Prague, April 17 (RFE/RL) - NATO commanders are holding out the possibility that the alliance's one-year mandate in Bosnia could be re-considered because of uncertainty about Bosnia's political process.
U.S. Admiral Leighton Smith, the overall commander of NATO-led troops in Bosnia, said this week that it is "too early" for him to make a recommendation on whether any of the 60,000 multinational NATO-led forces should stay in Bosnia beyond the scheduled December 20 pull-out date.
But Smith also said that his recommendation will depend upon the military, civil and political progress of the Dayton peace accords. Smith noted that while the military and civilian aspects of Dayton have progressed reasonably well, the political process - including preparations for elections, scheduled for the fall - has not been as "robust" as it needs to be.
General George Joulwan, NATO's Supreme Commander in Europe, was quoted two days ago as saying it is possible NATO could extend its one-year mandate because of political uncertainty in Bosnia.
In an interview with an Italian newspaper (Corriere della Sera), Joulwan predicted that NATO's executive body, the North Atlantic Council, will re-examine what he called the "problem" of NATO's one-year mandate.
But Joulwan also said it was premature to draw conclusions, and that he is proceeding under the theory that NATO's mission in Bosnia will end in December. Under this plan, NATO forces would begin leaving as early as September.
Any prolongation of NATO's presence in Bosnia would require the support of U.S. President Bill Clinton, who is running for re-election this year. In making the case for sending the U.S. contingent of 20,000 troops to Bosnia, Clinton told a largely ambivalent American public that the troops would not stay longer than one year. There has been no word from the White House on the prospect of extending the mandate of all or some of the American forces.
The next major stage in the political process in Bosnia comes in June, when a commission headed by the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe is scheduled to declare whether conditions have been met for separate elections to be held in Bosnia's Serb entity and in its Muslim-Croat dominated entity.
The holding of free and fair elections are widely seen as the single most important test of whether an enduring peace can take hold in Bosnia.
Without such elections, western officials fear that the country's nationalist factions would be reinforced, which could lead to another round of war. And NATO officials have said that unless elections go ahead as planned, it could be difficult for the alliance to pull out of Bosnia.
But there are doubts about whether Bosnia will be ready for the elections, which have been tentatively planned for September.
Michael Steiner, the deputy administrator of the civilian aspects of Dayton, said yesterday that because of the continuing influence of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the election picture in the Bosnian Serb entity remains unclear.
Karadzic and his military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, have been indicted by the international war crimes tribunal. As such, they are not allowed under Dayton to participate in elections, but both men continue to enjoy wide influence among Bosnian Serbs. Karadzic has even said he plans to run for office in the elections.
Disagreements among Bosnia's Muslims and Croats have also raised concerns about Bosnia's political process. The two sides have so far been unable to reach agreement on critical issues such defense and tax law, or even on what symbols to put on a new federal flag.