NATO’s strategy in Kosovo, ineffective?

Thousands of people continue to be senselessly murdered in our world. Violence is a prevailing theme in the news headlines today and is a continuing way of life for many countries. Good examples of such violence include the Balkan countries along the Adriatic Sea. In the past twenty years, countries such as Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and Kosovo have consistently been places for brutal ethnic killings. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has attempted to diminish violence in recent years with limited success.

One NATO effort to end ethnic driven violence was in Kosovo during Operation Allied Force in 1999. Although the campaign in Kosovo was an overall success, the problem with Operation Allied Force was NATO’s strategy. NATO’s strategy for Kosovo was not effective for three main reasons: first, there was a failure to leverage more decisive diplomatic efforts to restore peace; second, there were unclear political objectives and unspecific plans to attain them; third and finally, was the decision to not use ground forces. Let’s take a closer look at each of these points and the supporting evidence.

The first reason the strategy in Kosovo was ineffective was due to indecisive diplomatic and military decisions and resulting actions. Kosovo was the result of policy makers in Washington and elsewhere who proved unwilling or unable to set political objectives and to consider how far they were prepared to go to achieve them militarily (Ugly, p. 17). NATO did not know exactly how to proceed because the diplomatic work leading up to the crisis was ineffective. In the first instance, diplomatic efforts should have been used earlier than 1998.

Fighting and brutality started in January 1998, but there were key indications leading up to the conflicts boiling point. The Clinton administration never really explored opportunities that may have existed to use its leverage-diplomatic and economic- to persuade Milosevic to offer and deal to the Kosovars before the violence started in 1998 (Ugly, p. 186). While economic sanctions to prevent a war were in place, they did not prevent attacks on the Albanian population in Kosovo because they were untimely and simply not strong enough. Effective economic sanctions would have required earlier intervention.

In early 1998 when the violence started, NATO and especially the Clinton administration could have started on the road to peace by employing diplomacy and economic sanctions. By the time the crisis was finally dealt with, economic and diplomatic action would have taken too much time to end violence. Whether they would have worked without using military action is now irrelevant, since military action was the employed instrument of national policy (C200). There was a widespread belief within the Clinton Administration and among the NATO allies and authorities that decisive military action was not required (Ugly, 65).

The consensus to bomb Belgrade was based on the presupposition that the alliance’s goals could be achieved only after a few days of bombing without neither expecting nor preparing for extended military action. The Clinton Administration’s fundamental failure in dealing with the Kosovo crisis was that it never decided what it was prepared to do, except incrementally and reactively (Ugly, 17). The second reason NATO’s strategy was ineffective was unclear political objectives and planning.

President Clinton proclaimed “Our objective in Kosovo remains clear: to stop the killing and achieve a durable peace that restores Kosovars to self government” (Ugly p. 90). While the overall objective in Kosovo may have been to stop the fighting, there were vague political objectives and unclear plans to carry out the objectives. The first such evidence occurred early in the campaign when Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton Administration’s Balkans envoy, traveled to Belgrade in October 1998 to persuade Milosevic to end his attacks on the Kosovar population.

Although an agreement was made between Holbrook and Milosevic, key details for that agreement were poorly defined (Ugly p. 23). One key detail, was how to punish Serb non-compliance. Milosevic’s violent reputation was well documented and NATO could reasonably assume he would not “make good” on any future agreements or at least sustained compliance. A clear and credible message for a man like Milosevic was essential due to his recently proven violent actions in Bosnia and Kosovo. He disregarded peace agreements on several occasions.

Here was a man who was responsible for a decade of violence in Croatia and Bosnia by killing over 100,000 people, and he is at it again in Kosovo. NATO needed to get this man to sign his name agreeing to very specific details of a plan to end his violence and more importantly, have an assured method for dealing with a good chance of noncompliance. Additionally, how and when Milosevic would finally end violent retaliation against the Albanian civilian population and reach an agreement with the KLA were not clearly specified in the Holbrook-Milosevic agreement.

Another specific political objective left unanswered concerned the withdrawl of Serb Forces from Kosovo. An agreement was reached after exhausting talks between Milosevic and Generals Clark and Naumann to limit Serb Army troops to a total of 12,000, but there was no lasting plan of how many Serb forces would be withdrawn and a specific timeframe for withdrawing them. With no lasting plan for withdrawl and no specific timeframe, Milosevic found his “loophole” and quickly showed noncompliance. The number of troops steadily increased (Ugly, p. 52).

This presented a major challenge of enforcing noncompliance and points toward the second main reason the strategy in Kosovo was flawed. Led mainly by the Clinton Administration, the decision to avoid using ground troops no matter the circumstance was the biggest failure of NATO’s strategy. From the start of the campaign, NATO decided there would be no ground troops. President Clinton wrote in a letter to Republican leaders in congress concerning the use of ground forces in Kosovo, “I can assure you the United States will not support these options” (Ugly, p. 55).

With the “air power only” strategy, there was no credible way to enforce what the Serb forces were doing on the ground without NATO ground forces to match them. Studies of a sound strategic estimate show that a critical step is to have more than one course of action (COA) (C200, 207). Military leaders were also to blame for this strategy. Although senior military leaders may have discussed using ground forces, there was no indication that senior military leaders never seriously considered recommending the use of ground forces before the war started (Ugly, p. 11).

The big challenge facing military commanders was how to enforce highly mobile Serb ground forces solely with NATO air power. Protecting the Albanian people from further brutality without ground forces proved to be ineffective since hundreds of Albanian refugees were murdered by non-compliant Serb forces. A counter point may be argued that ground forces could be used in the form of unarmed monitors that would be less threatening to the peace process.

While unarmed monitors may give the impression of peace, they would be dealing with armed people who could easily take them hostage or they could be overtaken by any angry civilian mob. Unarmed monitors would therefore be an unwise choice to send into a violent situation with the armed opposition having a distinct advantage. Additionally, there was ambiguity about what the monitors of the agreement were supposed to monitor on the ground and in the air to maintain peace (Ugly, p. 50).

Secretary of State Albright explained, “I didn’t want to see something that was like the UN forces in Bosnia, who didn’t have any real authority. While monitors were part of the agreement, their role was never specific and they did not have any real authority in the eyes of the Serbs. While Operation Allied Force was an overall success by restoring Kosovo, the reasons and supporting evidence stated in this document clearly show how NATO’s strategy in Kosovo was ineffective for several reasons. Indecisive diplomatic efforts and military action was at the heart of the ineffective strategy in Kosovo since clear political objectives were never really agreed on.

This indecisive diplomatic decision making led to indecisive military action. Additionally, the US and NATO showed no decisive strategy throughout the Kosovo campaign. There were only small steps taken with an air campaign and no follow on second, third and fourth order plans. The decision not to use ground forces was especially unwise; many Albanians were killed as a result of it. Hopefully in the future, the US and NATO will apply the lessons learned in Kosovo to save lives during campaigns to achieve lasting peace.

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