Global Policy Forum

NATO Had Signs Its Strategy Would Fail Kosovars


By Craig R. Whitney with Eric Schmitt

New York Times
April 1, 1999

Brussels, Belgium -- The top civilian and military leaders of NATO settled on their strategy against President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia despite several military assessments and intelligence warnings, and even a clue from a Yugoslav general, that bombs alone could not stop Serb forces from carrying out a purge in Kosovo.

The finger-pointing about missed signals and suggestions of mismanagement began to surface here and in Washington as the second week of the bombing campaign began with no sign that Milosevic was buckling, and no idea how it would end. Pentagon planners, for example, said they warned the Administration publicly and privately that Milosevic was likely to strike out viciously against the Kosovo Albanians as soon as a possibility of military actions was raised, and that he would use the period of negotiations in France to prepare.

"In the Pentagon, in this building, we were not surprised by what Milosevic has done," the Pentagon spokesman, Kenneth H. Bacon, said Wednesday. "I think there is historical amnesia here if anyone says they are surprised by this campaign." Senior Administration and congressional officials in Washington, for example, cited an American military intelligence assessment completed shortly before the allied air campaign which concluded that Milosevic intended to "ethnically cleanse" the 1.8 million Albanians within a week.

Officials in Washington dismissed the plan as foolish Serbian bravado and confidently boasted that tough Kosovo Liberation Army fighters, plus a few days of allied bombing, would be enough to show Milosevic that he was mistaken. Throughout the months of planning for a crisis over Kosovo, a ranking officer in Brussels said today, the allies chose bombing because none of them were willing to take the risk of sending in the 100,000 to 200,000 troops that they thought it would take to keep the Serbs from having their way with the 1.8 million ethnic Albanians in the province.

President Clinton reiterated the veto on using ground troops Wednesday in an interview on the CBS news program "60 Minutes II," explaining, "The thing that bothers me about introducing ground troops into a hostile situation, into Kosovo and into the Balkans, is the prospect of never being able to get them out."

That determination left NATO with only the option of using its air forces. "We said from the outset that we couldn't prevent atrocities and crimes against humanity with just an air campaign," the officer in Brussels said. "But knowing that we had to keep an alliance of 19 nations together, we knew that if we asked for ground troops we would be asking the impossible." The rejection of ground forces persisted despite growing signs of Milosevic's real intentions, including a remarkable signal from a Yugoslav general last October, one that senior military officials in Brussels now admit they missed. Had such signs been heeded, some officials now argue, politicians might have overcome their aversion to the use of troops.

Instead of planning on sending in ground forces, President Clinton and other leaders spent months threatening Serbia with bombing while sending diplomats to try to negotiate a peace settlement when were almost sure that Milosevic would not accept one. At the time, Clinton was devoting much of his energy to fighting impeachment charges in Congress. Milosevic, for his part, used the months to prepare a vast expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian inhabitants of Kosovo.

A Hint in a Plea to Save the Yugoslav Army

The clue the allies missed, a high NATO officer said, came in a tense pre-dawn conversation in Belgrade early last Oct. 25 between Gen. Momcilo Perisic, then chief of the Yugoslav armed forces, and two NATO generals who had come to demand fulfillment of promises to withdraw army and police units from Kosovo that Milosevic had made two weeks earlier to the American envoy Richard C. Holbrooke.

The NATO officers, Gen. Klaus Naumann of Germany, the alliance's senior military officer, and Gen. Wesley K. Clark of the United States, the Supreme Allied Commander, were sitting with General Perisic in the Presidential Palace, one officer said, when the Yugoslav officer suddenly sent a police escort out of the room and turned up the television to thwart any listening devices.

"He said that he thought the army was the only democratic institution left in Yugoslavia, and that he knew that conflict with NATO would inflict terrible damage to it," the ranking officer from Brussels said. General Perisic seemed to be trying, this officer said, to make it clear that preserving the army from the destruction the two Western generals had threatened it with if President Milosevic did not relent was more important to him than anything else.

General Clark and General Naumann left Belgrade with the commitments they had sought, but a month later General Perisic was removed from office, and soon after that Milosevic began totally disregarding his pledges. "We think now that Perisic was removed because he didn't agree to the plan," the officer said. That meant, he added, that the Yugoslav authorities were developing the drastic solution to the Kosovo problem at the same time that they were making their false promises to Holbrooke.

General Perisic's dismissal came after the replacement of the head of the Yugoslav Air Force, Gen. Ljubisa Velickovic, on Oct. 30 and the dismissal of the head of the internal security service, Javica Stanisic, on Oct. 27. Those moves were part of a broad change in Serbia's strategic leadership that some NATO officers now believe was in preparation for the offensive now under way in Kosovo. Milosevic soon demonstrated that he had no intention of carrying out his commitments, but the allies did not begin until January to reactivate the bombing threats they had used to extract those promises. By then, violence by both Kosovo Liberation Army irregulars and Serbian forces had made a mockery of the cease-fire.

The massacre of scores of unarmed Albanian civilians in the village of Racak early in January increased pressure in allied capitals for diplomatic action, backed by the threat of force, to stop such outrages by Serbian military and police units in Kosovo. As the allies had done throughout the mounting Kosovo crisis, they followed the lead of the six-nation Contact Group of countries -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia -- that were trying to find a political settlement in Kosovo.

That, some allied military officers now believe, was a mistake, since Russia was consistently opposed to bombing or any other NATO action against Milosevic. Reservations by the Europeans about letting the alliance act without an explicit mandate from the United Nations Security Council, a mandate Russia seemed certain to veto, built in further delay. But on Jan. 29, backed by NATO, the Contact Group demanded that the Serbs and the Albanians go to Rambouillet Castle in France on Feb. 6 to negotiate a peace settlement.

On Jan. 30, the allies gave the NATO Secretary General, Javier Solana, authority to tell General Clark to bomb targets on Yugoslav territory if it took bombing to get the Serbs to negotiate. It took the allies -- 16 of them then, before Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic came in earlier this month -- most of the day to get to that point.

Still, they hemmed in Solana's freedom to decide to launch the bombers, conditioning the move on a concurring assessment by the Contact Group. "In my view, the biggest mistake we made was agreeing to be taken hostage by the Contact Group," one allied officer said. "It hurt solidarity within the alliance, and some of the non-Contact Group countries reacted to it like a Spanish bull to a red flag."

As the peace talks started in Rambouillet, NATO officials said, allied intelligence began picking up disturbing signs that Serb army forces were moving into Kosovo and within 50 miles of its northern border. Some of the troop movements, they said, were masked as "winter exercises." "We always thought they were preparing for some kind of a military solution in the spring," the Brussels officer said. "We anticipated that he would try to wipe out the Kosovo Liberation Army and not be very nice to the civilian population." But the presumption, officers said, was that the Serbs would concentrate on K.L.A. strongholds, and not go after civilians en masse.

Different Assessments of What Would Happen

Barring a peace agreement, to be enforced by a 28,000-member NATO force, including 4,000 American troops, Administration officials in Washington said there were varying assumptions about what action Yugoslavia would take.

"If fighting escalates in the spring, as we expect, it will be bloodier than last year's," the director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 2. "Belgrade will seek to crush the K.L.A. once and for all, while the insurgents will have the capability to inflict heavier casualties on Serb forces," he said. "Both sides likely will step up attacks on civilians."

"Heavier fighting also will result in another humanitarian crisis, possibly greater in scale than last year's, which created 250,000 refugees and internally displaced persons along with hundreds of destroyed buildings and homes," Tenet said. Though using ground troops was not an option, Administration officials said, neither was standing by and allowing the fighting to resume.

Last fall, NATO conducted a confidential assessment that determined it would take 100,000 to 200,000 allied troops to invade and secure Kosovo. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were adamantly opposed to sending ground troops into Kosovo without a clearly defined mission.

Moreover, State Department and White House officials said, Congress, which only reluctantly backed air strikes, would oppose NATO ground troops. And none of the allies were willing to send ground troops on a combat mission to Kosovo unless the United States went with them.

Even if the Administration had mustered the political will to mount a 200,000-member force, it would have taken months to move that many troops into place. Pentagon officials also warned that such a deployment would likely only provoke Milosevic to attack before it was completed.

So the Administration and NATO decided to use air power alone, for all its limitations. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and NATO generals recognized that bombing alone had never successfully driven out a dug-in land army.

But some senior officials in the Administration believed that Milosevic would fold under withering air strikes. Milosevic came to the bargaining table after NATO bombing and a Croatian army offensive that put Bosnian Serb forces on the run for the first time in the war there. But in Kosovo, only the ragtag army faced Serb forces on the ground, the forces of the heavily armed Yugoslav Army.

Serb Troops Moved In During Peace Talks

When the Rambouillet talks broke off on Feb. 23 to give both sides time to reconsider, the Serbian buildup continued. It was still underway, along with attacks on civilians, when the talks resumed in Paris on March 15. By that time, General Clark was saying publicly that close to 30,000 Serbian troops had been sent into the province, more than double the number Milosevic had pledged in October to keep there.

In Washington, Clinton Administration officials were also watching with growing anxiety the buildup of some 40,000 Yugoslav armored troops on the Kosovo border. But the allies remained confident that if the bombing was intense enough, it would "break the will of the leadership" in Belgrade, as the operational order for "Operation Allied Force" now puts it, to continue to defy the will of the international community in Kosovo.

But after March 18, when the Albanian delegation signed a draft agreement providing autonomy and NATO peacekeepers for the province, Serbian operations began on a scale the alliance had not anticipated, according to allied officers here and in Washington. Milosevic's negotiators refused to sign the agreement in Paris. As 1,500 unarmed civilian observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe pulled out on March 20 in anticipation of NATO strikes, more than 40,000 Serb soldiers and paramilitary policemen were already beginning to clear vast swatches of countryside and entire towns of their ethnic Albanian inhabitants.

"What we presumably underestimated was the velocity and ferocity of the campaign to shift the ethnic balance of Kosovo," a senior officer said here.

More Information on Kosovo


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