From 1992-1995, Bosnia was the site of some of the bloodiest fighting in Europe since the Second World War. Yet since the signing of the Dayton peace accords, the country remains divided along ethnic lines. Despite massive Western foreign aid and the presence of American peacekeeping forces, Bosnia’s Serbs, Croats and Muslims are no closer to genuine reconciliation and peaceful co-existence. The country’s Serbs who live in the Bosnian Serb Republic seek to eventually become part of Serbia. The Bosnian Croats, most of whom live in the country’s second political entity, the Muslim-Croat federation, also would like nothing more than to join Croatia.
The country’s Muslims, however, remain wedded to the notion of a united, multinational Bosnia based on a strong centralized government in Sarajevo. The international community also is committed to keeping the country’s borders intact. Yet the problem with that approach is that it overlooks the reality of what is occurring on the ground.
Bosnia remains an economic basket case, where the unemployment rate is 40 percent. Foreign investment is practically nonexistent. Corruption and crime remain rampant. Despite nearly a decade of nation-building, Western governments have failed to forge viable economic and political institutions.
More ominously, the greatest threat to peace and stability stems from the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in Bosnia, which seeks to either wipe out or convert all Christians in the region. The country now serves as a base for al Qaeda operatives, where numerous terrorist cells are active and plotting attacks on targets throughout Europe. In the past, Saudi Arabia has sent millions of dollars in aid to “humanitarian” agencies that encourage Bosnian Muslims to promote the doctrines of Wahhabism, a particularly intolerant and puritanical version of Islam. Mosques have been established throughout the Muslim-Croat federation, many of whom preach the need for “jihad” against the country’s Catholic Croats and Orthodox Christian Serbs.
The result has been numerous acts of terror perpetrated upon civilians — especially the Croats. During the past several years, Catholic churches in and around Sarajevo have been vandalized by Islamic extremists. Cemeteries where Croats were buried have been desecrated. Many ordinary Catholics are afraid of walking on the streets of Sarajevo with a cross around their neck for fear of being attacked.
The most notorious incident occurred on Christmas Eve, when three Croats — a father and his two daughters — were gunned down in their home by an Islamic militant near the town of Konjic. Their crime: celebrating Christmas.
The rise of radical Islam threatens to destabilize the Balkans, plunging the region once again into bloodshed and religious conflict. Rather than forcing the three constituent peoples of Bosnia to live together against their wishes, the Bush administration would be wise to develop a realistic and coherent strategy toward the region.
Washington needs to realize that synthetic states such as Bosnia-Herzegovina are destined to fail. Recent European history is littered with examples of multinational countries such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union that disintegrated because they denied the fundamental human aspirations for democracy and national self-determination. Bosnia is another case in point. The Bosnian Serbs should be allowed to form a state with Serbia; the Croat territories — especially those centered around their stronghold of Mostar in Western Herzegovina — should be incorporated into Croatia. The Bosnian Muslims would have their own state, with Sarajevo as the capital.
More importantly, the Bush administration needs to foster closer ties with the Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina for one simple reason: They are on the front-lines in the war against Islamic terrorism in the Balkans. The Bosnian Serbs, meanwhile, are unreliable allies. Many of them are still seething with resentment against the United States for its decision to use military force to end the Serbs’ campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass murder during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The Croats, on the other hand, view Washington as their strategic partner. As one high-ranking Bosnian Croat government official told me: “We can act as the eyes and ears for the West in the Balkans and monitor the activities of al Qaeda in Bosnia.”
The United States should not only support the Bosnian Croats’ right to self-determination, but also provide them with intelligence and military assistance to contain the growth of radical Islam in the region.
It is ironic that the West should now have to depend upon the Croats in Herzegovina as a pivotal ally in the war on terrorism. Throughout the 1990s, the Herzegovinian Croats were demonized in the Western liberal press for their “nationalism” and passionate attachment to the Croatian cause. They have always been the most patriotic and courageous of all the Croats, producing some of Europe’s finest fighters. Herzegovina was primarily the site where the Croats for centuries fought off the invading Ottoman armies. For their ceaseless resistance to the Turks, Pope Leo X referred to the Croats as “the ramparts of Christendom.”
The Croats in Bosnia can again take up their historic role as a strategic bulwark against Islamic expansionism on the Continent. However, this can only happen after Washington realizes Bosnia is not a Balkan Switzerland, but a smoldering cauldron of ethnic strife where the followers of Osama bin Laden have found a home to preach their message of hate and religious fanaticism. As an experiment in nation-building, Bosnia has been a noble failure. The Bush administration should take heed.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is an assistant national editor at The Washington Times.