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.