The 8,000-plus American troops in Bosnia probably won't have an immediate effect on peace on the region, a former top Army official in Europe said Monday.
But Robert Gray, a retired lieutenant general and one-time Fort Gordon commander, said he hopes American military presence will give peace a chance.
"Are we just spinning our wheels? I think that's a fair assessment," he told the Augusta Kiwanis Club. "The history of the area is a history of conflict and it could very easily lapse back into conflict."
That does not mean, however, the costly NATO-lead peacekeeping effort is in vain, he added.
"The time that we bought politicians to try to solve the problem - I think it's worth it," he said. "To see the children in Bosnia laugh and play soccer and being children again, it's worth it."
Mr. Gray, who returned to Augusta upon retiring from the military, served as deputy commander general for the U.S. Army in Europe when the Dayton peace accords went into effect in December 1995. The treaty ended a devastating 42-month war in the Balkans and split Bosnia between the Serbs and a Muslim-Croat federation.
The Clinton administration says it plans to withdraw all American troops by next summer, but Mr. Gray said he doubts that will happen. Several White House aides said last week they also doubt the troops will leave on schedule.
"We have set the stage but a lot of political things have not been accomplished," Mr. Gray said.
Recalling the first hectic weeks in the early winter of 1995 and 1996, the former lieutenant general said deploying troops posed challenges - and not just in war-torn Bosnia.
Besides 6 million land mines, terrorists and frigid Balkan weather, Army officials had to contend with a French strike and anti-nuclear activists' sabotage of rail spurs in Germany. NATO troop movement was further complicated when Austria, a neutral country, announced it would not allow soldiers to pass through.
"CNN was sitting there, and I didn't know what pictures they were showing back home," Mr. Gray recalled. "I was a little concerned you people would think we were inept. But we did it."