Serbian gendarmes under American command
by Dejan Anastasijevic
‘Vreme has learnt from several sources that preparations for the despatch of a [Serbian] unit of battalion strength (around 250 men) to Afghanistan, where they will take part under US command in military operations against fragments of Al Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban, are well advanced. There is no longer talk of blue flags and peacekeeping. Although details remain to be finalized, the battalion will probably be sent to the area of Kandahar, the most turbulent part of Afghanistan.’
Prime minister Zoran Živković’s offer, made during his recent visit to Washington, has been accepted for better or for worse, and there is now no going back on it. Živković proposed that Serbia and Montenegro place at America’s disposal around 1,000 men for deployment in Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever his host needed them most. The offer, discreetly made, somehow reached The Washington Post and dumbfounded the local public opinion. Back home Živković became exposed to a crossfire of hostile reactions, ranging from those who contest the legal basis of our army’s participation in an occupation without a UN mandate to public-opinion polls along the lines: ‘Would you send your only son to Basra?’ Assisted by the federal foreign ministry, Živković tried to defend himself with the argument that the offer had been made not to the Americans but to UN general secretary Kofi Annan, for peacekeeping operations under the blue flag. He did not sound convincing: it turned out indeed that, as the English saying goes, he was being ‘economical with the truth’.
Vreme has learnt from several sources that preparations for the despatch of a [Serbian] unit of battalion strength (around 250 men) to Afghanistan, where they will take part under US command in military operations against fragments of Al Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban, are well advanced. There is no longer talk of blue flags and peacekeeping. Although details remain to be finalized, the battalion will probably be sent to the area of Kandahar, the most turbulent part of Afghanistan. The stated figure of 250 men should not be taken literally, however, since, when one includes the accompanying services and the reserve (men are replaced every few months), the number of those bound for Afghanistan comes close to Živković’s original offer.
At the time when the offer was made, Živković probably counted on the fact that our army has plenty of officers with a solid recent war experience, so it would not be difficult to put together the required unit. Problems appeared, however, as soon as the American criteria were received; for in order to qualify for the mission the officer in question would have to be at least thirty years old, possess an appropriate military education other than war, speak English, and if possible be a graduate from a civilian university. Scrutiny of the list soon established that few such individuals could be found in the Army of Serbia and Montenegro (VSCG). Even when using far less stringent conditions, it became obvious that it would be impossible to form such a unit. Statements coming from the general staff concerning our units’ inadequate preparation for peacekeeping missions abroad are a sorry expression of this reality. It also turned out that some of the officer corps are by no means sold on the idea of coming under the command of some colonel against whom they were fighting not so long ago, while others entertain unrealistic expectations of financial benefits associated with the deal.
Call in the gendarmes!
Someone then remembered that the army is not the only outfit which possesses cadres with military experience. An army source told us: ‘The decision to involve the gendarmerie was an obvious one.’ This sounds logical, since the gendarmerie contains graduates of the police academy with a solid experience of anti-guerrilla warfare, who are on the whole better trained and educated then their army colleagues, and also physically fitter. It turned out, however, that this apparently obvious solution opened the door to a host of new problems, and strengthened further the antagonism between the army and the police.
The idea of going to Afghanistan was particularly welcomed by Goran Radoslavljević (Guri), the police colonel-general who commands the gendarmerie. As commander of the ‘seek-and-destroy units’ (OPG), which played a leading role in the war in Kosovo, he believes with good reason that the prosecutors of the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague are interested in what he did there. Those carefully monitoring the trial against Slobodan Milošević could not fail to notice that several witnesses have been asked to identify Guri’s position in the command chain, in the context of certain crimes ascribed to the OPG. Guri, accordingly, takes the eventual trip to Kandahar as an agreeable alternative to receiving an invitation from Carla del Ponte.
B92 TV was the first to report, citing reliable sources, the news that Radosavljević was to go to Afghanistan - and, moreover, as the battalion’s commander. The report said that Radosavljević was due to travel within days to the United States, in order to discuss with the military there the details concerning the battalion’s deployment. This was soon denied by minister of the interior Dušan Mihajlović: ‘We have neither the ambition nor the intention to propose the commander of the gendarmerie as commander of the united [army and police] forces, since in our view that post belongs first of all to our colleagues from the army.’ Nevertheless, several tabloids considered close to the police have carried identical reports in the past few days .
Stubborn but unwanted
Sources consulted by Vreme argue that Radosavljević’s departure for Afghanistan is not an issue, but rather his command and his travel to America. The federal ministry of defence insists that: ‘It is General Milan Zarić, director of ABHO, who will be talking to the Americans’, adding that the issue of the battalion’s command, which is quite another matter, has not been resolved. Such a formation requires someone of the rank of lieutenant-colonel at its head, who would function under the authority of an American colonel or brigadier. Radosavljević’s acquisition of three general’s stars, one after the other in rapid succession, would complicate this arrangement.
Army sources say that quite apart from this, Radosavljević despite his war experience could not command such a battalion, since for this one needs to have graduated as a major from the military academy. Some colleagues from the interior ministry readily acknowledge this. ‘He is great when it comes to ordering a couple of dozen of men to put on knapsacks, march into the woods and do a certain job.’, says a high-ranking police officer who had worked closely with Radosavljević in Kosovo. ‘A battalion, however, is well beyond his capability.’
A journey to the United States to negotiate the battalion’s deployment would pose also another sort of problem. Radosavljević is simply not welcome there. Even if he did get to the United States he could easily be arrested there, since he is the subject of a court case dealing with the murder of the Bitiqi brothers, US citizens of Albanian descent, who were arrested in 1999 and, after being taken from the prison in Lipljani, killed. Their families have filed a private murder charge against Radosaljević, as well as against two other police generals: Sreten Lukić and Vlastimir Đorđević. According to the local law, American courts are empowered to investigate the murder of US citizens anywhere in the world.
Despite this, Radosavljević it seems has no intention of giving up the command position. It became clear during the Kosovo war that the idea of unifying military and police units under a single army command was a bad one, and Radoslavljević does not wish to repeat that experience. Another factor fuelling his ambitions is his belief that the Serbian government owes him a great deal from the time of Operation Sabre [launched after the assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Đinđić], when the gendarmerie did the lion’s share of the work in implementing the state of emergency. Radosavljević clearly thinks that the government should repay this debt by appointing him commander of the Afghanistan battalion. The persistence of rumours that he has already been given the job suggests that he may well be right. The truth is that many in the government would be relieved if they could reply to Carla del Ponte’s eventual letter with: ‘not known at this address, last heard of in Kandahar.’ Quite apart from this, many of the former Red Berets would depart with Radosavljević for Afghanistan, causing widespread relief.
A Telling Silence
Unfortunately the rivalry between the army and Guri over the battalion command also reflects purely political divisions within the ruling coalition. So it is not surprising that no one from the relevant institutions - the ministry of the interior, the army, the Americans - wishes to make a formal statement at this time about the dispatch of Serbian troops to Afghanistan. Radosavljević, who normally does not avoid the press, has said nothing publicly about his travelling plans. The American embassy in Belgrade has refused to comment on the news about Serbian troops in Afghanistan, on the grounds that ‘this is a matter for the domestic government’. The domestic government, however, is most unwilling to bring its internal disputes to public attention and prefers to remain silent.
However, this is a serious issue the significance of which should not be allowed to become lost in court intrigues. Although units of the former JNA used to serve in peacekeeping operations in Sinai and on the Iran-Iraq border, and despite the fact that a token number of Serbian military personnel is today involved in the UN missions in the Congo and in East Timor, to participate in an overseas mission under foreign command is something which the Serbs have not done before, and it would be good if someone would explain why this precedent. After all, even individual NATO members allow serious public discussion, accompanied by in-depth public-opinion research, about the involvement of their troops in non-NATO areas - like Kosovo, for example. This, in the last instance, is not a matter of national pride (temporarily gone), or of (long-infringed) state sovereignty; it is a question of the government’s willingness to consult the tax-payers when making such strategic decisions.
The unnecessary secrecy and internal divisions have already proved damaging, as is shown by the circulation in informal circles of all kinds of half-baked rumours serving to encourage the worst suspicions. Both prime minister Živković, who clearly lacks the courage to say what he offered while in Washington, and the Americans who can see that the gift-bearers cannot agree on how to wrap up and deliver the present, find themselves as a result in an uncomfortable situation. It is possible that in the end the whole idea of establishing this strategic alliance will come to nothing, leaving behind only the bitter taste of a missed opportunity - and not for the first time.
Translated from Vreme (Belgrade), 25 September 2003