The Least Wanted Most Wanted Man

The inside story of how the United States and NATO let war criminal Ratko Mladic evade justice for 16 years -- and why it matters.


Early on the morning of May 26, Serbian security forces surrounded a rundown farmhouse in Lazarevo, a village about 50 miles north of the capital of Belgrade. Inside was the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, the second-to-last remaining fugitive war criminal from the Balkan wars and the most wanted man in all of Europe.

Mladic may not have been an international villain of Osama bin Laden’s stature, but during four years in the early 1990s he unleashed far more killing and destruction than the al Qaeda mastermind managed in almost two decades of terrorism. It was Mladic, along with the Bosnian Serb civilian leader Radovan Karadzic, who bore the responsibility for the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995. In the late 1990s, both men fled Bosnia for Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, where they lived freely under the protection of their wartime sponsor until Milosevic’s own fall in 2001. Karadzic was captured in 2008 in a Belgrade suburb, where he was living a surreal second life disguised as a New Age doctor. But Mladic remained elusive.

Mladic’s arrest and transfer to The Hague, where he will have his first hearing on June 3, is cause for celebration, of course. But it also should prompt plenty of soul-searching: It took almost 16 years to accomplish what should have been achieved within several years or even months, given NATO’s military and intelligence capabilities.

I should know; I witnessed the failure firsthand. During Mladic’s first half-decade on the run, bringing major war criminals to justice was my job, first as senior advisor and counsel to Madeleine Albright during her tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and later as the first U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues, a post I held from 1997 to the end of President Bill Clinton’s second term. For more than five years I lived constantly with the hope of catching Karadzic and Mladic, and with the frustration of the operation’s evident futility. The quest landed me in one dispute after another with top Clinton administration officials and their NATO allies. Many fugitives indicted over the ethnically fueled conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were tracked down and arrested on my watch — and yet Mladic and Karadzic, the highest profile of them all, evaded us. Why?

To be sure, there were plenty of complicating factors, many of them the result of Serbian complicity. Loyalists in Serbia shielded Mladic from international investigators for years; it was only the combination of new political leadership in Belgrade and the threat of denied European Union membership that finally pushed the government of President Boris Tadic to starve Mladic of resources and corner him last week. But the Serbs’ intransigence was only a problem because NATO forces failed to capture Mladic in Bosnia when we had the chance, allowing him to flee to Serbia. Capturing Mladic and Karadzic was well within our reach in the years immediately after the fall of Srebrenica in 1995 — and our failure to do so left a shadow hanging not only over the Balkans, but over the whole project of international justice.

In 1993, the U.N. Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, with the hope that it would help deter future atrocities in the Balkans and bring the perpetrators of past crimes swiftly to justice. Among its biggest targets was Mladic, who was first indicted in July 1995 with an epic rap sheet: He was accused of war crimes associated with the three-year siege of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, at the cost of an estimated 10,000 Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) civilian lives, and massive ethnic-cleansing campaigns that swept aside the non-Serb population of wide swaths of Bosnia and Herzegovina and victimized tens of thousands of Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. (The Srebrenica massacre, which Mladic oversaw shortly before his indictment, was added to the list the following November.) It was more than enough grounds to have Mladic — who at the time was still strutting about the devastated Bosnian landscape — arrested in uniform and flown to The Hague straight away.

He wasn’t. Pursuing Mladic was impractical until NATO soldiers were on the ground in Bosnia, which did not occur until after the Dayton Accords were signed in December 1995, negotiating the end of the four-year war in the Balkans and creating the constitutional structure of a new government in Bosnia. The peace agreement divided the country into three sectors patrolled by American, British, and French forces, along with troops from other mostly NATO countries. The militaries were given a straightforward task: separate the warring parties and stabilize the country so that the political deal struck at Dayton could be realized on the ground. Arresting indicted war criminals was simply not on the agenda during the first year of the occupation. Furthermore, NATO officials worried about the violent reaction that might erupt among Bosnian Serbs if their leaders were arrested so quickly after Dayton.

I could count on one hand the high-level U.S. officials who actually wanted to go after Mladic: Albright; John Shattuck, the State Department’s top human rights official; Leon Fuerth, Vice President Al Gore’s national security advisor; myself; and, as time progressed, Richard Holbrooke, then assistant secretary of state and the principal architect of the Dayton agreement. In the early post-Dayton years, you could basically assume that the other key administration officials at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Justice Department, White House, and intelligence community opposed any truly effective arrest effort. They wanted to avoid the risks of a failed operation, of casualties even during a successful initiative, and of a violent backlash among Bosnian Serbs. The pursuit of justice carried very little weight in their calculus.

The Dayton Accords underscored this thinking; they established a tentative peace in the Balkans, but they also dealt a crippling blow to the hunt for Mladic and Karadzic before it had truly begun. The Implementation Force (IFOR) deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina to enforce the Dayton agreement put 57,000 pairs of boots on the ground, including 20,000 U.S. soldiers. But Pentagon officials insisted that U.S. troops not be tasked with arresting indicted war criminals: That was considered a law enforcement duty, not a military one. At a critical NATO meeting in London in early December 1995, top U.S. and European officials decided not to give IFOR any explicit arrest authority. Albright pressed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution designed to stiffen NATO’s — and the Pentagon’s — wobbly spine on the issue. But it was blocked by Russia, whose allies in Belgrade had no interest in giving IFOR the authorization to arrest their own leaders.

What this meant, in effect, was that IFOR would not arrest Karadzic or Mladic even if the two walked arm in arm into a room full of IFOR soldiers. It was an absurd position, and ultimately an untenable one. By late December, NATO revised its stance: IFOR troops couldn’t go looking for the war criminals, but in the unlikely event that they happened to bump into one, they could nab him and hand him over to tribunal officials — who, in turn, had to be present in Bosnia for the actual arrest. Otherwise no clear rule required them to hang onto the fugitive. This was like giving a police officer in Texas the authority to detain a federally indicted felon only if he happened to pull him over for speeding and a U.S. marshal happened to be nearby to serve the arrest warrant. I thought we had entered the comedy of errors.

Perversely, Adm. Leighton Warren "Snuffy" Smith, the top U.S. commander dispatched to Bosnia, was less concerned that he wouldn’t find Karadzic and Mladic than that he would — that he would run into one of the men, perhaps on a visit to the Bosnian Serb capital of Pale, and find himself in the awkward position of having to personally arrest him. Smith scoffed at any suggestion that his forces had the authority or mandate to make such arrests. His was an old-school way of thinking that drove Holbrooke, me, and many others crazy as we struggled to work with the military to deal with the unconventional challenges of Bosnia.

Fed up with the intransigence, Louise Arbour, the Yugoslav tribunal’s crusading prosecutor, visited Washington in early 1997 to push for giving NATO troops a mandate to do more to catch the fugitives than to simply hope for an accidental run-in with them. Pentagon officials told her to forget about it. Arbour’s talks with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where she had hoped to find seasoned law enforcement professionals who would take up the challenge, proved equally futile. "Everyone has a good reason why someone else should [make the arrests]!" Arbour burst out to me as we crossed Pennsylvania Avenue afterward. She left Washington deeply frustrated.

In July 1997, two years after the first indictments of Karadzic and Mladic, U.S. officials finally gave the OK for special operations forces to actively pursue the criminals. At that time, the two men were believed to still be in Bosnia, but moving back and forth to Serbia and Montenegro. The newly appointed NATO supreme allied commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark — who had been criticized for taking a friendly meeting with Mladic in August 1994, in which the two men were photographed playfully exchanging hats — took a more active role in the manhunt than any of his predecessors. But inaction remained the rule, and by late May 1998 the whole project seemed dead in the water. By the end of that year, everyone involved in the arrest effort was more interested in pulling off a no-risk operation than a successful one. One American soldier joked despairingly to me that his boss wanted the number of tiles on the fugitive’s roof triple-counted before even considering a raid.

As far as Mladic was concerned, it was already too late; a crucial opportunity had been lost. An early arrest of the general would have prevented him from finding sanctuary across the border in Serbia, where NATO forces had no authority to go after him. But that simple point never persuaded key officials — and indeed, I wondered whether they even wanted to arrest him. They were perpetually worried about what an arrest of Mladic in Bosnia or, for that matter, in Serbia might do to the stability of Bosnia and to the security of NATO forces there.

In fact, as other indicted Bosnian Serb fugitives were arrested, the reaction of the Serbs appeared relatively tame, and the dreaded backlash that so many had predicted never materialized. Rather, it was our failure to catch Mladic and Karadzic that proved toxic. It perpetuated the septic influence of these two men among Bosnian Serbs, the ethnic group with which the Bosnian Muslims and Croats most needed to achieve reconciliation in a regenerated and democratic Bosnian nation. The longer the fugitive leaders roamed free, the longer NATO forces would have to remain in Bosnia to keep the peace, and the longer those men actually posed a threat to the safety of those forces.

It’s possible that apprehending Mladic and Karadzic quickly would even have deterred Milosevic and his lieutenants from launching their deadly assault on Kosovo in March 1999. Arbour pleaded with me during the Kosovo conflict that if NATO would just take down at least one of these indictees, that act alone could influence Belgrade’s aggressive attitude. I agreed and pressed the idea in Washington, but to no avail. International justice renders consequences that usually work in favor of U.S. interests, but to understand that, policymakers have to take the long view — which, of course, they seldom do.

I always counseled the public during my ambassadorial days that international justice requires infinite patience, but that the perpetrators of atrocities ultimately will stand before the judges and face up to their crimes. Leaders must have the courage to bring about these reckonings sooner rather than later; after all, the public memory of these crimes does fade, and the victims whose rights must be upheld don’t live forever. In the case of Mladic, justice will, at long last, be done. I just regret that the general made fools out of so many of us for so long.

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