Military Leadership

How the war in Iraq unintentionally helped stabilise Bosnia

The revelation that a Bosnian company had broken the arms embargo on Iraq unified three armies which had been fighting each other a decade before.

Back in March 2003, George W Bush’s “coalition of the willing” launched an invasion of Iraq, the consequences of which reverberate to this day. The now-ubiquitous US military presence in the Middle East began in earnest following the invasion, and it could be argued that much of the current instability in the region can be traced back to the war that followed. But new research shows that the conflict had another, very different effect: it was the most significant step in stabilising the Balkans since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.

The 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was brought to an end by the Dayton Agreement, which not only halted the conflict, but also laid the foundations of the post-war Bosnian state. In an arrangement that’s been described as “the world’s most complicated system of government”, the country was divided into two entities, the Republika Srpska, which is predominantly Bosnian Serb, and the Federation, which is mostly administered by Bosnian Croats and Muslims (Bosniaks). The central government had little authority; most power, including control of the armed forces, was delegated to the entities and other local governments.

While Dayton was a complex agreement, its overwhelming priority was the cessation of hostilities, meaning many key issues were purposefully disregarded or left ambiguous. One such issue was the future of the three armies – the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Army of Republika Srpska, and the Croatian Defence Council – which fought each other in the war: as Dayton made no real stipulations about their future, they simply remained in place.

Richard Holbrooke, a key American mediator in the peace negotiations, later lamented that “the most serious flaw in the Dayton Peace Agreement was that it left two opposing armies in one country”. The Peace Implementation Council, the international body responsible for overseeing post-war Bosnia, warned of “the instability that is inherent in having two – and in practice three – armies present in one country”.

Yet despite the evident risks, the armies were left largely untouched, and they continued undermining the authority and legitimacy of the Bosnian state – until the prelude to the invasion of Iraq.

Forcing the issue

In September 2002, as hundreds of coalition planes bombed Iraqi air defences in preparation for the US-led invasion, details began to emerge from the US embassy in Sarajevo that a Bosnian company, the Orao (Eagle) Aviation Institute, was suspected of breaching the 13-year arms embargo, sparking a scandal known as the “Orao Affair”.

US tanks parked under the Hands of Victory in Ceremony Square, Baghdad, 2003. Photo credit: Technical Sergeant John L Houghton, Jr, United States Air Force
US tanks parked under the Hands of Victory in Ceremony Square, Baghdad, 2003. Photo credit: Technical Sergeant John L Houghton, Jr, United States Air Force

During the Cold War, Iraq and Yugoslavia had developed a range of bilateral agreements, ranging from the construction of infrastructure and bunkers in Iraq to the maintenance of Iraqi Migs (Soviet-designed fighter jets) in Yugoslavia. It emerged that the leadership of rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) had quietly continued the relationship with Saddam Hussein, and had facilitated a deal worth $8.5m in which Orao engineers had travelled to Iraq to “get the damaged fleet of Migs back to the heavens”.

The ensuing investigation implicated much of the Bosnian Serb leadership in the trade, and unveiled numerous attempted cover-ups. With evidence mounting, the potential for Bosnia to face economic sanctions became a real possibility, leading international officials to state that Bosnia was facing its “most severe crisis since the war”.

Bosnian troops in Afghanistan with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), 2015. Photo credit: Vanessa Vilarreal, USFOR-A Public Affairs
Bosnian troops in Afghanistan with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), 2015. Photo credit: Vanessa Vilarreal, USFOR-A Public Affairs

As US forces entered Baghdad in 2003, the fallout from the Orao Affair was taking its toll. The Bosnian Serb member of the presidency, the Minister of Defence of Republika Srpska, the Chief of Staff of the Army of Republika Srpska, and numerous other officials, ministers, and generals were all removed from their positions. Seventeen of them were prosecuted. International observers and Bosnian citizens alike demanded reform, and just a week after the invasion of Iraq was declared over, a Defence Reform Commission was established. It recommended a complete restructuring of Bosnia’s armed forces, which was duly implemented by the Bosnian parliament.

The result was the demobilisation of a considerable number of soldiers, and the creation of a unified Bosnian army. The largest multi-ethnic institution in the country, it benefited from a clear chain of command, which led all the way up to the presidency via a single Ministry of Defence. The new military was modernised and professionalised with external assistance, and in 2006 it joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace. The Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina have since been deployed in numerous peace-support roles across the world including Iraq.

Post-Dayton Bosnia was a fragile and unstable country brimming with soldiers and weapons, and to some extent, it still is – but it’s nonetheless a much more stable and secure state than it was after the peace in 1995. Strange to think that it owes much of its improvement to something as destabilising as the Iraq War.

Elliot Short, PhD Candidate and Associate Tutor in Modern History, University of East Anglia.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.


The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.