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The War in Kosovo

A Fateful Decision

If No Ground Troops, NATO Should Cut Its Losses

April 25, 1999|Charles A. Kupchan and Ivo H. Daalder | Charles A. Kupchan is an associate professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Ivo H. Daalder is an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Both served on the National Security Council during the first Clinton administration, where they worked on European affairs

WASHINGTON — The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is stuck in a no man's land in its war against Yugoslavia. It is continuing an ineffectual air campaign that is only expediting the slaughter and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. This weekend's NATO summit in Washington represents a moment of truth. If NATO is to prevail, the Western alliance must decide to escalate immediately to a ground war and expel Serb forces from Kosovo. If allied leaders cannot muster the courage to do this, however, they must stop the bombing and cut their losses, even if that means playing into the hands of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Backing away from its objectives would deal NATO a grievous blow but is preferable to continuing a futile bombing campaign that only makes matters worse.

The need for ground troops is now self-evident. With or without Apache helicopters, NATO cannot stop the Serb offensive from the air. Even the most sophisticated bombs and missiles will be unable to track down the dispersed and mobile units operating in Kosovo. Nor will interdicting supply lines do the trick. Serb troops in Kosovo have all the oil, ammunition and food they need to rid Kosovo of its Albanian population. In short, if NATO is serious about saving Kosovo, it must send in ground troops to crush the Yugoslav army and effectively strip Serbia of its southern province. This is the only way for NATO to stop the ethnic cleansing and bring a definitive end to Milosevic's reign of terror over the Balkans.

NATO leaders should therefore emerge from their deliberations today and launch a ground campaign in Kosovo without further delay. They cannot continue to bomb Yugoslovia from a safe 15,000 feet and hope Milosevic gives up. If ground troops are still out of the question by the time the summit ends this afternoon, it behooves President Bill Clinton and his NATO counterparts to admit the air campaign is not working and, however unsatisfactory, map out an alternative strategy to save NATO and the south Balkans from the fiasco they are headed toward.

Expelling Serb forces from Kosovo would require roughly 100,000 NATO troops. By first building up these troops along Kosovo's borders with Macedonia and Albania, NATO would compel Serb forces to concentrate in defensive formations, making them easier to degrade from the air. After weakening these defenses through bombardment, NATO ground forces could readily defeat Serb forces in Kosovo and then secure the border between Kosovo and a rump Serbia.

NATO forces would, no doubt, suffer considerable casualties. But the interests at stake warrant such sacrifice. The fighting threatens not just the Albanians in Kosovo, but also the stability of Macedonia and Albania. If these two countries enter the fray, a wider Balkan war becomes a reality, probably dragging in Bulgaria and Greece. NATO could not stand by if war engulfs southern Europe.

The benefits of expelling the Serbs from Kosovo would also be great. The Milosevic regime could well fall apart after the loss of Kosovo and defeat of the Yugoslav army. The slaughter of Albanians would stop. The refugees could return home. NATO would demonstrate its relevance to European security and enter the next century in top form.

If NATO leaders do not have the stomach for a ground war, they cannot afford to prolong the air war. The results have been catastrophic. Serb forces have already murdered many thousands of Albanians. Of 1.8 million Albanians in Kosovo, 1.3 million have been expelled from their homes. The lucky ones have made it to neighboring countries, but some 700,000 remain in Kosovo, fleeing from Serb forces. No letup is in sight. Despite a punishing bombardment of Belgrade--indeed, because of it--Milosevic is stronger than ever. Continuing the futile bombing will not just destabilize the region, but ultimately leave NATO and its credibility in shambles.

The only responsible alternative is for NATO to cut its losses by backing away from military confrontation and pursuing an alternative solution that leaves Milosevic in control of Kosovo but limits his ability to do further damage to the region. This is hardly attractive: It would constitute a major setback for NATO, Europe and the Balkans. But it is the only viable alternative.

If NATO does not choose ground troops, it must opt for an endgame strategy guided by three objectives: 1) write off Kosovo, but degrade the Serb military and rigidly contain Yugoslavia within its current borders; 2) stabilize the countries surrounding Yugoslavia through military and economic initiatives; and 3) enlist Russia's help both to contain Yugoslavia and repair NATO-Russian relations.

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