The war we almost lost

Monday September 4, 2000

'Why did Goliath do so badly?' : Was Nato's Kosovo campaign a legitimate response to a humanitarian catastrophe - or did it cause one? How did a poor Balkan country make a mockery of the world's greatest powers for more than a month? And why did Slobodan Milosevic finally capitulate? Now that the smoke has cleared, Timothy Garton Ash searches for answers.

The Kosovo war was the last European war of the 20th century, and Nato's first. What do we know about it a year later? Was the Nato action a "humanitarian intervention", as its advocates maintained? The answer partly depends on whether there was a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo on March 23, 1999, the day before the bombing began.

"Yes," say supporters of the action. There was still a humanitarian disaster left over from the previous year. Milosevic had begun a new wave of ethnic cleansing before Nato started bombing. German intelligence claimed to have evidence of a Serbian "Operation Horseshoe" initiated already in late February, designed to clear a horseshoe-shaped swathe of Kosovo.

"No," say its critics. It was the bombing that caused the mass expulsions. To adapt Karl Kraus's famous remark about psychiatry, Nato's action was the disease for which it claimed to be the cure.

The truth is more complicated than either position. Anyone who was in Kosovo, as I was, in the winter of 1998-1999 could see that there was a humanitarian disaster. Most of the 300,000 homeless had found some rudimentary shelter, but their houses were often destroyed, their wells poisoned, and they had no means of livelihood. Moreover, in February and March of 1999 the Serbs were pouring forces back into Kosovo. Whether or not there was an actual plan called "Operation Horseshoe", there clearly was some operational planning for large-scale expulsions, otherwise they could not have been implemented so quickly. Serb forces started systematic cleansing as the Kosovo Verification Mission pulled out, just before the bombing started.

However, this last month of preparations and actions could be interpreted as anticipation of the bombing that would follow from Milosevic's rejection of an unacceptable agreement. One of the sources quoted by Tim Judah in his book Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale University Press) summarises the attitude of Serbian security forces crudely but effectively: "We'll fuck'em if they start!" There is no question that as soon as the bombing did start the ethnic cleansing was accelerated - a word used by General Naumann. Yet, I repeat, a humanitarian disaster was already there. In early 1999 the balance of probability was that, absent further decisive action by the West, the Albanian-Serb conflict on the ground would again have escalated to produce a still worse humanitarian crisis in the spring and summer of 1999. It is, however, a basic rule of historical logic that one can never state with certainty "what would have happened if... "

There is no reason to doubt that Western leaders were concerned about this real human suffering. However, as politicians they were undoubtedly more concerned about the human suffering of the Kosovar Albanians than they were about that of the Congolese, Angolans, Sierra Leoneans, Rwandans, or Colombians, because television and the press covered Kosovo more intensely and graphically, with energetic commentaries from what one British minister sarcastically called the "something-must-be-done brigade". So this was also a war for which the mass media were implicitly and explicitly making a case.

Furthermore, western European leaders stressed the motive of averting "humanitarian disaster" so strongly because this was the only way in which taking military action without the sanction of a UN security council resolution - something they had recoiled from doing for the best part of a year - might possibly be justified in international law. This legal expedient had been suggested by a British foreign office memorandum circulated to Britain's Nato allies as early as October 1998. Yet the Foreign Affairs Committee concludes that the operation was at best of "dubious" legality. For legal and political reasons, it was never called a war. In his book Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (Metropolitan Books) Michael Ignatieff quotes Anthony Cordesman's wry conclusion: "One of the lessons of modern war is that war can no longer be called war."

In sum, it is more accurate to say that the Nato action started as a piece of coercive diplomacy. It was designed to compel Milosevic to agree to a political settlement involving far-reaching autonomy for Kosovo. One major motive for desiring such a political settlement was humanitarian concern, but equally important was a longstanding fear for the "stability" of the region. Since 1992 Nato's nightmare had been that a conflict involving Albanians would tear apart Macedonia, with its large Albanian minority, bringing in Bulgaria and Nato members Greece and Turkey. Western European countries were also worried about a new influx of refugees. Finally, after so many empty threats and called bluffs, Nato leaders felt the alliance had to act to preserve its own credibility as its 50th anniversary approached.

The first six weeks of the war hardly enhanced Nato's credibility. It is a remarkable fact that for at least a month the most powerful military alliance in history, with member states representing some two thirds of the world's economic and military strength, with four million men and women under arms, and combined defence spending of around $450bn, seemed to be losing to a small, impoverished Balkan country with a defense budget of scarcely $1.5bn and about 110,000 active-duty soldiers.

Why did Goliath do so badly? First, because he misjudged his opponent. Second, because he fought with one arm tied behind his back, most of his weapons stuck in the sand, and several large men tugging at his belt in different directions. The misjudgment was twofold: thinking Milosevic would cave in much sooner than he did and not anticipating the speed, scale and brutality of the mass expulsions.

Policymakers interviewed today tell you that of course they knew, privately, that it could be a long haul. Cross-questioned on American television the night the bombing started, Madeleine Albright said, "I don't see this as a long-term operation. I think that this is something... that is achievable within a relatively short period of time." Note the word "relatively", her former spokesman James Rubin told me, when I recently talked to him. Politicians, so the argument made by Rubin and others runs, could not say publicly all that they thought privately, for fear of alienating the two big Cs: the US Congress and the Coalition. Congressional doubters, Greek, Italian and German allies, simply could not be "brought on board" if told the truth - that this might be a long war. Let alone that it might be a ground war.

These retrospective claims are impossible to test, because we don't have the records of top-level secret meetings at which such private farsightedness might have been articulated. It is clearly true that the two big-C constituencies had to be coaxed along gently. Yet a strong dose of scepticism is in order. Not only do most observers who were there at the time testify that Western leaders seemed convinced that it would be over quickly. More important, senior Nato commanders say they were instructed accordingly.

Thus, for example, the plain-speaking American commander of allied air forces, General Michael Short: "I can't tell you how many times the instruction I got was, 'Mike, you're only going to be allowed to bomb two, maybe three nights. That's all Washington can stand. That's all some members of the alliance can stand. That's why you've only got 90 targets. This'll be over in three nights.'"

According to a New York Times investigation, when the bombing began on March 24 Nato had a total of 219 targets prepared - enough for less than a week. Nato's commander of southern forces, Admiral James Ellis, later observed, "We called this one absolutely wrong." It's one thing for politicians not to have told their publics that they privately judged this might be a long, difficult war. Politics means being economical with the truth. But what are we to conclude if they didn't even tell their own military?

Moreover, no western leader claims that he or she anticipated Milosevic's immediate mass expulsions. According to Ignatieff, General Wesley Clark's "intelligence people" had anticipated up to 200,000 new Kosovar refugees. Within a month, there were some 850,000. To those who had dealt closely with Milosevic, this response was not "impossible to predict". Both President Kucan of Slovenia and President Gligorov of Macedonia warned of the danger. But had we not ourselves dealt closely with Milosevic?

So there was a failure of Western political intelligence, with both a large and a small I. For the large I: astonishingly, the Defence Intelligence Agency did not even include Kosovo in its February 1999 survey of world trouble spots. The CIA's signal contribution was to suggest the Chinese embassy as a bombing target, believing it to be the headquarters of Yugoslavia's Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement. (This was the only target proposed by the CIA.) For the small i: Western leaders, trying to prevent "another Bosnia," learned a wrong lesson from Bosnia. They thought Milosevic had been bombed into accepting the Dayton agreement in 1995. They forgot that it had first required a large ground offensive - by Croatian troops.

Another mistake was to suggest that the high-altitude bombing campaign, prescribed by the American obsession with "zero casualties", could stop ethnic cleansing on the ground. One of the goals President Clinton proclaimed in his television address at the beginning of the war was "to deter an even bloodier offensive against innocent civilians in Kosovo". The bombing campaign did something very close to the opposite. In fact, there were two parallel but largely separate campaigns: the tactical one, aimed at preventing Serbian forces in Kosovo from doing further harm to the Albanians, and the strategic one, aimed at Serbia proper. Nato won the second, but lost the first.

A combination of weather, peasant cunning and low-tech diversions confounded Nato's multibillion dollar high-tech weapons, as they tried to find and destroy Serbian armor in Kosovo. It turns out that laser-guided bombs are very difficult to use through clouds. Kosovo in spring is cloudy. Sophisticated cruise missiles home in on the radar of air defense systems. So the Serbs turned on the radar for a few seconds, then turned it off - and those poor, disoriented missiles wandered off into Bulgaria. One landed in a bathroom in Sofia. The Serbs built decoy bridges out of plastic; Nato knocked them down. The Serbs set up woodburning stoves, with their chimneys angled to look like gun barrels; Nato took them out with exquisite accuracy. The Serbs put painted logs on the backs of trucks; Nato obliged again. At the end of the war, Nato claimed that it had destroyed some 120 Serbian tanks, 220 armored personnel carriers, and 450 artillery and mortar pieces. But the Serbian armoured columns that withdrew from Kosovo looked in remarkably good shape. according to a suppressed US Air Force report obtained by Newsweek, Nato verifiably destroyed just 14 tanks, 18 armored personnel carriers, and 20 artillery pieces. Even if the real figures are higher than that, it is an indisputable fact that ethnic cleansing increased under the bombing. As Tim Judah observes, the main weapon of ethnic cleansing is the cigarette lighter (to set fire to houses). How many cigarette lighters can you hit from 15,000 feet?

Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan in the fog of war. It was always hubris to believe that high-tech wars would be different. But the war Nato lost in Kosovo was not just about the humbling of high-tech hubris. It was also about the mismatch between political ends and military means. Yet the military means were themselves prescribed (and proscribed) by the politics of democratic coalition warfare.

Why did Milosevic finally cave in? Once again: we really don't know what made the difference to that poisoned but calculating mind. Perhaps it was the fact that his wife, Mira, whom everyone agrees has enormous influence over him, got weepy at the bombing of their Belgrade house? Or was it his business cronies, worried that the West was now targeting their foreign bank accounts?

We can point to a number of things that happened shortly before he conceded, but the direct causal connection is nowhere established. For example, on May 27 he was indicted for atrocities in Kosovo by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague. Many of us thought this could make ending the war more difficult, since he might feel that he had nothing to lose. But just a week later he accepted the peace terms dictated by the European emissary, Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, and the Russian emissary Viktor Chernomyrdin. Now some say: "Ah, he settled because he knew that anything else would bring him one step closer to the Hague." But who knows?

A plausible speculation would point to four main factors. First, Milosevic had thought the Nato coalition would crumble. Instead, it held, and grew stronger after the 50th- anniversary summit in Washington in late April.

One of the main reasons for this growing solidity of the coalition was popular outrage at the television and newspaper pictures of the Kosovar Albanian expellees, and especially at those scenes - described with wearisome predictability as "biblical" - of the huddled masses in a field at Blace, on the border with Macedonia. These images outweighed the negative impact of Nato's killing of civilians, either through pilot error (the train on a bridge, the refugee convoy), or mistaken targeting (the Chinese embassy), or the deliberate acceptance of civilian casualties (the Serbian television station). There are multiple ironies here. Perhaps Nato's greatest miscalculation was not to anticipate Milosevic's swift and brutal expulsion of the Kosovars. But, as it turned out, that was Milosevic's greatest mistake. Would the coalition have held through 78 days of bombing if Milosevic had just hunkered down and said, "Here we are, poor innocent victims, a sovereign country being attacked without any good cause or UN Security Council resolution."? One may reasonably doubt it. So Milosevic saved the Nato coalition. Secondly, Nato did what General Short had been urging it do since the very beginning of the war: it went "for the head of the snake". Crucially, the bombers started destroying Belgrade's electrical power grids. Not just disabling them for a few hours with graphite bombs, as they had earlier done, but demolishing them. This damaged Milosevic's central command and control system, and the morale of his population. It also meant that patients on life-support systems and babies in hospital incubators had their power cut off.

Thirdly, the alliance was at last moving toward a credible threat of ground invasion, as Britain had been suggesting from early in the war. Clinton's initial television address on March 24 contained the following sentence, written by his national security adviser, Samuel Berger: "But I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war." Berger has subsequently maintained that: "We would not have won the war without this sentence." The US Congress and coalition partners such as Germany would have revolted. Yet by May, the same Clinton and Berger were deliberately saying that no option was ruled out. On May 20, General Clark briefed Clinton on possible timetables for a ground invasion, and on May 21 Clinton publicly suggested increas ing the deployment of Nato troops around Kosovo - ostensibly still for a peacekeeping force - to 50,000. Nato forces began building up a road to take heavy armor through Albania to the Kosovo border.

Finally, Russian emissaries told Milosevic that the deal he was offered was the best he could get. Russia would back him no further. This was said publicly by Chernomyrdin - whom the US had deliberately briefed about its ground invasion plans. The message was also reinforced privately, in a communication from the Russian military and security establishment, brought to Milosevic by a Swedish businessman named Peter Castenfelt. The change in the Russian position must have been a major blow to Milosevic. It was, as the Yugoslav foreign minister tells Judah with most un-Serbian understatement, "I must admit, very relevant". To give credit where due: bringing Russia into the coalition to put more pressure on Milosevic was a characteristic achievement of the Clinton administration.

Thus, in the end, and at vast cost, Nato won the larger war for Kosovo.

And the consequences? It really is too soon to say. Kosovo today is liberated - and an almighty mess. Western leaders failed to prepare for peace, as they had failed to prepare for war. Crucially, the UN administration in Kosovo was not provided with the police, judges, and jailers to establish the first prerequisite of any functioning state or protectorate: an effective monopoly of legitimate violence. Anyone who thought that because the Kosovar Albanians had long been victims they were therefore "the good guys" has received a sobering lesson, as Kosovars have conducted reverse ethnic cleansing of the Serbs - under the noses of Nato troops. But how it turns out in the end is still a matter of human choice.

As for Serbia proper, the question at the war's end was: will Milosevic prove to be Europe's Galtieri (the Argentinian president deposed after losing the Falklands war) or Europe's Saddam Hussein? At the moment, he looks more like Europe's Saddam. But although it looks unlikely, he may yet be defeated in the presidential elections on September 24 . After all, if the Kosovo war teaches us anything, it is that we should always expect surprises.

Original article