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Will NATO Be Able to Survive the War?

Waging war without a strategy to win may lead to the demise of the alliance's effectiveness.

April 28, 1999|EDWARD N. LUTTWAK | Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Many wars start with rather vague aims, but not NATO's Kosovo war. All 19 governments agreed that Kosovo was not to become an independent state. Instead, it was to receive a large degree of autonomy within the Yugoslav Federation, with a Kosovar police and law courts but without an army of its own. Security against Serb oppression would be guaranteed by a NATO force, introduced into Kosovo with the consent of the Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milosevic.

NATO's original war aims had two immediate implications. First, that the scattered guerrilla bands of the grandly named Kosovo Liberation Army would not be assisted to become a real army and that the cooperation of Milosevic was essential. Only Milosevic had the authority to persuade the Serbian parliament to accept an independent Kosovo and only he had the power to overcome the dangerous opposition of Serb ultranationalist militias if the Albanians were to have any form of autonomy.

True, Milosevic had refused every version of NATO's autonomy plan that was offered, including the last-minute modification that American envoy Richard Holbrooke brought to him in Belgrade just before the war started. Milosevic kept saying no, but both American and European officials were certain that he would respond to the use of force as he had in the past--by giving in.

In fact, some NATO officials suggested that Milosevic actually wanted a bit of NATO bombing to silence the ultranationalists and allow him to accept the autonomy plan.

That theory may now seem ridiculous but evidently it was widely accepted, because it had a decisive impact on NATO's initial war plans, which combined a maximum of sound and fury with very little actual bombing. In reality, fewer than 50 targets had been selected for attack, most of them very minor air-defense radars and missile batteries, or merely isolated antenna relays on remote mountaintops. The potentially formidable B-2s flew exactly four missions. Compared to the daily average of 1,250 bombing missions per day of the 1991 Gulf War, NATO was operating at the rate of about 50 sorties per day during the first week. Above all, ultra-cautious tactics crippled the air campaign: From 15,000 feet, only fixed targets could be attacked and only when no clouds intervened.

When Milosevic reacted to the bombing not by accepting Kosovo's autonomy but by ordering mass expulsions of its Albanian population, the evident failure of NATO's first attempt at offensive war did not prompt a change of strategy. The war goals remained the same. Officials in Washington, European capitals and NATO headquarters strenuously denied that full independence had become the goal for Kosovo, and rejected suggestions that the KLA should be helped to resist the all-out Serbian campaign against its outnumbered and outgunned guerrillas.

The preservation of NATO's consensus required nothing less: the Greek government, whose cooperation was essential to operate in land-locked Macedonia, and the Italian government, which was providing the indispensable bases for the air campaign, were already demanding an interruption of the bombing and would certainly oppose any escalation in the war aims.

The failure of the air campaign did not even lead to a change in tactics. The list of allowed targets was expanded week by week, and NATO's military chief, Gen. Wesley K. Clark did ask for more aircraft, but no attempt was made to respond to Milosevic's countermove: the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo that could negate any autonomy plan. Small groups of 80 to 120 Serb soldiers and police could terrorize thousands of Albanians into flight because they were backed by armored vehicles. All major NATO members have antitank helicopters, but none offered to send them into action. Unlike aircraft at 15,000 feet, helicopters would be vulnerable; their crews might be killed.

When U.S. Apaches were finally ordered to Albania, they required weeks of preparations to make the journey from Germany. Additionally, the U.S. Army insisted that the Apaches needed the support of rocket barrages to suppress Serb antiaircraft weapons. That imposed a much larger logistic load than the helicopters themselves--and more delays. Further, their coupling with protective rocket barrages would ensure the ineffectiveness of the Apaches: They can hardly protect civilian populations from their Serb tormentors if both must first be bombarded with rockets.

Obviously, in the calculus of the NATO democracies, the immediate possibility of saving thousands of Albanians from massacre or deportation to uncertain fates was not worth the lives of a few pilots. That may reflect unavoidable political reality, but it did expose the hypocrisy of a supposedly humanitarian intervention.

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