bosnia report
No. 9 February - March 1995
 
The Arms Embargo is Strangling Bosnia-Herzegovina
by General Jovan Divjak

One reason why the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina agreed to a ceasefire was to end the killing of civilians in the Bihac enclave. However, the fact that the Serbian-Montenegrin aggressor has failed to observe the ceasefire agreement and is continuing to attack Fifth Corps positions confirms our prediction that that they would use the ceasefire to try to finish off Bihac. They are interested not only in destroying the Fifth Corps, but also in securing the important railway and road communications linking Belgrade via Bijeljina, Banja Luka and Bihac in Bosnia with Benkovac in Croatia. Already a year and a half ago they announced the opening of the `railway of the future' which would link Benkovac to Belgrade. The line, however, remains cut in the River Una valley near Bihac.

Over the past year the Bosnian Army has enjoyed a certain tactical advantage on all fronts except the Bihac one. Our HQ instructed all units to respect the Contact Group Plan. In the event of the aggressor continuing military activity, however, local commanders had the right to undertake counterattacks. This is what General Dudakovic, commander of the Fifth Corps, did. But he did not judge sufficiently accurately the situation as a whole, especially in regard to the reserves and ammunition at his disposal. He widened the front without ensuring the necessary depth of defence, so lost part of the territory. Nevertheless, the Fifth Corps controls more territory now than before the autumn offensive. We still hold the Grabez military outpost and most of the Grabez plateau.

Our main problem at all times has been the lack of weapons. Thanks to the arms embargo not one of our units is fully armed. The Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina numbers 200,000 men, of whom 50,000 are actually under arms: i.e. we can arm less than one third of our soldiers. The basis of our tactical units is formed by brigades, termed armoured, mechanized and light. However, some of our mechanized brigades do not possess a single tank or APC. Our brigades are not equipped for anti-aircraft defence, large-scale anti-tank battles, or many engineering tasks. Our Army has at most 50 tanks, whereas our enemy has 400ü450. The Serbian-Montenegrin aggressor has 1600-1800 artillery pieces, while the Bosnian Army has about 450. A similar situation exists with other kinds of weapons. We do not have any anti-aircraft missile systems. At the time of the battle of Bihac, 40 tanks and several hundred APCs were brought in from Serbia alone. The NATO airforce decided not to take action for fear of activating Serb missile systems imported from Russia. Our problem thus lies not in manpower, but in the quantity and quality of weapons. This is especially true of heavy artillery, anti-air-craft and anti-armour missiles. Without these we cannot defeat the aggression.

Some US commentators believe that in the event of the embargo being lifted,ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌà the Bosnian Army would need between six and ten months to master the use of heavy weapons. Such an assessment, however, is merely an excuse for inaction: a way of justifying to their public the inexplicable fact that the embargo is still in force. It is simply not true that we would not be able to use contemporary weapons. Armed systems are everywhere much alike. What is more, the majority of our soldiers underwent high quality military training in the former JNA. It would not be difficult for our soldiers to learn how to use new weapons. The anti-armour weapons in use ten years ago, for example, were similar to today's `Faggott' anti-tank missile. Indeed, the contemporary version is simpler to use than the old one.

During 1994 the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina enjoyed the tactical initiative in many areas. However, with the exception of the success at the Kupres Pass (taken jointly with the HVO), our Army did not manage to liberate any operationally important target. The reason for this lay precisely in our lack of armour and ammunition. We cannot buy arms and do not produce enough of what we need. What we capture at the front is insufficient to make the necessary difference. This means that we cannot make significant gains, so long as we do not possess enough guns to hold liberated territory. We can take a certain position but often cannot keep it. The aggressors still have at their disposal what amounts to an unlimited quantity of artillery and ammunition. In their counterattack they can use tanks and armoured vehicles, with artillery support that can bombard our positions for up to twenty four hours. With this artillery they blanket an area in order to regain it. Because we do not have adequate tank and armoured-carrier support, our losses are relatively large - though not as large as enemy propaganda makes out.

It is true that around 42% of the military capacity of former Yugoslavia was located on the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But today those factories produce very little, mainly because parts required for weapons production are also affected by the arms embargo. For example, before the war one of our factories produced daily 300,000 bullets - what 1,000 soldiers can expend in five minutes. Now it takes a whole week to produce that number. To take another example, we could manufacture the `Orkan' multi-rocket system with a range of 50 kilometres - we have all the necessary technology - but we lack a certain type of steel without which mass production is impossible.

Karadzic's forces lack manpower, but this is not a grave problem for them since they can count on the considerable reserves of Serbia itself. We saw what this meant in the case of Bihac. When they started to lose badly there and at Bosanska Krupa, 8,000 `volunteers' were promptly dispatched from Serbia. The gravest problem for the aggressor is the space delineated by the 1,600 km frontline. All their men are at the front, so that the area behind is empty of militarily capable population. Their other problem is low morale. A lot of their men desert. The army of the so-called Republika Srpska numbers between 60 and 70,000 soldiers. This is not enough even to use properly all their weaponry, which results in much waste of ammunition and equipment. In our estimate, the enemy has lost between 40 and 45,000 men to date. They have lost whole classes of recruits.

The lack of heavy weapons in particular prevents our armed forces from changing significantly the situation on the ground. Last autumn the Second (Tuzla) and Third (Zenica) Corps were specially active around Doboj, and the Fourth Corps (Mostar) in the area of Velez and Prenja. Due to the lack of armour, it is in the Mostar area in particular that the danger still exists of the Serbians reaching the left bank of the River Neretva. Of the six main aims of the Serbian aggression in Bosnia-Herzegovina, one is to gain the left bank of the Neretva as a stepping stone towards the Adriatic Sea. To prevent this it has been necessary to take offeÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌànsive action to drive the aggressor as far as possible from the river. This has been the task of the Fourth Corps in Herzegovina.

From the point of view of the war as a whole, it is indisputable that those who hold Sarajevo hold Bosnia. This is why the aggressor has spent more than one thousand days trying to subjugate Sarajevo. In the Sarajevo area it has concentrated 35 pieces of artillery of over 12.7 mm calibre for each kilometre of the frontline. This number, incidentally, was confirmed by UNPROFOR when, following the NATO ultimatum, Karadzic's Sarajevo/Romanija corps had to surrender control of its heavy weaponry. As a comparison, it should be recalled that the greatest concentration of artillery in World War II was achieved by the Red Army at Berlin, when it had 25 artillery pieces for each kilometre of the front. Such a great concentration of firepower is one important reason why it has been difficult for us to break the siege of Sarajevo. We in the city never managed to have more than 4 tanks and 50 pieces of artillery. In Sarajevo we have 10 brigades altogether, of which some have even been equipped with 120 mm mortars. With this we have managed to prevent the fall of Sarajevo and widen the inner defence ring from 45 to 65 kilometres. In the circumstances this can be counted as a great success.

Karadzic's `minister of defence' has stated many times that the future of Bosnia will be decided at Doboj and Brcko. It is true that the taking of these two cities by our forces would completely alter the operational-strategic situation. On the basis of the existing relations of forces, we would need about 1,000 pieces of artillery and 250-300 tanks. As things are now, we do not have that kind of firepower. Much will depend, of course, on what the Croatian leadership decides.

The Kupres operation was important not only for military but also for political reasons. It was the first time since the Washington Agreement that the HVO and the Bosnian Army acted jointly, in accordance with a single plan and under joint command. The operation proved that together these two armies can achieve admirable results. Unfortunately, the HVO representatives frequently stress that they are interested in liberating only territories where Croats are or were in a majority. This is not good - the two armies should be concerned with Bosnia-Herzegovina as a whole. The desire for a joint operation in Posavina does exist, but without a concrete agreement between Zagreb and Sarajevo it will be impossible to draw up a plan permanently to sever the Posavina corridor.

For my part, I do not believe that political negotiations will produce fruit in the next four months, so allowing a prolongation of the current truce. Quite apart from the fact that the aggressor is not respecting the agreement, most notably in the Bihac and Sarajevo areas, a prolonged ceasefire is unacceptable to the Government and Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina, since it threatens to freeze the situation along the front lines, which would mean the permanent occupation of two thirds of BosniaüHerzegovina.

General Jovan Divjak, a Belgrade-born Serb, is Bosnia's most highly educated military officer. As the organiser and first commander of Sarajevo's defence, he has seen battle at its most dangerous fronts: Zuc, Zlatiste, Dobrinja, Otes. He is currently Deputy Chief of Staff of the Bosnian Army. General Divjak's father was a Partisan during World War II, made famous when he served as model for the chief character in a children's novel - Years of the Donkey, by Branko Copic - much loved by generations of former Yugoslavs.

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