Interview article

Rear-Admiral Witthauer

Commanding EUFOR in Bosnia
PETER PIGOTT  |  Sep 15, 2007

NATO’s Situation Centre Chief during the Kosovo crisis, Rear-Admiral Hans-Jochen Witthauer of Germany has been in Bosnia commanding EUFOR since December 2006. FrontLine correspondent, Peter Pigott, recently met up with him to discuss the current status of efforts to join the European Union. RAdm Witthauer has direct command over 2500 troops stationed in Bosnia and Herzegovina and can call on reserve forces if there is a threat to the EUFOR mission. He was previously engaged in two NATO initiatives: Operation Sharp Guard, enforcing economic sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro and an arms embargo against the whole of the former Yugoslavia; and Operation Active Endeavour, combating terrorism in the Mediterranean.

Rear-Admiral Witthauer (German Navy), Commander Standing Naval Force Mediterranean (COMSTANAVFORMED), during a crew muster on board USS Elrod (US Navy) in 2003. (photo: Emanuel Berthe)

Sir, you served in the NATO naval forces here during the Bosnian war. What was your role then and how has the theatre changed since?

I was in command of a destroyer in 1993, assisting in the UN arms embargo but I did not have a chance to set my foot ashore. They still had quite a good punch available on the coastline – there were coastal missile batteries and mobile launchers everywhere. It was very difficult to discriminate between friendly ships and the enemy as we were so close inshore and had only 12 seconds to detect a missile launched against us. You never knew if one of those people, after they have had a bottle of slivovitz, had decided to start a war. Nothing happened but there were moments when we had a ­tingling down the spine.

So you knew what you were getting into when you returned to Bosnia?

I knew what I was getting into, because I learned to be very careful about what was going on ashore, between the different armies. I remained interested in former Yugoslavia as I became the Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff in our own MOD and visited the troops here a couple of times. What I hear from people who were here in 1995, is that there has been tremendous progress, but it is economic and social progress only. Politically we are back in 1995. It’s a political impasse. The older generation of the Serbs and Bosniaks, the two key players here, are still living in the past. It will never solve itself until they both die off.

We have read of the problems here – ethnic tensions, clan legacies, religious hatreds. There is obvious poverty with 40% unemployment – surely the biggest issue is young men with nothing to do and old men with long memories. What can or what has EUFOR done to combat these?

Yes, the really critical area is the economy. The unemployed have too much time to think about the past when everything was better – and blaming others for present problems. Those who are working to make a better life don’t have time to think of the good old days. This is the reason why acceptance in the EU will pave the way to a better life.

What does Bosnia offer the foreign investor?

They have a lot to offer. The country is rich in minerals, hydro electric power, they are rich in wood and have skilled craftsmen to work it. But they still sit with their hands in the air, waiting for somebody to tell them how to do it. That is the problem. They have two problems in this country. One is to get over the results of the war and a second is to get over the results of Titoism.

Ownership of property for example – it is difficult to establish who owns what because property was confiscated in the Communist era and there are no registers left. And if you are not clear on who owns it, no one will invest. In East Germany, it was the same, we have seen it there.

There is a tremendous opportunity to develop tourism in the Balkans. Hiking, mountain biking, fishing, hunting, it’s all there. They are of course plagued by minefields, but the point is that they still do not have the entrepreneurial drive. So they just sit, waiting for orders. This is a legacy from the past – and not just Tito. Someone from Istanbul or Constantinople or Vienna always told them what to do.

What is EUFOR’s role?

You have to realize that we started here after the war with 60,000 troops. And now we are down to 3,000. We are spread across the country, giving psychological back-up for security here. The armies of the three warring factions, Croat, Serb and Bosniak, have been disbanded and the soldiers integrated into the BiH Army. We make sure that the local forces do not go at each other again.

The other EUFOR role is that we are the big stick for the HIREP (High Repre­sentative). This is the Balkans where they respect one thing only – power. That is not just legacy but the make up of the local character – they respect only power.

I expected to see EUFOR troop patrols and roadblocks all over the country, what happened?

We stopped the patrols and road blocks last year. You might argue that the military job is done here – except for weapons verification. The former Yugoslavia was one of the most heavily armed countries in the world, manufacturing much of its own weapons. The fear that these might now fall into the wrong hands is very real. For years we have had Weapons Verification teams to know how much ordnance the BiH military has in storage, that they are taking care of it, putting it all on a database and from time to time making sure that it is all there. This is a task that should have been handed over to the Bosnian military but due to the fact that they are restructuring, EUFOR still retains it – hence the Irish military verification team that you met today at the weapons storage facility at Duzi. The Bosnians have tremendous difficulty in getting organized so we are using our own and telling them to send their teams with us.

The Bosnian Colonel at Duzi told me they had experts as well.

Sure, but where are they? Yes, they have experts, but it is always at the wrong place and the wrong time.

Of all reforms, the most fundamental is constitutional. That is only viable if the military and police systems change.

The military has changed. Defence reform has been successful. Police reform is an issue that the HIREP is working very hard to get done. Because to integrate with the EU, police reform is necessary. The EU is very clear, very firm: no reform, no EU.

Of course, there are politicians at the state level who say they don’t need the EU. The mayors, who are confronted with the day to day problems, disagree.

Building bridges among the youth of the nation. (Photo: EUFOR)

Visas are an example of an interesting issue. It is impossible to get a visa for EU states and this is a problem for businessmen to travel and a disaster for students. Every Bosnian Croat has a Croatian passport and the Bosnian Serbs have a Serbian passport. The Bosniaks are without passports and that is going to feed their sense of isolation more as they blame others.

Would a special EU Police Force be a better solution than EUFOR military?

Well, EUFOR consists of two elements: the military and the police. I have here the integrated police units. They consist of the Italian, the Dutch, the Romanians and the Turkish. The EU Police mission is monitoring and mentoring the local police forces: the state police, the federation police, the RS police, etc. In fact, we have too many local police forces here. In the future, we will have an institution called the Police Gendarmerie Force which is headquartered in Italy and equipped and trained as part of the military. The countries that contributed to this have announced their willingness to take over part of the EUFOR duties. The timetable to take over will be when they have finalized their agreement with the EU. It will take some time but I will argue that it be implemented early next year.

Fighting crime is definitely the job of the local police. No question about that. We help with surveillance but one of my remaining tasks is to assist in the fight against organized crime.

The local Bosnian police are responsible and if they think they need help, they turn to the EU Police Mission. The request is assessed, to make sure that they are not misusing us – it is easier to call us in than to deal with the issue. You have to learn – especially in a country where crime and corruption goes right to the top.

Is corruption really at that level?

This is typical, as in other countries with similar history. When a state falls apart, what survives are the secret services, the detention services and the criminals. If you look in the CVs of the politicians here you will find that at some stage in their lives they will have served or been a member of one or more of these three.

In 2007, the question of the status of Kosovo reappeared. What issues do you see affecting BiH from this?

Concerning Kosovo, definitely no influence on BiH whatsoever. The Republic of Serbska – why should they merge with Serbia, they will become just another province of Serbia, why be one of many? Here they are one of three.

What do you think Canada’s role should be in Bosnia today? We have few personnel here and we are not a European nation.

I had the privilege to be at Bihac when we celebrated the end of the Canadian contribution. The locals had put up a memorial to the Canadian soldiers who had served here, especially some of whom had lost their lives. But Canada hasn’t left. You are still a member of NATO and we are working quite closely with NATO. I appreciated Canada’s contribution in SFOR and now EUFOR in making a more stable state. It is clear to everybody who in the world is trying. I am always grateful for as many flags that are flying out there. Like the Chileans for example – you might wonder what they’re doing here. And a couple of weeks ago, I said goodbye to the last Kiwi [New Zealand] troops. I am always happy to have a lot of countries here – it makes life more colorful. And Canada has a long tradition in peace keeping operations. Your boys and girls knew how to do it long before they came here.

There appears to be a gradual withdrawal of soldiers. Some German troops returned home. Is there a EUFOR plan to cut back?

In February after a careful assessment, it was decided that EU could step down from 8,000 to 2,500 troops. This could be done because we set up our 45 LOT houses in the country to get a feeling if the situation improves or deteriorates. However, having given up the three multinational task forces we are holding in certain readiness, three operational battalions and one outside the country that can be called in quite easily in case it is needed. And within a few days we will have an exercise to make sure that it all works. So we still have quite a number of troops dedicated to EUFOR but there will no longer a need to keep them in the country.

What does the future hold for EUFOR?

The next step for EUFOR is in the middle of next year when a decision will be made whether the High Representative’s office will close down or continue. Because as long as we have the High Representative and his special powers, he needs a big stick- which is EUFOR. At present his office will be closed and everything handed over to the EU Special Representative. The question is, will he keep some of the powers and correspondingly need the stick? We are now waiting for Brussels to decide. But inevitably it all depends on how this country develops. For example, are they able to get their act together on police reform? Are they able to agree on constitutional reform? In the light of these developments we will revisit our strengths and organization that make up EUFOR on how to proceed.

How do you sum up your nine months on the job?

The people of BiH have a long way to go. Without the assistance of international agencies, the country will fall apart. They can hold it together on the boundaries but they need monitoring and mentoring. I can only hope that the young people will take up the challenge. Everybody in this country is fed up with politics; they realize that it is the politics in this country that drives the tragedy. Therefore we have to stay here to make sure that the past doesn’t happen again. It will be a few years down the road before all foreign troops can leave.

And of course I have to thank the Canadian people for their assistance. We cannot afford to have a dark hole in the middle of Europe. A weak state invites all kinds of organized crime, and oversight with banks is weak. This invites corruption, and we are preventing it.
FrontLine Correspondent, Peter Pigot, interviewed RAdm Witthauer in Europe.
© FrontLine Defence 2007