March 22, 2000Nato may be stuck in Kosovo
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) -- One year after NATO unleashed its missiles and bombs on Yugoslavia to end a crackdown on Kosovo Albanians, the alliance finds itself stuck in an open-ended operation with no conclusion in sight.
Though few are prepared to say so publicly, most at NATO headquarters believe troops are going to be in Kosovo for many years to come.
As the first anniversary of the March 24 decision to launch airstrikes approaches, NATO has issued self-congratulatory statements declaring the Kosovo glass half full.
"Nobody is going to tell me that we did not do the right thing," said NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson. "We were never going to create a Switzerland in eight or nine months. But we have brought hope to the region."
NATO succeeded in stopping Serbian army and police violence against ethnic Albanians, reversing the flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees and providing a minimum level of security. Critics say it is the civilian administration run by the United Nations that has failed.
The continuing violence between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the city of Kosovska Mitrovica is only the most visible symbol of a more fundamental problem: there is no political settlement in Kosovo and none on the horizon.
"I believe NATO is resolved to do whatever is necessary," said Gen. Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander in Europe. "But remember, the winning of this mission is not something NATO can do by itself."
NATO and the United Nations, however, are not pulling all the strings in Kosovo. Peace or conflict largely is in the hands of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is unhappy with losing control over a large chunk of Serbia and remains staunchly defiant.
Ethnic Albanians, meanwhile, have never relinquished their desire for independence.
"The Kosovo Albanians are unhappy because they are left in the waiting lounge with a ticket to nowhere," said Espen Barthe Eide, a Balkans expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. "And our friend in Belgrade is doing what he can to exploit the situation."
The problem is, as one senior NATO official put it, the alliance needs a strategy for bringing about a change in Belgrade, but it simply doesn't have one.
"Ultimate removal of Milosevic is up to the Serbian people," Robertson said. "We don't know how the Serb people will get rid of him ... but in due course he will go."
The same consensus that held the 19 allies together through the 78 days of bombing and nearly nine months of peacekeeping operations is still firm, by all accounts, and the determination to see it through remains high.
"Despite the challenges we face in the short term, we will be patient," Robertson insisted. "That is why those who regard incidents such as the flare-up in Mitrovica as a sign of failure of our mission miss the point entirely. We're in it for the long haul."
What has been lacking, however, is any real examination of the process that led to the first NATO military offensive against a sovereign nation in its 50-year history.
The military side of the alliance took a hard look at its air campaign, and found that military capabilities were unequal and not easy to integrate -- driving home messages the United States had been trying to deliver for years.
Clark is preparing a similar assessment of the decision-making process. But the political side has not attempted a similar study.
Clark said the mission was on track until January, when U.N. administrator Bernard Kouchner had trouble getting sufficient money and manpower.
"Then we fell further and further behind in the number of police officers we needed," he said. "The infrastructure reconstruction hasn't really begun, and there is still a shortage of security, but I think the military mission has gone pretty well."
Robertson and others like to point to the comparative success of Bosnia, where four years after the military intervention the NATO-led force has been reduced from 60,000 to 20,000 and relative calm prevails. But in Bosnia, NATO was enforcing a political settlement signed in Dayton, Ohio, by all parties to the conflict.
In Kosovo, no such agreement exists. A proposed political settlement failed to win approval by all parties at talks in Rambouillet, France, and NATO's decision to bomb was made under heavy criticism for not taking action quickly enough.
"Because Milosevic refused a negotiated solution, we had to use force," said Alexander Vershbow, the American ambassador to NATO. "We inevitably put off the day when a real political process can be started. We introduced an extra stage. It is going to take years to get back to where we would have been had Rambouillet been signed."