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Allies and lies


The Bosnian Muslim army was covertly supplied with arms by the US during the 1990s

Friday, 22 June, 2001, 16:53 GMT 17:53 UK
[ British ] BBC Correspondent

For fair use only
Published under the provision of
U.S. Code, Title 17, section 107.

In an investigation across six countries, Correspondent has uncovered a series of incidents which have tested the Western Alliance to breaking point. Dan Hebditch, associate producer on the programme, reports.

The Bosnian war was the first major test of the West's resolve in the post-Cold War era, and one that it unambiguously failed.

Prevarication, competing national agendas and lack of moral courage on the part of politicians and diplomats worsened an already horrific situation, while on the ground UN peacekeepers with inadequate support and confusing orders wrestled with a situation for which they were ill-trained.

Into this already complicated situation came the ultimate "wild card", the United States of America, the world's only superpower. A small group at the head of America's foreign policy elite intervened covertly in what it had previously called "Europe's problem".

It was driven by a mixture of media-fuelled public opinion, simplistic moral outrage and personal ambition to make a name in the "only game in town". Its easy answer for Bosnia's ills was "lift and strike" - re-arm the Bosniaks (mostly Bosnian Muslims) and Croats and bomb the Serbs.

At first arms were sent to Bosnia via Croatia, but the Croats were reluctant to arm the Bosnian army with sophisticated weapons, so America took it upon itself to deliver arms directly to the Bosnian Muslim Army - the ABiH. [Armija Bosne i Hercegovine]

Covert drops by the US

These covert air drops began at the start of 1995.
spy plane
The US conducted covert surveillance operations over Bosnia

The most well-documented were the drops at Tuzla in the north of Bosnia, where they were observed by members of the UN Nordic Battalion stationed close to the dropping zone.

The drops contained vital, high value supplies: Anti-tank guided weapons to counter Bosnian Serb armour, Stinger surface-to-air missiles to ward off helicopters, night vision goggles and, most importantly, Motorola radio sets to allow the ABiH to operate more efficiently in large scale offensive operations.

However these air drops took place in the face of Operation Deny Flight, the UN-imposed and Nato-policed no-fly zone over Bosnia. Faced with sighting reports from the UN on the ground Nato denied that any such activity had taken place and launched an investigation whose conclusions rubber-stamped this.

However, it is now known that the incident was not as simple as Nato tried to make out. On the nights of the drops US Navy Awacs surveillance planes rather than Nato aircraft with their multi-national crews were monitoring the skies over Bosnia. In addition, the Nato investigation teams were manned only by Americans and didn't bother to interview anyone who actually witnessed the drops.

Nato had been manipulated to allow the US to conduct its own unilateral policy in the Balkans.

The air drops were only the tip of the iceberg. A team of retired US officers planned the bloody Croatian "liberation" of the Krajina and the subsequent invasion of western Bosnia by the Croatian Army in the summer of 1995.

The US also provided intelligence to the Croats, flying unmanned reconnaissance drones off the Adriatic island of Brac. More significantly the US launched a huge signals and electronic intelligence gathering operation in Croatia to provide targeting information not for Nato or the UN, but for Croatia alone.

UN negotiator and former Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg felt betrayed:

"I'd never criticise the Americans for saying this was a European issue and must be solved by the Europeans," he says.

Un peace negotiator, Thorvald Stoltenberg

"My criticism is that they did not then go outside the field and sit down and watch - they were standing on the sideline shouting into the players."

American intelligence-gathering in the region was conducted on a huge scale. At any one time over 100 operators from across the spectrum of US intelligence agencies were on the ground in Bosnia.

They were deployed not only in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but in UN civilian and military agencies as well. This intelligence-gathering was aimed as much at the UN as the Serbs, and intelligence was passed directly on to the Bosnian Government.

This information was often used to ratchet up the pressure on UN commanders to launch punitive air strikes on the Serbs.

Bugging the UN

The scope of these activities included bugging UN Commanders and diplomats.

gen. Michael Rose
Lt General Sir Michael Rose (ret'd)

Former UN Commander in Bosnia General Sir Michael Rose was aware that the Americans were secretly bugging his office:

"We were always very careful in what we said in that office. And if we did say something, it was with deliberate intent."

All of this intelligence-gathering activity was supposed to be concealed from America's allies in the UN and NATO.

Britain especially has a very close link with American intelligence, but in late 1994, this supply of intelligence to the British was temporarily cut off, causing panic in Whitehall.

In the end the US lift and strike policy succeeded - but at a cost. The Croatian Army broke the Serbs in the west, Nato aircraft destroyed Bosnian Serb logistics and command facilities whilst UN artillery on Mount Igman dominated the Serb guns that had held Sarajevo under siege for so long.

The warring parties were then bullied into the Dayton Agreement that underpins the shaky peace in Bosnia today.

Was the US policy a success?

Senior European negotiators believe that with US backing the war could have ended two years earlier, but US desire to see the Serbs punished meant that they instead encouraged the Bosnian Government to continue fighting. The price in human terms? Over 15,000 dead and nearly 600,000 refugees.

American unilateralism in Bosnia has led to a diplomatic backlash.

Europe feels it can no longer rely on the US in times of crisis. Instead, it has begun to hedge its bets, first with the Anglo-French St Malo Agreement and now with the so-called "Euro army".

There is a great reluctance on the part of western politicians to talk about the significance and the future of the Euro army. Indeed normally loquacious political and military figures beat a hasty retreat when approached by Correspondent.

However there can be no doubt that its origins can be traced back to the results of American mendacity and covert operations during the conflict in Bosnia. And no one yet knows quite what will replace the old alliances in the future.

Allies and lies: Correspondent, Sunday 24th June [2001] at 19:15 on BBC 2.

Reporter: Sheena McDonald
Producer: David Hebditch
Editor: Fiona Murch


 [ Excerpts from this important BBC documentary ]


 [ Devil's Triangle: America helps Jihad in Bosnia ]

The truth belongs to us all.
First posted: October 8, 2003