“What Took So Long? The Hunt for Radovan Karadzic.”

National Post 23 July 2008

PIFWC /piffwik/ n. Person Indicted for War Crimes Origin-NATO-led Stabilization Force, Bosnia-Herzegovina. circa 1990s.

After 13 years of futility, the West is cheering the capture of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, a man accused of a log list of hideous war crimes. As someone who has followed the Balkans closely, I cannot help but think back to the embittered mood that prevailed among war-criminal hunters a decade ago, in the hunt’s early days.

American special operations forces, covertly inserted into Bosnia-Herzegovina, were then packing up and going home. Months of work tracking some of the worst butchers from the vicious wars of the early 1990s had been wasted. The mission, a “snatch” operation, was blown when elements in the Republic of Srpska’s hierarchy learned that the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force was intensely interested in a site near Pale, the war-time Bosnian Serb capital. The target: Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the man who oversaw the dismemberment of a multi-cultural mini-state in central Yugoslavia.

Bosnia, the crossroads of three cultures and three religions, forcibly put together again by NATO and the international community in the mid-1990s, was at peace for the first time in years. Among Western powers, there were differing views on how to keep it that way, however. One faction demanded aggressive pursuit of those who perpetrated the atrocities, from the leadership down to the triggermen and concentration-camp rapists. The other view suggested that reconciliation was best achieved by admitting that all sides — Croat, Serb and Muslim — were equally guilty; and that aggressive measures to bring war criminals to justice were counterproductive, and could even ignite war again.

Both views co-existed in the Bosnia shadow world. Despite public pronouncements of unity of purpose, nations contributing forces to the NATO Stabilization Force (SFOR) pursued their national interests when it came to PIFWCs. The hunters hunted, and those who opposed the hunt protested in other ways. In many cases, the hunt was logistically and procedurally obstructed, details of raids leaked, actionable intelligence blurred.

The heat was turned up in 1999, however, when Serbia persecuted the Kosovar Albanian population and the possibility of a destabilized Bosnia emerged as a by-product of yet another Balkan war.

The main culprit, it was widely believed, was the pre-Sarkozy French government. It was clear to those of us observing NATO operations in Bosnia in the 1990s that France dragged its heels in any action where the Americans expressed a sense of alacrity. They were known to have warned several individuals — including Karadzic himself — that Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force officers were on their way to get them. Some also believed the French government, or elements within it, initiated a disinformation campaign that suggested the Americans didn’t really want Karadzic captured. The motive? Apparently, to cover up some alleged secret deal made at Dayton to get the Serbs to the table, or even off the hook for the massacre at Srebrenica.

The uncovering of a French spy ring in Brussels that fed Belgrade intelligence on the Allied Force air campaign against Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo conflict (a spy ring that, incidentally, put Canadian pilots at risk) added credibility to the public accusations made by American generals that France had undermined PIFWC operations. (For their part, the French asserted that any information passed to the Serbs was transmitted by individual French officers and not as part of French policy.)

To be fair, elements within the U.S. Army hierarchy also opposed the PIFWC hunt in the early days, citing the failure of a similar operation in Somalia, and their belief that the hunt was a police task. It was only in the late 1990s that the Americans’ enthusiasm level increased.

But what of Rado? He had more than just French help. The Balkans shadow world extends to the mountainous border region between Montenegro, Bosnia and Serbia. As with Osama bin Laden hiding in the northwest frontier of Pakistan, Karadzic had the assistance of local tribes — or, at the very least, people who could be bought off. (Montenegro, in particular, is well-known as a land of smugglers, organized crime and other elements that operated on the margins of Tito’s Yugoslav society — including the security services, when it suited them.) With its UN-approved mandate limited to Bosnia, SFOR had no jurisdiction in Montenegro — or Serbia for that matter. As long as Rado kept his head down, he was okay.

So why now? The answer to that question lies more with Serbia’s desire for better relations with the European Union than in the tenacity of the PIFWC hunters. Handing over Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague was one step. Serbian leaders must now want something else from the international community, and it is likely the apprehension of Karadzic is part of that campaign.

In the end, Radovan Karadzic has become a pawn — or perhaps a rook — in a much larger game. Other chess pieces will soon come into play — such as his co-conspirator, Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic. He’s next.

Sean M. Maloney is a history professor at Royal Military College.