bosnia report
New Series No: 41 August - September 2004
The birth and rise of the Bosnian Army
by Marko Attila Hoare

I am going to talk about the subject of my book - the birth and rise of the Bosnian Army during the war in Bosnia of 1992-95.* I should like to start by saying where I am coming from when discussing this subject. I campaigned in defence of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war - as did many members of this audience. We were waging a political battle in defence of a country threatened with destruction and a population threatened with genocide. In that context, we were not always in a position calmly and dispassionately to study events at leisure. The end of the war did not mean that the political battle for Bosnia was over, but it did mean that the nature of the battle had changed. The war threw up a lot of questions that I only began to think about more carefully after it had ended. I began to think about the war itself less as a political question, and more as a historical question. The big shock for me, as a campaigner for Bosnia, was the way in which the war ended: just when the Serb-nationalist forces were on the run, the Bosnian leadership settled for the Dayton accord - snatching, it appeared to me at the time, a defeat from the jaws of victory. How had this been possible ? My book was in part an attempt to answer this question.

Historical approach

The book was researched and written as a work of history and constituted an enquiry into past events. It is definitely not a work of propaganda. Some elements hostile to Bosnia may consider that parts of my book support their own, negative interpretation of the character of the Bosnian side in the war. I feel that this is a price that has to be paid if we are to understand better what went wrong. It is also not a work of current affairs. I am a historian, and I have tried to situate the events I describe in the context of prior Bosnian history. My main area of research is the Partisan movement of World War II, and I have always tried to look at the two wars in Bosnia - the war of 1941-45 and the war of 1992-95 - in relation to each other, as two parts of the same process. I aim to ask some of questions which I - at least, to some extent - avoided asking during the war: Was the war purely a war of aggression by Serbia against Bosnia ? Or was it also at some level a civil war ? What was the share of responsibility of the Bosnian leadership, meaning above all Izetbegović and the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), for the tragedy ? Leaving aside the role of Serbia and Croatia in destroying Bosnia, what were the internal Bosnian dynamics at work ? We all know about the genocide and the destruction, but what happened in the areas under Bosnian Government control ? My book seeks to address these questions by looking at the Bosnian institution at the centre of events - the Bosnian Army. But it is also a book about the Bosnian state as a whole - about the relationship between different institutions, political currents and individuals.

I should like to get away from some of the stereotypes about Bosnia, and one stereotype in particular - the stereotype of ‘nationalism’. In some books on the subject - for example, the books by Misha Glenny and Susan Woodward, of which I am particularly critical - there is a tendency to view nationalism almost like a sort of sickness which Bosnians caught in 1990s. Thus according to this view you had Muslims, Serbs and Croats suffering from ‘nationalism’, and from associated things such as hatred, violence, mythology and religious fundamentalism. There is a tendency of authors to view nationalism in purely moralistic terms; to view it in terms of negative emotion, or psychology. But in actual fact, nationalism has to be understood in relation to concrete political issues. Nationalism occupies a definite place in historical development, and serves definite political purposes. It is not simply irrational, nor is it simply an evil genie summoned by cynical politicians to stir up the masses. To understand the form nationalism in Bosnia took in the 1990s, it is necessary to look at the actual relationship of the Serbs, Croats and Muslims to each other at the time.

The question often arises: Is there just one Bosnian people, or are the Bosnian Croats, Serbs and Muslims three separate nations ? There is no black or white answer to this. Bosnians share a common homeland, and live intermingled with each other. Particularly in large cities such as Sarajevo and Tuzla, and particularly where Bosnians of mixed marriages are concerned, there is a definite Bosnian identity shared by Muslims, Croats and Serbs as well as by members of the minorities. Yet at the level of the elites, there is no Bosnian nation. Modern Bosnian politics has always involved a division between the parties or movements of Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Bosnia is multi-ethnic, but not in the way the United States is multi-ethnic. Greek Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans and so forth, all vote for the same two main political parties, the Republicans and Democrats. But in Bosnia, a majority of Bosnians have always given their support to specifically Serb, Croat or Muslim parties. This duality - a shared Bosnian identity but separate national leaderships - has determined the way the modern Bosnian state was constructed, and how it was destroyed.

The Bosnian state

I said earlier I have a particular interest in the Partisan struggle of World War II against the Nazi and Fascist occupiers and their local collaborators. In World War II, the Partisans established a Bosnian state as a constituent member of a Yugoslav federation. This was a product of the character of the Partisan struggle. The Partisan leadership was the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, which was genuinely multi-national and in Bosnia was made up of Serbs, Muslims and Croats. But the Partisan rank-and-file in Bosnia was predominantly Serb; the mass movement began as a Serb movement of resistance to the Ustashe, who were attempting to destroy the Serb people of Bosnia. The Communists mobilized the Bosnian Serbs under the banner of Bosnian patriotism. They taught their Serb troops that Bosnia was the common homeland of Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Under this Bosnian patriotic banner they were able to attract not just Serbs, but also Croats and Muslims to their struggle. The end result of this multi-national mobilization behind Bosnian patriotic slogans was the establishment of a Bosnian state, with its own presidency, government, parliament, constitution, flag, coat of arms, and so forth.

The Bosnian state was initially, in numerical terms, very much Serb-dominated. In 1945 the Bosnian Prime Minister, the President of the Bosnian anti-fascist council, and the secretary of the Bosnian Communist organisation were all Serbs. However, during the forty-five years of Communist rule, the Serb share of the population fell, and the Muslim share rose. Furthermore, from the 1960s onward, the Communist regime liberalized, and the Muslim and Croat influence in the state became more proportionate. The Communist regime tried genuinely to share state offices equally between the three nationalities. Now, a state does not just exist at the top level - at the level of government and parliament - but it also exists at the local level, at the level of the villages and municipalities. It also exists at the intermediate level, at the level of the regions. Of course, in different areas of Bosnia there is a different balance between the nationalities. Some areas have a solid Serb majority, others have a solid Muslim majority, others are split equally between Croats and Muslims, and so forth. So in different areas of Bosnia, you naturally had a different national balance in the organs of state. In a Serb-majority area, there would naturally be Serb domination of local councils. In a Muslim-majority area, there would be Muslim domination. At the same time, members of different nationalities might dominate different institutions. So in Sarajevo, for example, the city administration was Muslim-dominated, but the police was more Serb-dominated, because the Serbs were always disproportionately strong in the organs of security. So the question of which nationality holds power in which area, and in which state institution, is a very complicated one.

This complicated state structure worked adequately so long as the Communists were in power, since they were a multi-national party committed to a balance between the nationalities. But as soon as free elections were held, in 1990, and nationally based parties replaced the Communists across the country at both the central and the local level, then everything became more complicated.

I now turn to the main subject under discussion the Bosnian Army.

Territorial Defence

The Partisans were a guerrilla movement. The Communists formed Partisan bands at the local level, according to local conditions, and gradually bound them together into a unified army. The Partisans had a federal organization. So there were separate Partisan staffs for Bosnia, for Croatia, for Serbia, for Slovenia and so forth. At the end of the war, the federal Partisan army was turned into a centralized JNA (JNA). But, after Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet Union in 1948, the possibility arose that the Communists might have to wage another guerrilla struggle, this time against the Soviets. This danger seemed particularly acute after the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. So Tito and the Communist regime responded by organizing a system of Territorial Defence, which was to mobilize the entire Yugoslav population against an invader on the model of the Partisans. Each republic had its own Territorial Defence staff, and beneath that were the staffs for the different districts, and beneath that were the staffs for the municipalities and localities.

The decentralized system of defence was bound together by the Party. Once the Communist regime fell, however, and the nationalists came to power, different parts of the Territorial Defence in different areas fell into the hands of the different nationalist parties. So in Sarajevo, the Territorial Defence fell into the hands of the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA); in Banja Luka, the Territorial Defence fell into the hands of the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), and so forth. Yet they were all still formally part of the same military structure. Initially, the three nationalist parties - the SDA, the SDS and the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) - ruled as a coalition. This meant that they shared out state offices, and exercised joint control over the organs of Bosnian defence. Thus the Staff of the Bosnian Territorial Defence was headed by a Serb; the Bosnian Defence Ministry was headed by a Croat; and the Interior Ministry, controlling the Bosnian police, was headed by a Muslim. Thus, there was a situation in which the defence of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was divided between three political parties with very different aims.

Patriotic League

Izetbegović and the Muslims were faced with the problem of how to organize the defence of Bosnia, when there was a Serb in command of the Territorial Defence who was loyal to Radovan Karadžić and to Belgrade, a Croat in command of the Defence Ministry who was loyal to Franjo Tuđman, and so forth ? How could the Republic be defended, when large parts of the defence institutions were in the hands of hostile, anti-Bosnian forces ? So Izetbegović and his followers did what their Serb and Croat nationalist counterparts were also doing: on the one hand they took control of their share of the official defence institutions; and on the other they organized their own, covert paramilitary force that operated independently of the state institutions. This Muslim paramilitary force was called the Patriotic League. Thus, there were two institutions which the Muslim politicians were relying on to defend Bosnia: on one hand the Territorial Defence, which was an official state institution, and which was partially controlled by the Serb and Croat nationalists; and on the other the Patriotic League, which was a purely Muslim paramilitary force, operating outside the state. It was these two forces, the Territorial Defence and the Patriotic League, which combined to form the Bosnian Army. This process was not a straightforward one.

Bosnia-Herzegovina was a state, and a state is made up of bureaucrats, policemen, army officers and other officials. These officials in principle stay the same, regardless of which group of elected politicians is at the top of the state at a given time. In the case of Bosnia, which had been a Communist state for forty-five years, the state suddenly fell into the hands of a group of anti-Communist nationalist politicians, many of whom had been dissidents in the Communist period. Izetbegović and other leaders of the SDA had been persecuted by the Communists and spent years in prison. Yet suddenly they were at the helm of a state made up of the very same policemen and bureaucrats who had been persecuting them. At the top of the state, therefore, was Izetbegović, who was President of the Presidency; and various other members of the presidency and government ministers who belonged to the SDA. At the bottom of the state there was the Patriotic League, which was preparing resistance covertly, at the grass-roots level. And in between, there was a bureaucratic state structure, which Izetbegović and the SDA had inherited from the Communists, which was largely composed of Serb, Croat and Muslim former Communists.

Squaring the circle

Izetbegović and the SDA therefore had to square this circle: They had to ensure the military and political survival of their regime and the defence of their territory and their constituents. The SDA were conservative Muslim nationalists, and they took the line of least resistance. They concentrated power in their own hands, on a purely Muslim basis, by coopting bureaucrats, policemen and army officers whom they considered loyal. This meant, increasingly, abandoning any attempt to maintain Bosnian unity, abandoning the Serb and Croat populations to the leadership of Belgrade and Zagreb, and to all intents and purposes accepting the division of Bosnia. This made Izetbegović and the SDA the accomplices of Slobodan Milošević’s project to partition Bosnia.

Milošević, for his part, built a Bosnian Serb army, and a Bosnian Serb ‘state’, by using parts of the Bosnian state that were under Serb control. Thus, in Serb-majority areas of Bosnia, local organs of government fell into the hands of the SDS and the Territorial Defence forces fell into the hands of Serb officers loyal to the SDS. Milošević divided up the JNA, concentrating units of the army made up of Bosnian Serbs on Bosnian territory. When the JNA formally withdrew from Bosnia in May 1992, what this really meant was that the Serbian and Montenegrin part of the army withdrew, but the Bosnian Serb part remained behind and formed the basis of the Army of the Serb Republic. The Bosnian Serb part of the JNA merged with the Territorial Defence in Serb-majority areas to become the Army of the Serb Republic (VRS). So when we consider whether the Bosnian war was a war of aggression or a civil war, it is important to remember that these are not mutually exclusive terms. It was both a war of aggression and a civil war. It was a war of aggression because Milošević and Belgrade created the VRS, using the existing JNA. But they were able to do so only because Bosnian Serb nationalists had automatic control of state authorities and Territorial Defence forces in areas of Bosnia with a Serb majority. When we talk about 70% of Bosnia being under Serb occupation, this did not mean that Serb forces conquered all 70% of the country. Rather, the SDS established political leadership over Serb-majority areas, then teamed up with the JNA.

What applies for Milošević and the Bosnian Serbs also applies for Tuđman and the Bosnian Croats. The HDZ established political leadership over the local authorities and Territorial Defence forces in Croat-majority areas, and used them to establish the Bosnian Croat army, the Croat Defence Council (HVO). The situation was slightly different where the Croats were concerned, because the Croatian leadership formally recognized the Bosnian state and started out formally as its ally. The HVO was recognized as a legitimate wing of the Bosnian armed forces. Even when full-scale war broke out between Bosnian and Croatian forces in 1993, there remained parts of the HVO that continued to cooperate with the Bosnian Army. Nevertheless, very quickly, as the war got under way, the three nationalist parties were working to partition Bosnia between themselves, in collusion with Milošević and Tuđman. The international community, for its part, was also working with them to partition Bosnia.

Defending Bosnia

The question therefore inevitably arises: did it follow from this that all three of the parties in the Bosnian war were simply equivalent to each other, and the struggle to defend Bosnia was all a big lie ? The answer is: no, it did not. Whatever the intentions of Izetbegović and the SDA, the facts remains: they were still at the head of a regime that was formally committed to defending a united, multi-national Bosnia; they were still at the head of a rump state that formally extended across the whole of Bosnia; and they were still at the head of army that was officially fighting to liberate all of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Thus, the political struggle in defence of a united Bosnia-Herzegovina was largely confined to the areas under the control of the Bosnian government and the Bosnian Army. And it was waged between supporters of the Izetbegović line, who increasingly colluded with partition, and those who resisted both the regime and the line. It took three and a half years for Izetbegović to establish total control of the Bosnian Army and the rump Bosnian state; the end result was Dayton and partition.

In the Bosnian Territorial Defence, as I said earlier, the commander on the eve of war in April 1992 was a Serb, Drago Vukosavljević, who along with his Serb-dominated Staff was an agent of Karadžić and Milošević. He was then replaced by Hasan Efendić, who was a professional soldier of the Communist school. He was both an atheist and a Titoist, and wanted to build a multi-national army. The Bosnian Army at its birth was about one fifth Serb and Croat. And its officer corps was almost one third Serb and Croat. Its Chief of Staff was a Croat; and its Deputy Commander was a Serb. So it was not an army that was suited to acting as an accomplice to the partition of Bosnia. The Bosnian army was officially born on 15 April, when the Republican Staff of the Territorial Defence took command of all units formed on the political platform of the Patriotic League. The Patriotic League was formed by the SDA. But, it was officially committed to the defence of a united Bosnia as the common homeland of Muslims, Serbs and Croats. It is important to stress that Izetbegović was probably not consciously working toward partition; rather, partition was the logical end toward which his politics led. The rank and file of the Patriotic League, and of the SDA, therefore, was formally committed to the struggle for a united Bosnia.

In May 1992 Efendić was replaced as Bosnian army commanding officer by the commander of the Patriotic League, Sefer Halilović. Halilović, if his own memoirs are to be believed, was committed to waging a struggle to the end for the military liberation of Bosnia. He had been head of the underground resistance preparations, and saw things very differently from Izetbegović. The latter, as President of the Presidency, was trying to reconcile the different factions within the Bosnian state, and to reach an agreement with Milošević, Tuđman and the international community. Izetbegović saw an end to the war coming about through negotiation He had never believed war would break out, and trusted the JNA to defend all Bosnia’s peoples. He believed that the JNA on Bosnian soil would eventually be transformed into a Bosnian Army. Halilović, on the other hand, wanted to take early action against the JNA. So Izetbegović and Halilović were at loggerheads on account of their different standpoints. It wasn’t that they consciously pursued different goals, but they were pursuing different strategies, each with its own logic.

Fall of Halilović

Izetbegović was not an absolute dictator. Formally, the collective Bosnian Presidency as a whole, which was made up of Serbs and Croats as well as Muslims, was the Supreme Command of the Bosnian Army. Yet the three and a half years of war saw Izetbegović assume total personal control over the Army. He achieved this above all by relying on his own protégés from within the former JNA and security services, who were themselves often friendly to Milošević and to Belgrade, against those fighters for Bosnia, like Halilović, who were in any sense independent or had their own popular base. The first obstacle to this was Halilović. In June 1993 Izetbegović effectively demoted Halilović, by appointing one of his protégés, Rasim Delić, to command the Army. Delić had defected from the JNA at the start of the war and was a career officer with no political ambitions. The demotion of Halilović was viewed by the leading officers of the Patriotic League as a blow against their tradition, and a victory for their enemies. But Halilović retained the post of Chief of Staff, and continued to exercise considerable control over the Bosnian Army, so the power struggle continued. In July 1993, Halilović’s apartment was blown up and his wife killed, in what appears to have been an assassination attempt on him by elements within the Bosnian security services. Finally, in October 1993, Izetbegović took military action against rogue units of the Bosnian Army in Sarajevo, units which were exercising a stranglehold on the capital but which were also suspected of being under Halilović’s influence. Musan Topalović Caco, the gangster-commander of the 10th Mountain Brigade, was killed in a showdown that claimed several lives. Immediately afterwards, Halilović was dismissed. From then on, the Izetbegović regime had total control over the Bosnian Army at the central level.

Following the fall of Halilović, the Izetbegović regime turned the Bosnian Army into what was effectively the party-political army of the SDA, in much the same way as during World War II the Partisans had been the party-political army of the Communist Party. Just as the Communists had indoctrinated the Bosnian Partisans with the ideology of brotherhood and unity of Serbs, Croats and Muslims, now the SDA indoctrinated the Bosnian Army with the opposite ideology - the ideology of Bosniak-Muslim nationalism. The principal ideologue of the Bosnian Army as a Bosniak-Muslim national army, and as the party-army of the SDA, was General Fikret Muslimović, another of Izetbegović’s protégés. Muslimović’s own career is very interesting in this context. He had been an intelligence officer in the JNA and a loyal Titoist and Communist. He was almost certainly an atheist. But now, as the SDA ideologue in the Bosnian Army, his ideology turned round 180 degrees. But at the same time, his political style and methods remained very much Communist. Thus, he promoted within the Army a personality cult of Alija Izetbegović, who took on the same role that Tito had had in the JNA. He promoted the concept of the Army as a purely Muslim or Bosniak army, and increased the role of Islam as a moral underpinning.

Bosniak-national ideology

It is important to emphasize that the Bosnian Army adopted a Bosniak-national ideology. Islam was taken as part of what it meant to be Bosniak. The Army did not become in any way a fundamentalist army, any more than the VRS or the HVO were Christian fundamentalist armies. Nevertheless, by transforming the Bosnian Army from a multi-national into a purely Muslim army, Muslimović was helping to bring about the partition of Bosnia from within. Obviously, from the point of view of Milošević and Belgrade, it was much better to have people like Izetbegović and Muslimović at the head of the Bosnian Army than someone like Halilović, because the more purely Muslim the Bosnian Army became, the less threat there was to Serb control over the conquered parts of Bosnia.

Some observers therefore believe in a conspiracy. Both Halilović, and the former police chief Munir Alibabić, who was also sacked by Izetbegović, believe that Muslimović, as a former Yugoslav intelligence officer, remained at all times a servant of Belgrade, whose task it was to sabotage the Bosnian Army as a force for multi-national unity. But even if he was not an actual traitor, it is likely that Muslimović may have wanted to pursue a political line that was acceptable to his former masters in Belgrade (in the same way Franjo Tuđman, who had been a Yugoslav Communist general living in Belgrade for twenty years, also continued to follow the Belgrade line when he accepted the policy of partitioning Bosnia). For someone like Muslimović, who did not know which side would win the war or what the outcome would be, it made sense to have a foot in both camps; to maintain his position both as an officer of the Bosnian Army and as an agent of Yugoslav intelligence. And this meant he shared the agenda of Izetbegović, who also wanted a compromise with Belgrade.

Izetbegović therefore turned the Bosnian Army into what was essentially the party-army of the SDA. But because the Bosnian state was still in some sense a multi-national state, which was not entirely under Izetbegović’s control, this meant removing the Army from control by the state. Two incidents highlight this. In October 1994, Izetbegović was made honorary commander of the 7th Muslim Brigade, in a ceremony at the town of Zenica with explicitly Islamic overtones. This provoked a reprimand from the Bosnian collective Presidency, where Serbs and Croats together still comprised a majority. The Serb and Croat Presidency members condemned the politicization and Islamicization of the Army, as manifested in the ceremony at Zenica. The collective Presidency, it should be borne in mind, was still formally the Supreme Command of the Bosnian Army. Yet Izetbegović and the SDA media responded by violently denouncing the Presidency members, in what amounted to a unilateral abrogation of their constitutional right to command Army.

In the second incident, in August 1995, it was the turn of the Bosnian government to come under fire for supposed ‘interference’ in military matters. Following two military disasters - the Bosnian Army’s failed attempt to break the siege of Sarajevo and the Serb conquest of Srebrenica - Prime Minister Haris Silajdžić resigned in protest. The SDA responded by a violent propaganda campaign against him. Within the Army, Muslimović circulated a memo to all soldiers and officers condemning Silajdžić’s actions as inspired by the enemies of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Silajdžić had violated the discipline of the Party, and the SDA responded much as the former Communist party would have done. In this way, the Bosniak national cause became increasingly associated, in the eyes of the regime, with three principal components: the first was the Bosnian Army; the second was the SDA, and the third was Izetbegović himself. By contrast, the Bosnian Presidency and the Bosnian government were marginalized, so that the Bosnian state itself was effectively dismantled from within, by the regime.

Izetbegović ended the war in the autumn of 1995, just as the Bosnian Army was finally winning. At the Dayton negotiations, he recognized the dissolution of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the partition of Bosnia between two entities: one a Serb entity and the other a Muslim and Croat entity. At one level, this was the result of Serbian and Croatian aggression, and the collaboration of large sections of the Bosnian Serb and Croat nations in the aggression. At a second level, Dayton was the result of Western diplomacy, which sought to appease Serbia and partition Bosnia. But at the third level, the dissolution of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the partition of Bosnia represented the logical culmination of Izetbegović’s policies. Shortly after the peace was signed, Bosnian Army deputy commander Jovan Divjak, who had loyally fought for his country throughout the war, was pensioned off. The Bosnian Army became a purely Muslim army. Born in the struggle to resist the aggression against Bosnia, it ended up as a pillar supporting the partition of Bosnia along ethnic lines.


This is the text of a talk given at a meeting of the Bosnian Institute on 5 April 2004, which also marked the publication of How Bosnia Armed by Saqi Books, in association with The Bosnian Institute.


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