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A Conflict We Need Not Fight Again: How A Little Attention Can Go A Long Way In Consolidating Past Successes In Bosnia

Posted: 01/09/09 04:53 PM ET

It wasn't long ago that Bosnia was held up as a great success story for U.S. intervention. Yet news emanating from the increasingly forgotten corner of Europe has not been good of late. Ethnic tension is on the rise, accompanied by a marked increase in religiosity.

Visiting Sarajevo today, one finds many of the same multicultural, multi-confessional traits as have always graced the city's streets. Minarets and steeples stand tall in the same neighborhoods, and people sip beer or coffee in cafes during the call to prayer, validating the once familiar nickname of "European Jerusalem."

But Milorad Dodik, the increasingly bellicose prime minister of Republika Srpska, Bosnia's Serb entity, has called Sarajevo the "new Tehran", with mosques and madrassas becoming a central part of daily life for a visibly more religious Muslim population. Dodik's hostile rhetoric -- most notably his calls for Bosnian Serb secession -- have been met with equally tense replies from the Bosnia's president, Haris Silajdzic.

The Balkans are unlikely to rest amidst the ever growing multitude of 'top priorities' that the Obama administration articulates in coming months. A global financial crisis, violence in Gaza, instability in Pakistan, and a measured withdrawal from Iraq will all require the utmost attention and care.

However the greatest dangers facing the United States in the next decade may come from their inability to consolidate past successes. Bosnia is the poster-child example of a place where small amounts of measured attention and steady care go a long way toward increasing political stability and economic progress. Neglect, on the other hand, may threaten the hard-fought gains of the past several years.

The United States, if it so chooses, can leverage the favor it already enjoys from the young Muslim populations of southeast Europe. It need not view Bosnia's Islamic resurgence as a threat to order in the region. Bosnia's tradition of Islam is precisely the moderate Muslim voice that deserves the attention and support of the international community.

During and immediately following the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, Wahhabism threatened to accompany Saudi-financed building projects and charities. Many western observers, including top U.S. and European diplomats, made it very clear to the Bosniak Muslim leadership that support during the late stages of the war was contingent upon an outright rejection of any Islamist rhetoric that would have had Bosnia as yet another frontline in the jihadist war against the West.

This was largely successful. The moderate Bosniaks have accepted lavish new Saudi-financed mosques -- funded to the tune of $700 million since the end of the war - yet they have been quick to condemn the Islamist ideology that might have accompanied it.

During a trip to the northwest town of Sanski Most in 2006, Ismir Harambasic, 21, told me over beers, "Before the war, people weren't that religious. But after the war...well, it's more a part of community life." In subsequent returns to visit with Ismir in 2007 and 2008, we noted the differences in the community, from an increased number of minarets on the local mosque to the fact that our conversations were no longer shared over beer -- Ismir had stopped drinking due to religious observance.

Today in Bosnia there remains both a strong secular base that rejects foreign extremism, along with a pro-reconciliation, pro-Islam caste of Bosnian social workers and peace builders that use the multicultural aspects of Bosnia's history to aid in the healing process.

The huge amounts of Western aid and attention that followed the Dayton Accords played a critical role in cementing the role that the West could play in helping Bosnians of all ethnicities shape their future. Since 1995, USAID has given over $1 billion to fund economic growth, governance, and security projects within Bosnia.

The aid had a very clear, immediate effect. In order to continue receiving funds, Bosnia's politicians would have to work together to settle some of their most intractable grievances. And the international community's attention would hold them to their public promises, assuring accountability rather than mere rhetoric.

Over the past eight years, however, international attention has shifted away from Bosnia as it struggles to consolidate gains and establish a functioning government. The USAID budget decreased by 23% from 2007 to 2008, from over $42 million to $33 million. One expects post-conflict funding to taper off with time, but this decrease in aid has not accompanied conditions-based gains.

Perhaps as a result, ethnic tension is on the rise and many have even forecasted the possibility of renewed violence. The lack of international attention is perhaps most apparent when one leaves the streets of Sarejevo, heading north or east to those communities that were never the main target of international aid. And with Dodik calling for the possible secession of Republika Srpska, my friend Ismir tells me, "People are not afraid yet, but they should be."

In the next few years, the international community once again runs the risk of neglecting Bosnians in a time of need.

The Obama administration need not expend great effort and resources on behalf of Bosnia, but must realize the fantastic return it can get for such a small investment of time and energy. It can ensure that fragile agreements are implemented, that political rhetoric is backed with action on the ground, and that Bosnia's moderate voices are heard.

By keeping Bosnia in the international spotlight, the United States can keep it on a track of development and political progress. And in the greater public relations campaign that Obama is preparing for renewed US engagement in international diplomacy, pointing out an example where the US continues to support its moderate Muslim friends is surely never a bad thing.


Richard Bennet is a research associate in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and has worked and traveled extensively throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina.