Throughout the 1990s, even as enormous amounts of Washington’s political, diplomatic, intelligence, and military resources were being devoted to the Balkans, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, many of the members of the 9/11 attacks (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; Nawaf al Hazmi; Khalid al Mindhar; Ramzi bin al Shihb; Mohammed Haydar Zammar and Amer Azizi), of the bombing of the USS Cole (Mohammed Hamdi al Ahdal; Abdul Rahim as Nashiri; Ibrahim al Thawar; Hassan al Khamini; Bashir Ali Nasir al Shadadi; Jamal al-Badawi), of the U.S. embassy attacks in Africa in August 1998 (Mehmed Mamdouh Salim) and numerous other Al Qaeda operations were making Bosnia their recruiting ground and staging area for terror attacks against the United States and its allies around the world. Many of these people were operating in Bosnia even as tens of thousands of U.S. troops and civilian personnel were present in the country. In perhaps the most remarkable example of blowback from a covert operation, the United States helped infiltrate many of the militant Islamists from Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa into the Balkans during the 1990s who would later go on to attack U.S. targets around the world.
In a subsequent tacit acknowledgment of the magnitude of these intelligence failures, Richard Holbrooke would later admit that “we then called [the militant Islamists the U.S. covert operations were infiltrating into Bosnia] Mujahideen freedom fighters. We now know that that was al-Qaida.” Similarly, Richard Clarke, the former national coordinator for counterterrorism for presidents Clinton and Bush, would note that “What we saw unfold in Bosnia was a guidebook to the bin Laden network, although we didn’t recognize it as such at the time . . . Although Western intelligence agencies never labeled [the mudžahedin activities] in Bosnia an al Qaeda jihad, it is now clear that is exactly what it was.”
Such acknowledgments, however, are few and far between. Even after 9/11, there is little knowledge of, and even less willingness to accept, the scale of the intelligence failures that U.S. policy in the Balkans represented. For instance, a two-hundred-page edited volume published in 2014 (i.e., nineteen years after the Bosnian war, and thirteen years after 9/11) reviewing declassified U.S. government documents produced during the Bosnian crisis does not reveal a single acknowledgement by U.S. officials that most of Al Qaeda’s leadership was in Bosnia in the 1990s. Similarly, the Central Intelligence Agency’s official 500-page history of the Bosnian and Croatian wars, Balkan Battlegrounds, published in 2002, likewise provides no recognition of the fact that the allies of Washington’s local clients were in fact the people who would attack us on 9/11.
Since the 1990s, the Balkans have rarely featured in U.S. foreign policy discussions. For instance, the January 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community managed only two generic sentences on the Western Balkans over the course of forty-two pages. More recently, the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance paper released by the Biden administration in March 2021 similarly failed to make a single mention of the Balkans or any of the countries therein. Even President Joe Biden, often touted as the U.S. official with the most personal experience on Balkan issues did not mention the region in his 2020 Foreign Affairs essay outlining his vision for a post-Trump foreign policy.
The scarce attention Washington dedicates to the Western Balkans suggests an important point: in the absence of the region having any real significance for the United States, the only interest the country could legitimately be said to have in the Western Balkans is in helping to devise and sustain stable regional political and security equilibria that ensures that Balkan troubles do not spill over to other more strategically important parts of Europe.
Put another way, if the United States has no definable interests in the Western Balkans, then it follows that the specific details of local agreements are of little interest to the United States either, as long as these agreements provide the bare modicum of local, regional and international legitimacy needed to promote stable and peaceful outcomes.
Unfortunately, it is precisely here—i.e., in devising and sustaining agreements that have consensual, generally accepted local, regional and international legitimacy—where Washington’s Balkan policy has most consistently failed over the past thirty years. In Bosnia, for instance, Washington’s confusion over whether the Balkans were important, and what to do about them, led the Clinton administration to reject numerous peace plans (e.g., the Cutileiro Plan of 1992, the Vance-Owen Peace Plan of January 1993; the Owen-Stoltenberg Plan of August 1993). And, as Carl Bildt, amongst others, has pointed out, the Washington-sponsored Dayton Accords were only made possible after the Clinton Administration made several important concessions to the Bosnian Serbs in July-August 1995, which, had Washington been willing to make sooner, could have brought an end to the Bosnian War, and all its attendant suffering, years earlier. Indeed, viewed from such a perspective, one could make a strong argument that the Dayton Accords did not represent a triumph of American diplomacy in as much as they recognized the failure of forty-three months of American diplomacy.
Nevertheless, Dayton can be considered successful, mainly because it recognized that the requirements for a stable and peaceful outcome in Bosnia required local factions, regional neighbors, and the international community to regard the agreement as legitimate. Unfortunately, this lesson has not been observed by Washington’s more recent Balkan initiatives.
For instance, Washington is currently promoting various “solutions” for Bosnia’s chronic malaise that are rejected by half the country’s population, by the country’s neighbors, by members of the UN Security Council, and often even by NATO and EU allies. No U.S. policy so widely rejected can be expected to produce a stable outcome in the country.
Similarly, in Kosovo, Washington’s near-unilateral drive to promote Kosovo independence after 2004 quickly became, as Holbrooke himself would note, a “huge diplomatic train wreck.” Kosovo’s statehood is currently rejected by five members of the EU, two members of the UN Security Council, and almost every other major multiethnic state in the world (e.g., Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, India, etc.). As a result, Kosovo remains in an international/diplomatic limbo so ambiguous that many of Kosovo’s own politicians see unification with Albania as the only way forward, an eventuality that would only lead to another round of violence in the Western Balkans.
At the root of these failures is a fundamental flaw in Washington’s approach to the Balkans. On the one hand, irresponsible politicians and diplomats want to indulge the maximalist political agendas of their favorite clients in the region. On the other hand, however, given the region’s relative unimportance to genuine U.S. interests, Washington can never justify expending the diplomatic, economic, military or political capital in the region needed to fulfill these agendas, especially not in a world in which there are more important and immediate problems affecting real U.S. interests.
Thus, although Washington frequently offers the promise of decisive support to its Balkan clients, it can never actually change Balkan political and strategic realities enough to do so. As a result, Washington’s Balkan policy over the past three decades has usually exacerbated problems and perpetuated Balkan conflicts (frozen and otherwise) rather than promoted regional stability and progress.
Given such a disappointing track record for Washington’s Balkan policy, and the frequent calls for the Biden administration to get more deeply involved in southeastern Europe, it would be useful for the national security establishment to finally have a thorough debate as to whether the region matters to the United States and if so, then how and to what extent. In the absence of such a debate—and in the subsequent determination of the appropriate policies and level-of-engagement to adopt—there can be little hope of Washington ever developing a coherent Balkan policy that both adequately reflects U.S. interests, and promotes peace and democracy in southeastern Europe.
Gordon N. Bardos is president of SEERECON, a political risk consultancy specializing in Southeastern Europe.