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The Bosnian Train and Equip Program: A Lesson in Interagency Integration of Hard and Soft Power

By Christopher J. Lamb, with Sarah Arkin and Sally Scudder Strategic Perspectives 15

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Executive Summary

Military assistance to Bosnian forces was part of a complex plan to resolve what one former Secretary of State called “the problem from hell.” When Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the early 1990s following the Soviet Union’s demise, it released a mix of nationalist and ethnic movements that led to civil war. Ill-disciplined combinations of regular and irregular forces struggled to control territory and protect civilians, sometimes herding them toward ethnically homogenous enclaves in a process widely referred to as “ethnic cleansing.” The intentional displacement of civilian populations, often encouraged by atrocities including mass murder and rape, was a tragic and complex foreign policy problem that defied simple and easy solutions.

The program to train and equip the Bosnian Federation Army after the signing of the Dayton peace agreement in 1995 was a key element of the U.S. strategy to bring a stable peace to Bosnia. Highly controversial at the time but obscure today, this program was implemented by a small interagency task force widely referred to as the “Train and Equip Program.” The small task force achieved all of its operational goals. It forged a rough military parity between previously warring parties, rid Bosnia of foreign extremists, and strengthened Bosnian Federation institutions and their pro-Western orientation. The program was simultaneously criticized for being too small and too much, which underscores how contentious it was and the inherent difficulties in assessing any military balance. The fact that the weight of the criticism shifted from the first half of 1996 when the program was more often criticized as anemic to the spring of 1997 when it was commonly criticized as being too robust underscored how fast the program made progress once it got going.

In less than 2 years the task force rectified the military imbalance between Bosnian Serb and Federation forces using only about half of the total resources originally estimated to be necessary. The program reassured the Federation, eliminated any misconceptions the Serbs might have had about the merits of renewing hostilities, and inclined all the former warring parties to treat one another as equals. Contrary to the concerns of the Central Intelligence Agency and other observers, the program did not embolden the Federation to initiate hostilities. Federation military leaders came to realize Train and Equip was not going to provide them with major advantages over the Bosnian Serbs. Both objectively in terms of actual military capability and subjectively in terms of perceived relative capabilities, the program did not overshoot its mark as so many worried it would. On the contrary, it diminished the influence of extremists and foreign meddling in Bosnian politics and moved the political mainstream to favor greater integration.

In short, the Train and Equip task force stands out as an unusually successful interagency small group effort that was able to accomplish its objectives while overcoming difficult technical, bureaucratic, and political impediments. It did so with a much recommended but seldom exercised multidimensional approach to complex security problems, integrating diplomacy, development, and defense capabilities. The United States managed the peace process the same way it helped bring the fighting to an end—by using an integrated military and diplomatic approach that stood in stark contrast to the Europeans’ ineffectual, one-dimensional reliance on arms control. The Train and Equip Program accomplished exactly what senior U.S. officials hoped, strengthening U.S. credibility and providing incentives for all parties to secure the peace and move Bosnia toward greater integration with the West.

Despite the Train and Equip Task Force’s record of success, the creative techniques it employed, and its high level of accountability, it has never been studied by the government or anyone else for its organizational lessons. Instead, the task force experience has been ignored and forgotten for the same reasons the United States quickly abandoned the innovative Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support organization it fashioned in Vietnam. In both cases, after creating flexible, agile, and productive interagency organizations that could solve complex national security problems, the United States abandoned and forgot the innovative models it fielded rather than institutionalizing them. It would be easier for the United States to meet the demands of the current and emerging security environment if the U.S. national security system had a systematic means to understand and recall what worked well in the past and why.

This case study is intended to be a helpful contribution in that regard. It provides an authoritative history of the task force’s activities and accomplishments, and then an explanation for its performance based on 10 variables extracted from organization and management literature. Investigating and explaining the interagency group’s performance with these performance variables, and weighing the importance of each in light of the group’s historical experience, yields a compelling explanation for its outstanding performance. The results contribute to a better understanding of interagency teams and also demonstrate why a small, high-performing team can sometimes implement a security assistance program better than the larger national security bureaucracy does through established programs and procedures.

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