The road to hell
...was paved with good intentions--but muddled planning. Now what?
By Johanna McGeary/Vienna
April 6, 1999
War, we are shocked to discover, is not a video game. Seduced by the antiseptic green glimmers of smart bombs and high-altitude jet jockeys flickering across TV screens, we'd come to consider international conflict little more than the quick thrill of bloodless lightning victories. This war is not like that. This war is the ruthless reduction of Kosovo: mass expulsion, killing, burned villages, the obliteration of a people's identity. This war is American soldiers--Staff Sergeant Andrew Ramirez, Staff Sergeant Christopher Stone, Specialist 4 Steven Gonzales--captured, humiliated, perhaps tried, perhaps killed. This war is sophisticated supertech airplanes dropping tons of ordnance night after night that fail to stop the enemy's rifle-toting soldiers. This war is Slobodan Milosevic, cleverer and crueler than planners expected, so far getting the better of NATO.
Disagreements would not erupt in war, Winston Churchill said, unless the other side also believed it could win. The strongman of Serbia has once again confounded the best-laid plans of the West by fighting back when he was supposed to fold. He ceded the skies to NATO, letting the bombs and missiles rain down while barely activating his air defenses. Meanwhile, on the ground, his army pursued two-pronged tactics: pushing tens of thousands of Albanian Kosovars out of the country and engaging in a murderous offensive against the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.
And Milosevic seemed to be winning, at least by his peculiar calculus. He has foisted a barbarous humanitarian crisis upon his neighbors and the European continent. The sight of thousands upon thousands of dazed, weeping refugees fleeing for their lives into the region's poorest, least stable states set off shock waves in the West. The states themselves--particularly Macedonia and Montenegro--trembled at the very real possibility that Kosovo's instability was contagious.
The wonder weapons of air power looked futile against primitive "ethnic cleansers" with guns. The long-threatened bombing campaign failed to deter the rape of Kosovo and even appeared to be speeding it. Publicly, NATO insisted that the blame for the refugee flight lay solely with Milosevic, not Western bombs. But privately, officials offered a line that made more sense alongside the awful images. Military planners lamented that bad weather, clever Serb tactics, White House worries about collateral damage--and a reluctance to risk pilots' lives--kept them from hitting at Milosevic as hard as they wished. And diplomats complained that the limp military effort wasn't bringing the Serbs to heel fast enough. "You want to know the truth?" asked a senior State Department official who had urged a tougher assault against Milosevic. "We don't think we've accomplished anything." That frustration, in part, led NATO to speed up the pace of its bombing, to launch a precision cruise-missile attack that set key ministries in the heart of Belgrade aflame Saturday morning, to plan a massive pounding over the Easter weekend and to prepare for a much broader campaign--one that will look less like a video game and an awful lot like conventional declared war.
Even as it ad-libbed adjustments, the West, led by President Clinton, put on a brave face, insisting the alliance's unity, patience and determination would not crack. "Just remember, everybody, we knew we were going to take some hits on this," Clinton reminded his inner circle. "We knew this going in, so we've got to stay the course." But outside the White House, it was hard to understand what "the course" now was. As bombs kept falling, refugees kept fleeing and Milosevic refused to budge, it was no longer clear what a NATO victory would look like or whether anyone knew how to get there.
If the U.S. and Europe were shaken by the slow progress of the air war, Serbs were solid in their defiance, and Milosevic surely felt stronger than ever, cast as the nation's plucky savior. The bombing effectively silenced most of his opposition, and he shut down or intimidated anyone else who still had a mind to speak out. Proudly painting targets on their shirts and buildings, the young of Belgrade rallied for Slobo in the same streets and squares where protesters had marched two years ago to throw him out. Serbs who danced in jubilation on the wreckage of a U.S. F-117A gloated a few days later at the capture of the three American soldiers. That propaganda coup was followed by another when Milosevic appeared on television in the company of moderate Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova--once rumored to be dead or in hiding. Milosevic claimed that together they were calling for a political solution, but the tape may have been old footage from some previous meeting.
As Milosevic closed in on his objectives in Kosovo, he also turned his attention to Montenegro, Serbia's restive partner in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The state, which sits between landlocked Serbia and the Adriatic, has refused to support Milosevic. Late last week Milosevic replaced the state's top general with a loyal crony and threatened a military coup to unseat the pro-Western elected government. Montenegrins feared they too would be engulfed in civil war.
Through it all, Washington gave off an impression of disarray. The White House engaged in semantic jujitsu: Was this war, was it not? Was this genocide, was this not? Clinton worked hard to project the image of a resolute leader, but confidence was no substitute for answers.
Perhaps the most astonishing reality to confront was that the largest NATO military action in the alliance's 50-year history offered scant relief for the crude savaging of Kosovo. Officials doggedly insisted the "cumulative effect" of NATO's bombardment was starting to tell on the Serb war machine. They also said the late-week strikes against Belgrade itself were only a beginning. Even though many in NATO were nervous about bombing a European capital, the images of Belgrade buildings on fire was the first p.r. victory for the allies--and it made them hungry for more. As planners unleashed a broader weekend bombing campaign, they still believed air power could keep Milosevic from sweeping the province clean of ethnic Albanians. But as the human tide continued to flood out of Kosovo, the alliance could offer little but grim hope that anything they were doing could stop it.
The nightmare scenario
Before a conflict, the military's job is to plan for the worst case. Yet obviously the minds behind Operation Allied Force didn't really think it would be as bad as this. After more than a week of NATO air raids, Kosovo was still hemorrhaging victims of horror. Ordered out of their homes at gunpoint, often separated from husbands and sons, ethnic Albanian women, children and old people were marched, bused, packed into trains. As the long columns stumbled into neighboring states, Serb soldiers stripped the refugees of passports, identity papers, even license plates to eradicate any trace of their claim to the province. No one knows how many have died or been killed, but every refugee had a tale of terror to tell. Milosevic seemed intent on emptying not just the historically sacred (and mineral-rich) north and central zones dear to Serb hearts and pocketbooks but every square inch of the Connecticut-size province. Even without confirmation of the widespread stories of atrocity or war crimes, the brutal outflow told a clear enough tale. A systematic expulsion was under way that, NATO predicted, could empty the province of its 1.8 million ethnic Albanians in 10 to 20 days.
Contingency planners and intelligence officials in Washington insist they warned their political bosses all along that Milosevic would "cleanse" Kosovo. "We are not surprised," Secretary of Defense William Cohen reiterated on Thursday. He and others say it was the very knowledge that Milosevic was marshaling his forces for just such an onslaught that helped precipitate NATO's decision to start bombing March 24. "By the time our first planes took off," said NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, "thousands of ethnic Albanians were already fleeing toward the borders."
But just as many officials quietly admit that no one predicted Milosevic would be so ferocious so fast. The CIA knew as far back as last autumn that Belgrade was planning Operation Horseshoe: when spring melted the snows, the Serbs would move in their tanks and artillery to destroy the Kosovo Liberation Army and drive many ethnic Albanians over the southern and western borders. At a village a day--the rate Milosevic calculated the West would tolerate--Serbia could methodically eliminate the Kosovar population over a number of months. Analysts knew Milosevic would intensify his purge if bombing started. But they believed his intent was to crush the K.L.A. and then gradually drive out the entire ethnic Albanian population. Among political decision makers at NATO and at the White House, conventional wisdom also said Milosevic would cave after a few days of bombing. That scenario seemed so convincing that they settled on an air campaign of gradual escalation, beginning with limited attacks and building in sufficient pauses for Belgrade to capitulate. U.S. intelligence had no qualms about the military plan: even if Milosevic stepped up Operation Horseshoe, they believed, he couldn't empty Kosovo in a week.
But though the blitzkrieg Milosevic launched didn't quite accomplish that, it has already remade the face of Kosovo. Some 40,000 regular Serb troops, special police, paramilitary units and ultranationalist gangs tore through Kosovo "with complete ferocity," says a NATO official. "The intensity was not anticipated." And now NATO is scrambling to revise its war plan in a race against time. "He's working very, very fast," said NATO commanding General Wesley Clark, "trying to present the world with a fait accompli."
The new battle plan
NATO and Serbia are fighting very different wars. While NATO was attempting to grind down Belgrade's air defenses, Milosevic was fighting the only war he really cares about. He refused to fire spasms of SAMs into the swarming skies over Yugoslavia. That kept NATO's low-and-slow tank- and troop-killing warplanes away and confined vaunted alliance firepower to Everest-high altitudes. In Belgrade government officials chortled that the damage to their air-defense systems was "minimal" despite a NATO expenditure of "230 grams of high explosives per head" of every Yugoslav. Meanwhile, Yugoslavia's well-armed infantry stormed through Kosovo virtually untouched. "It is difficult to say," admitted Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon, "that we have prevented one act of brutality."
While Milosevic moved fast to stay ahead of the impact of the air strikes, NATO was plagued by bad luck. Only about half the bombing sorties actually dropped ordnance on targets. Some planes were socked in by bad weather; other pilots couldn't eyeball their prey--NATO rules required visual identification of a target to prevent civilian casualties--through the thick cloud cover, and returned to base with bomb bays still loaded. "Everybody is surprised," says a White House aide, "that we're not as far along as we wanted to be."
Even as General Clark insisted he was not engaged in a race with the Serbs, he pressed Western capitals for reinforcements. Washington rushed to comply, and by week's end the Pentagon had dispatched more F-117A Stealths, B-52 bombers, Prowler radar jammers and refueling tankers, as well as B-1 bombers, to give NATO enough aircraft for round-the-clock operations. Top brass weighed the risks of sending in radar-visible Apache helicopter gunships that could lay down a withering blanket of bullets and rockets against small concentrations of Serb tanks and armor. There was also some worry within defense circles about a dwindling supply of American cruise missiles. Defense officials reported that there were only about 100 air-launched cruises available, but some 2,000 sea-launched Tomahawks remained. NATO political bosses--reassured perhaps by the impressive accuracy of the Tomahawks so far--agreed to widen the target base by 20% to include the Defense and Interior ministries in downtown Belgrade, then scrapped the phases entirely to let Clark choose almost any targets he wished. Not even a plea from Pope John Paul II for an Easter halt in the assault changed the West's plans. "NATO is not on the Easter pause mode," said a senior Washington official.
What Washington was not altering either was its basic faith in air power. Even though all the weapons at NATO's disposal seem impotent to halt the Serbs' practically unimpeded rampage in Kosovo, the White House refused to address publicly the question everyone else is asking: Will it now take NATO ground forces to defeat Milosevic? Plenty of American pundits and former U.S. officials urged Clinton to rethink NATO's reliance on air power alone, suggesting that only "boots on the ground" can rescue the faltering campaign. "We're in a war, and we need to allow our military to do what is necessary to prevail," says Frank Carlucci, Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration. "If it means troops on the ground, then so be it."
Some critics charge that by forswearing ground troops from the start to placate domestic opinion, the Clinton Administration handed Milosevic his current military advantage. "It was a terrible military statement," said Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser under George Bush. "If you tell Milosevic we're not going to put ground forces in, that makes him even more determined to ride out a bombing campaign." As a result, the choice could come down to sending in ground forces or giving up and going home.
As White House aides realized that even stepped-up air assaults might not slow the Serb offensive quickly enough, a few began debating among themselves whether a ground attack should be considered. In public the Administration carefully stops short of categorically ruling it out. But the talk among policymakers has never progressed beyond the instant conclusion that "we don't think the American people would support that." Neither, they reckoned, would Congress. They didn't order up contingency plans for such an operation or even broach the subject with Clinton, who remains opposed to the idea.
A NATO assessment last year determined it would take up to 200,000 allied troops to invade and secure Kosovo. Both Cohen and General Henry Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were leery of any such mission, especially when its goals seemed vague. Now it is obvious that NATO could not have built up such a force before Milosevic had gobbled up Kosovo. And sending in ground forces in the face of Serb resistance would be bloody. Mountainous Balkan terrain makes for tougher fighting than Iraq's wide open deserts; Serbs would hold the high ground, including passes too narrow for tanks; mines salt the few roads and bridges. Such pitfalls loom large for officers who came of age in Vietnam. "Part of contingency planning," a Pentagon colonel says, "is looking at options and ruling them out."
Some planners talked instead of dispatching a much smaller force of, say, 30,000 or so to carve out "safe havens." But the idea carries such a negative image after enclaves set up in Bosnia--like Srebrenica--failed so tragically to protect civilians. Others suggested turning the war over to a proxy army of K.L.A. fighters outfitted by the West with effective Stinger missiles and antitank rockets. But U.S. and NATO officials feared that arming one side would only widen the war and destabilize the entire region. By now it may simply be too late: on Friday Serb officials were crowing that they would finish mopping up the shattered rebel force in a couple of days.
So that leaves the new battle plan looking pretty much like the old one. More sorties from more planes--if the weather improves--will try to rattle Milosevic by hitting him close to home. The classified guidance for this phase calls for attacks sufficient to break the will of the Serb leader. But some Pentagon officers wonder how wrecking Yugoslavia's military headquarters will do anything to curb violence against the Kosovars. "The Serbs in the field are just thugs on a rampage," says a Navy planner. "They don't need guidance on how to knock down doors and kill people." The Pentagon is no longer talking about an "air campaign" of a few brisk weeks but a war of attrition. White House officials now say the air attacks could last another 20--20!--weeks. "We'll continue to degrade his forces, and he'll continue his ethnic cleansing," explains an Air Force officer. "And we'll get back to the negotiating table only after he's finished."
Where's the endgame?
The task before NATO is not simple. It must intensify its warfare without tallying high Serb or ethnic Albanian civilian casualties, worsening the refugee flight or shaking jittery public support. Yet it is unthinkable that the alliance should not finish the job it embarked on. NATO would fail history if it left Milosevic in place and the ethnic Albanians in exile.
It is certainly possible that air power may yet subdue Milosevic--or that he will sue for peace once he has emptied Kosovo of ethnic Albanians. By Friday the White House was cheered that NATO strikes were cutting critical fuel supplies. But perhaps it was always unlikely that one could bomb Milosevic into negotiating an acceptable political solution for Kosovo. Now it looks out of the question. The down-the-middle construct of Rambouillet that retained Serbian sovereignty over the province but gave self-rule to the ethnic Albanians for three years seems dead. No one believes the Kosovars can live with the Serbs hell-bent on eliminating them--and no one trusts some of the Kosovars not to seek bloodthirsty revenge. The anguished children streaming out of Kosovo were a reminder that already this Serb attack has inculcated a new generation with visceral ethnic hate.
Washington insists it has not dropped its opposition to independence for Kosovo, but what else, if the ethnic Albanians ever return, is there? Some in Washington and at NATO talk of making Kosovo into an allied "protectorate" that would require Western troops to escort the Kosovars back and stand guard inside Kosovo's borders for years to come. Yet any new political arrangement butts up against the fact that Milosevic has captured the kingdom. "As much as we wish we could stop him in his tracks," says a senior NATO diplomat, "it's obvious there will have to be an element of rollback in our future plans."
And Milosevic himself now represents a morally repugnant dilemma. As engineer of the brutality, he is both the man we have to deal with and the man we want no dealings with whatsoever. Threats to charge him with war crimes at the Hague tribunal may feel good, but an indictment would disqualify diplomats from sitting in the same room with him. He may have committed too many terrible deeds for the West, in good conscience, to make political deals with him.
The greatest irony of this situation, of course, is that for a decade Milosevic was supposed to be the antidote for war in the Balkans. In deal after deal, Western diplomats worked with him whenever his false promises offered a cheap, if distasteful way out of crisis after crisis. Now we are paying the price for thinking he was ever a man the West could do business with.
After the campaign's first moves, NATO is staring at a very real possibility of humiliation. Milosevic can crow: he has expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from sacred Serb soil; he has destabilized his Balkan neighbors; he has considering the takeover of Montenegro; he is pushing ahead with plans for a show trial of the three captive American soldiers. Against that, NATO's tally looks meager. And the geopolitical consequences of continuing to bomb are also piling up: deep strains with Russia; the possible chain reaction of instability in Macedonia and Albania; and above all the terrible tide of human misery flooding out of Kosovo. In fact, for Milosevic, the refugees have become his most potent offensive weapon, distracting NATO's leaders as they struggle to find a way to deal with hundreds of thousands of displaced persons.
To all that, Bill Clinton counsels patience "if we expect to see this mission through." NATO vows that the bombing will go on, day after day, week after week, until Milosevic cries uncle. But what if, having gobbled up Kosovo, he simply stops fighting and declares victory instead? How will patience cope with that?
--With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Belgrade, Ed Barnes/Podgorica, James L. Graff/Brussels, Thomas Sancton/Paris and Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington
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Cover Date: April 12, 1999
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