Allies count cost of unity

Richard Norton-Taylor

Monday March 13, 2000

It was meant to last for only a few days - a few cruise missiles, attacks on Yugoslavia's air defence system, and Slobodan Milosevic would buckle.

On the first night of air strikes that were to go on for 78 days, Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state and Washington's chief hawk, told the media: "I don't see this as a long-term operation. I think this is something that is achievable within a relatively short space of time."

Nato's military chiefs were given the same misplaced advice. General Mike Short, commander of allied air forces, said last night: "I was being told, 'Mike, you're only going to bomb for two or three nights, that's all the alliance can stand, that's all Washington can stand'."

It was what President Milosevic also believed; he ordered his troops to stay put, assuming the alliance would crack.

The alliance remained united, but at a price that military commanders found hard to stomach; in the first joint military action of its 50-year history, Nato had to fight a war by committee.

The allies ignored one of the basic principles of warfare - keep the enemy guessing - when they made it abundantly clear they would not invade Kosovo. "It was a coercive air campaign for essentially political aims," a senior western defence source said. "The objective was not to defeat the Serb army."

Military commanders had wanted to go in hard and heavy from the start. But they were prevented from doing so because member governments, looking over their shoulder at public opinion, insisted on keeping tight control of what targets could be hit.

Contingency bombing plans had not been agreed in advance. As Nato aircraft pounded Serbian military targets with "smart" and not so smart bombs, its member governments were under pressure to get results. That meant attacking those who were carrying out the atrocities against ethnic Albanians on the ground in Kosovo, whether or not it was strategically advantageous to do so.

"There was a moral imperative to be seen to attack the Third Army in Kosovo," Gen Short said on BBC2's Moral Combat programme last night. "I don't wish to be impertinent, but I don't think most of our civilian leadership generally understands air power and how it should be employed. Their exposure to it has been films of the Gulf war, which looked very much like a video game."

When Nato commanders turned to targets inside Kosovo, they were frustrated by bad weather, a shortage of smart bombs that could be guided through cloud, and the Serbs' ability to hide their equipment.

Meanwhile, the allies - in particular the US contingent, whose pilots were responsible for more than 80% of the bombing missions - were determined to protect their aircraft from attack, which meant that, for the most part, they bombed from above 4,600 metres (15,000ft).

President Bill Clinton's refusal to allow Apache helicopters to attack Serb positions did nothing to improve the prickly relationship between General Wesley Clark, Nato's supreme allied commander who complained he was having to fight a war with one hand tied behind his back, and the Pentagon.

And when Nato later turned on a wide range of economic and industrial targets across Serbia, the bombing almost inevitably led to the deaths of more innocent civilians. British ministers were forced to defend the attack on the Serbian television headquarters in Belgrade, which led to several civilian deaths, describing it as a "legitimate military target".

Original article