative was effectively empowered to do whatever was necessary to end obstruction and ensure implementation of reform measures. Each of the High Representatives to benefit from the so-called "Bonn powers"- Carlos Westendorp, Wolfgang Petritsch and Lord Ashdown - has made the most of them and, by doing so, has been able to exert significant influence on the evolution of the peace process. However, virtually all observers agree that it would have been more effective had civilian institutions had the authority to establish themselves forcefully at the outset, and then gradually to have relinquished power to the relevant and responsible local authorities, as conditions allowed and the situation warranted.

Some critics complain that too little reform has taken place in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement and the end of hostilities. While it is always possible to achieve more, nation-building, economic development and democratisation are slow and long-term processes. Indeed, an argument can be made that reconciliation and social reconstruction after the Civil War in the United States continued right up to the civil-rights movement and legislative changes of the 1960s. Moreover, Germany and Japan were both subjected to prolonged international attention after the Second World War before eventually emerging as political and economic powers constructed on a Western democratic model.

Operational hindrances

One of the greatest operational difficulties faced on the ground is that posed by the imposition of national restrictions or caveats, whether formal or informal, on the way in which the force contributions made by different countries may be used. This is a cancer that eats away at the effective usability of troops. Denying the NATO commander the authority to use the forces assigned to him as he deems appropriate, whether because of national caveats or restrictions on the rules of engagement, seriously undermines his ability to accomplish his mission. Such restrictions also open up potential weaknesses that those opposed to NATO and its peace-support operations will seek to exploit to undermine and even attack our forces. To be fair, nations have begun to realise that the caveats they impose on the use of their forces may in some circumstances not only fail to protect their soldiers but even put them at greater risk. As a result, there have been recent improvements and several countries have removed or reduced caveats. The issue, nevertheless, remains a critical one that has to be addressed.

Another area critical to the success of every crisis-management operation where NATO must improve its capabilities is that of intelligence collection, analysis, dissemination and sharing. The Alliance cannot simply sit back and hope that once a crisis develops, nations will come forward with the necessary information and intelligence. Rather, it is up to NATO to develop its own intelligence and regional expertise to support ongoing operations as well as potential future missions.

In seeking to improve capabilities in this area, JFC Naples established the Joint Information and Analysis Centre (JIAC). This Centre brings together intelligence collected from all our operations to give us an integrated intelligence product, not only for the benefit of SFOR and other Balkan commands, but also for missions such as Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean. The key to the Centre's success will not be a better register of information, but the degree to which we can effectively collate, analyse and then disseminate data as actionable intelligence to the appropriate command or institution. It is hoped that this will encourage a two-way exchange of timely information with non-military agencies, ranging from civilian intelligence agencies to law-enforcement entities. Currently, this is not done in a systematic way and the political will to undertake this kind of development does not exist. I am, however, convinced that this is the path that NATO must follow.

Another problem area is the Combined Joint Statement of Requirements (CJSOR) system. This is the system that facilitates the generation of forces for military operations. While the environments in which we operate are extremely challenging, we have gone to great lengths to make sure that we only ask nations to provide forces that are absolutely necessary. I wish to ensure that future operations do not suffer from chronic CJSOR shortfalls, since such shortfalls, and the very public discourse associated with the CJSOR process, jeopardise the successful accomplishment of the Alliance's military missions and damage its credibility. Moreover, the resulting lack of resources, both human and material, places those forces that are deployed at greater risk.

The outlook for Bosnia and Herzegovina today appears bright. A return to the hostilities of the first half of the 1990s is virtually unimaginable. That said, much work remains to be done. Bosnia and Herzegovina's Tripartite Presidency and virtually the entire political class want NATO to remain committed and engaged. Indeed, the decision to do so has been taken and NATO is retaining a military headquarters in Sarajevo. This headquarters will have a key role in the continued pursuit of war-crimes suspects, in close coordination with the EU Force (EUFOR). It will also take the lead role in overseeing and promoting defence reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina as the country prepares to join the Alliance's Partnership for Peace programme. Here again, continued close cooperation with both High Representative Lord Ashdown and EUFOR will be essential.

NATO's continuing dynamism is one of the key impressions I take away from my three years as a NATO commander. Moreover, as the Alliance transforms to meet the challenges of the 21st century, learning the lessons from the SFOR experience will contribute to this vitality. I have been impressed with the ability of NATO and the European Union to work together to set up a seamless transition from SFOR to EUFOR. Only NATO could have provided the war-fighting capability to bring about an end to hostilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But building on this foundation, the European Union is now equipped to continue the process of developing mature, indigenous institutions to provide a safe and secure environment for all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. The full range of EU capabilities can be brought to bear to assist Bosnia and Herzegovina in developing its law enforcement, judicial, economic and political institutions as it strives for Euro-Atlantic integration. This shared responsibility between NATO and the European Union is a model, which could be applied elsewhere, including in Kosovo, when the conditions are right.

I recall a conversation last year with the three members of Bosnia and Herzegovina's Presidency, who, though accepting in principle the rationale for the hand-over from SFOR to EUFOR, worried aloud that NATO would no longer be paying sufficient attention to their country. I pointed out that NATO had already demonstrated the depth and scale of its commitment to Bosnia and Herzegovina and explained that as the country matured politically, so the nature of NATO's engagement and the way in which the Alliance demonstrated its support would also evolve. Indeed, I look forward to the day when Bosnia and Herzegovina is a member of the Partnership for Peace and the cooperative relationship it enjoys with the Alliance is akin to that of any other Partner country in the Euro-Atlantic area.

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