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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bosnian Army's Weakness: Party Politics and Red Tape

SARAJEVO -- When Bosnian Serb forces began pounding the UN-designated "safe area" of Srebrenica earlier this month, the mostly Moslem Bosnian army troops inside the enclave did something unusual for a force of more than 9,000 men trapped by its mortal enemy. They did not fight.

At midnight on July 11, thousands of Bosnian soldiers slipped out of Srebrenica and trudged more than 100 kilometers through Serb-held territory to safety in the Tuzla region to the north. In their absence, more than 30,000 women, children and elderly people remaining in Srebrenica were expelled from their homes by the Serbs in an episode of "ethnic cleansing" marked, UN officials said, by rapes, summary executions and mass robberies.

The operation by the mostly Moslem Bosnian army highlights what some NATO officials describe as the unfairness of the 39-month-old war in Bosnia, which pits the formidably armed Serbs against the courageous but poorly endowed Bosnians, prevented from arming themselves by an international arms embargo.

But the maneuvers around Srebrenica and in other areas also illustrate another view of the Bosnian army: that the 150,000-member fighting force is poorly organized and hampered by persistent command-and-control problems and that -- even if the arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia were lifted -- the army has little hope on the battlefield.

"What would happen if they lifted the arms embargo?" said one senior Bosnian military commander. "The Serbs would capture a lot of new weaponry pretty quick."

Western and UN military officers say there is little doubt that Bosnia's army has improved vastly since its creation in 1992. But interviews with Bosnian military officers suggest the effects of much-vaunted changes are exaggerated.

The first problem, these officers say, concerns the use of the army by the Party of Democratic Action, led by Bosnia's Moslem president, Alija Izetbegovic. According to a senior Bosnian army commander, success in the army depends not so much on success on the battlefield but on whether one is a party member or not. "Anyone who wants to move up must join the party," he said. "That might be O.K. in peacetime, but it does us no good in war."

A senior UN official said: "Simply put, the army's obsession with politics and its fondness for political commanders is hurting it on the battlefield." The Bosnian 2nd Corps' commander, whose responsibilities included Srebrenica at the time of its fall, was an active party member with little military experience.

Another throwback to communist times is said to be the restrictive bureaucracy exhibited by the army's command.

Last summer, following a massive military failure in central Bosnia, the army set about to change its tactics and operate more like a guerrilla force. No longer, its officers said, would the Bosnian army mass its troops so Serb forces could kill many of them with their big guns. No longer would it accept World War I tactics of trench warfare.

But the senior Bosnian commander says the army has failed to adopt these new techniques and continues to wage what amounts to traditional warfare, with the army's general staff in Sarajevo refusing to relinquish complete control over operational decisions.