Ratko Mladic and the fine art of octopus killing
Britain’s former ambassador to Sarajevo explains why it took so long to get Mladic, and asks whether our leaders might not have a certain, secret respect for high ranking bad guys.
Here's a question. Why did it take so long for Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic to be arrested?
Here’s another question. What's the best way to kill an octopus?
Let's start with the first question. It raises fascinating issues about the way politicians look at some very difficult problems.
The Bosnia conflict in the early 1990s came as a horrible shock to intelligent world opinion. The Cold War had ended more or less peacefully. Yet in the heart of former Yugoslavia – nay, in placid Europe itself - this ghastly war (civil war?) was live on the global TV screens, with no obviously fair peace settlement available.
Frustrated by the violence in Bosnia amidst painful trans-Atlantic divisions, in 1993 world leaders came out in favour of setting up a war crimes tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to bring to justice those responsible for the worst atrocities in former Yugoslavia. In 1994 a similar tribunal was set up following the calamitous events in Rwanda.
This ostensibly commendable initiative created brand new policy dilemmas. How far up the policy food chain should the ICTY go when contemplating indictments? Would indicting key political or military leaders take out the worst poison? Or force those leaders into a corner, boost their local support and make things worse?
In 1995, events accelerated. After the Srebrenica massacres NATO forces attacked the Bosnian Serb army. Huge political pressure on Belgrade and Zagreb led to the Dayton peace accords. And the top political and military leaders of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, were both indicted by the ICTY on numerous counts of crimes against humanity.
Thousands of NATO troops poured into Bosnia to consolidate the peace settlement. NATO capitals could now go hard and fast after all ICTY indictees. However, in different capitals this seemed dangerous or problematic, or both: would action against prominent indictees boost or threaten the fledging peace process? Above all, President Clinton’s 1996 re-election bid loomed: he did not want his Dayton triumph ruined by US troops being lost in messy Bosnia.
Thus NATO troops’ rules of engagement deliberately did not include orders to track down and arrest ICTY indictees. Indeed, in the early days NATO had quiet contacts with Mladic’s HQ to ensure a smooth, unconfrontational transition and so help Bosnia prepare for elections in September 1996.
Otherwise, NATO troops were tasked to arrest ICTY indictees only if they encountered them “in the course of their normal duties". This was interpreted narrowly, leading to one grotesque episode where Karadzic reportedly was seen cheerily waving to passing NATO vehicles purposefully pursuing those normal duties.
To those of us based in Sarajevo trying to lurch Bosnia and Herzegovina in a more Euro-democratic direction, it became obvious that even after the September elections the Republika Srpska political leadership remained under the direct and pernicious influence of Karadzic and Mladic.
In late 1996 I sent a secret telegram to London arguing that the massively expensive British and Western investment in Bosnia was doomed to failure if action was not taken against the ICTY indictees, particularly the most senior ones.
My argument was simple. It made no sense for the international presence in Bosnia to go round trying to plant the green seeds of European reasonableness if a few paces behind us followed ICTY indictees pouring plant-killer on those seeds.
The Bosnian communities were not stupid. They did not believe that the international seed-planters were unaware of -- or too weak to deal with -- the war crimes suspects openly trying to thwart progress. The only conclusion they could draw was that for some dark reason a deal had been done with those ICTY indictees. This being the case, why take the international community's “democracy” seriously? The ICTY indictees were looking like the real -- and permanent -- winners in the whole affair.
London by then was coming to the same conclusion. A new policy was worked out with Washington (Clinton by then safely re-elected), albeit at the risk of "mission creep". Specialist NATO troops would now take action to arrest and transfer to the ICTY all indictees.
But which indictees should be arrested first? The prominent senior ones who had presided over policies leading to all sorts of iniquitous outcomes? Or the nasty, less well-known indictees personally involved in carrying out atrocities?
This is where rational policy-making gives way to elusive, top-level political and personal instincts about risks and how to manage them.
Yes, going for the Big Fish first would show determination and power, but it could put our troops’ lives and other lives at risk – plus, a botched operation might throw the Dayton process itself into jeopardy. On the other side, going for the Small Fish first would be easier/safer in operational and political terms, but risked boosting the credibility (and defences) of the Big Fish still at large. Bold? Or step-by-step? Hare? Or tortoise?
London and Washington mulled over this novel, sensitive problem. They came down in favour of picking up assorted Small Fish first, with a view to moving purposefully towards arresting Big Fish thereafter. This policy had some upside, but above all relatively little downside: even if Big Fish were not quickly arrested, the spectacle of Small Fish being transferred to the ICTY would scare Big Fish well away from any remaining political influence. Progress could and would be made.
New Labour loved this policy that they inherited from the Major government. What better way to demonstrate their "ethical foreign policy" than operational toughness in arresting Balkan war crimes suspects?
Thus it was that within weeks of Labour coming to office British special forces emerged from the trees to arrest Bosnian Serb indictee Simo Drljaca. Drljaca pulled out a gun and was shot dead. In a bizarre Bosnian logic-warp, the Izetbegovic Bosniac/Muslim leadership in Sarajevo accused the perfidious British of making another pro-Serb (!) move intended to make Bosnian Serb extremists more popular. Sigh.
Other ICTY indictees were arrested in different operations across Bosnia. In late 1997 I sat with Prime Minister Tony Blair when he met NATO commander General Shinseki in Sarajevo. General Shinseki urged the case for moving at all speed to arrest remaining ICTY indictees while NATO troop numbers and intelligence-gathering capabilities were still high. Yet somehow NATO did not press home quickly enough its initial operational momentum.
And this, basically, is why it took so long to arrest both Karadzic and Mladic. The policy worked exactly as expected.
Small and then Medium Fish were nabbed. Political progress was made within the wobbly Dayton structures. New indictments were issued against a number of Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat political leaders, including Republika Srpska president Biljana Plavsic and Momcilo Krajisnik, elected in 1996 as the Serb member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency. Plus, of course, Dayton signatory Slobodan Milosevic himself was indicted by the ICTY in 1999 for crimes committed in Kosovo. All these and many more ended up on trial in The Hague.
But this very success compelled the Biggest Fish to take the hint. They faded further and further away from any open activity, using increasingly complex ruses and support networks to evade capture. Eventually they withdrew to Serbia itself, where they skulked for years, protected directly or indirectly by hard-core elements from the Milosevic security establishments. Karadzic was arrested in 2008. Mladic was arrested last week, an embarrassing, outlandish 16 years after the Srebrenica massacre.
It takes an almost freakishly unusual combination of operational factors and the highest political nerve to launch the sort of audacious raid carried out by the Americans against Bin Laden.
As we saw with Karadzic/Mladic and when NATO bombed Serbia in 1998 and now again in Libya, our politicians default towards “safer” strategies of controlled escalation rather than up-front boldness. Perhaps there’s also an unspoken instinct that however wicked they are, even really bad leaders deserve a certain practical respect? Better a supposedly “measured”, if messy, expensive route “to keep options open” than a strong, ruthless attempt to chop off the very head of the problem.
Yet that policy comes at a high cost. Sophisticated aerial bombardment to limit the room for manoeuvre of extreme leaders usually blows up hundreds of poor regime squaddies while leaving intact (if not emboldened) the worst, and wealthy, parts of the regime which have caused the whole problem. Plus the problem drags on. And on. And on. This is not obviously wise, obviously efficient, or obviously “moral”.
Oh, and that second question?
If you want to kill an octopus, speedily destroy its nerve-centre. Don't trim its toenails.
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