Iraq Through the Lens of Bosnia and Kosovo

by Martin Sletzinger, Director of East European Studies

Mar 17, 2003

Debate and confusion have emerged over the possible duration and costs in terms of manpower, military expenditure and development of the impending war in Iraq and the subsequent nation-building exercise envisaged by the administration. A look at the U.S. and allied experience in the ongoing nation-building efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo would help to put the costs and challenges of Iraq into realistic and sobering perspective.

In Bosnia, a new nation about 1/8 the size and population of Iraq, a NATO-led peacekeeping force has been in place since December 1995. Starting with 60,000 troops, of which 20,000 were from the U.S., the force is now down to about 15,000 with about 3,000 of them being American. Throughout the past eight years, over 100,000 U.S. troops have rotated in and out of the region.

The overall military peacekeeping effort alone, in this nearly eight years, approaches $50 billion, with U.S. military costs totaling $10.8 billion as of the end of last year. The humanitarian and infrastructure rebuilding has cost tens of billions more, with the U.S. accounting for $2.1 billion. After seven years of international peacekeeping and assistance, Bosnia has made progress. How much is subject to debate. Not debatable is the reality that the situation between the three sides in Bosnia – Serbs, Croats and Muslims – linked by blood and language, divided by religion and history, is still so fragile and volatile that conflict could resume quickly if this NATO peacekeeping force were to leave.

With the architecture, but not the reality, of the unified functioning state, the international overseer of Bosnia, the High Representative, who has the powers of a colonial viceroy, has had to force the three sides to make most key decisions and agreements.

In short, after 8 years and many billions spent, the verdict is still out on how successful nation-building in Bosnia has been and will be. In Kosovo, after four years of NATO-led peacekeeping and UN civilian management, the future is also still murky. Following the eleven-week air campaign against Serbia, 50,000 peacekeeping troops were dispatched to Kosovo in June 1999, now reduced to about 35,000, including about 5,000 U.S. troops. The U.S. has constructed a large state-of-the-art base, Camp Bondsteel, in eastern Kosovo near the Macedonian border. It is not likely we will be leaving any time soon. Unlike Bosnia, where some progress in nation-building has been achieved, Kosovo four years out remains a shambles. Removal of the peacekeepers would result in virtually immediate conflict, both within Kosovo and between Serbia and Kosovo. Macedonia could get dragged in as well. As with Bosnia, peacekeeping and developmental costs have been in the tens of billions. For the U.S., from 1999-2003, the cost of the air war and maintaining troops in Kosovo has been $7.1 billion, with about a half billion spent on reconstruction and development.

The reality is, we are mired in Bosnia and Kosovo for years to come. And the military, political and economic challenges of Bosnia and Kosovo pale in comparison with those of Iraq. Given the experience in Bosnia and Kosovo, the timelines currently being floated for U.S. involvement in post-war Iraq - ranging from 2-10 years - are simply not realistic. Nor are price tags, even in the hundred billion dollar range. Similarly, the view that peace, development, rule of law, and even democratization can be achieved in Iraq in a matter of a few years and then possibly even exported to other countries in the region, appears hopelessly naïve and misguided. This is especially so when the experience in the comparatively simpler and much smaller peacemaking efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo – based by the way on peace agreements largely crafted and imposed by the U.S. – are taken into account.

It must be emphasized that unlike in Iraq, U.S. and allied troops and nation builders were inserted into Bosnia and Kosovo only after the fighting had stopped. They did not fight a ground war, and only went in to keep the peace and oversee the reconstruction. They were not occupying forces like the U.S. and allied troops were in post-war Germany and Japan, and will be in Iraq. Most importantly, in Bosnia and Kosovo, the U.S. went in together with all its NATO allies, sharing the costs and the troops, most of which by now have been assumed by the Europeans. If matters continue as they have been, this division of labor will not be repeated in Iraq. And, remember, 58 years later, tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain in both Germany and Japan.

The lessons for Iraq of the still unfolding nation-building experience in Bosnia and Kosovo are clear. It will be long-term – decades at least - expensive, complex, and frustrating, and with no guarantee of ultimate success. It will be impossible at the outset to accurately predict costs, levels of troops, and manpower needs and the effects of the nation-building experience on the region as a whole. All we can say from the experience in Bosnia and Kosovo is that it is going to be a very long, expensive and bumpy ride.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant