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Issue 40, July/Aug 1999

Editorial, Issue 40 - NATO's flawed victory

    A close-run thing
    Punishing the Serbian people
    Fruits of victory?

"We have been victorious," proclaimed the US Secretary of State, Albright, to a sea of refugees at the Stankovic camp, "and Milosevic has lost!" But the victory of the western powers is deeply flawed.

Clinton, Blair and other Nato leaders are congratulating themselves on achieving complete success by air power alone, without a single Nato combat loss. A true balance sheet, however, has to be drawn up on the basis of Nato's declared aims. "We act," Clinton stated on 24 March, "to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive… we act to prevent a wider war, to diffuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe… we are upholding our values… ending this tragedy is a moral imperative."

In reality, Nato's strategy transformed a human disaster into a monumental human catastrophe. It was as if the fire brigade hosed petrol onto a fire. Before, it is true, the Milosevic regime was conducting a savage counter-insurgency operation against the KLA in Kosova. Tens of thousands were made homeless, perhaps several thousand were killed.

After the Nato bombing started, well over a million Kosovar Albanians were driven from their homes. Perhaps 10,000, mostly young men, were murdered. Hundreds of women were raped. Towns, villages and farms were devastated.

The US blundered into the war, arrogantly believing that a few days' bombing would beat Milosevic into submission. Beyond that, they had no strategy. "By refusing to make serious preparations for the use of ground forces until late in the day," comments Lawrence Freedman, "[Nato] prolonged the suffering of the Kosovar people and became uncomfortably reliant on bombing Serbia in a way that inevitably led to civilian casualties." (Daily Mail, 11 June) Freedman, professor of War Studies at London University, is a firm supporter of Nato intervention.

  For eight weeks, until Serbian forces in Kosova began to suffer serious casualties, Milosevic had a free hand in the province. Six of the seven massacres cited in the International Criminal Tribunal's indictment of Milosevic are said to have occurred after Nato began bombing. Before, it was largely a small force of Serbian para-militaries. "But with the bombs," relates one Kosovar Albanian woman who lived through the terror in Stimlje, "the Serbs turned on the people." A Canadian journalist, Paul Watson, who remained in Prizren throughout the conflict, reports: "Bombing can create rage, and when you cannot reach the people doing it from 15,000 feet, you must find other ways to deal with it… Once Nato added its air war to Kosovo's civil war, the Serbs retaliated against the closest, and most defenceless, target: the ethnic Albanians Nato had come to save." (International Herald Tribune, 23 June)

Commenting on Nato's strategy, General Ronald Fogleman, a former US Air Force Chief of Staff, said: "Just because it comes out reasonably well, at least in the eye of the Administration, doesn't mean it was conducted properly. The application of air power was flawed." (New York Times, 5 June) "It was technically excellent," commented another former Air Force officer, "but strategically bankrupt." (New York Times, 6 June)

  top     A close-run thing

Some Nato leaders are nevertheless claiming that the conflict with Serbia proves that Nato can win wars with air power alone, giving the western powers much more scope for politically cost-free interventions internationally. But Nato's success on this occasion was "a damned close-run thing", as Wellington said of his narrow victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. Despite victory speeches, the Clinton leadership especially is heaving a huge sigh of relief.

After a month of bombing, Nato leaders were compelled (25 May) to increase Nato forces in Macedonia to about 50,000. This was undoubtedly a significant step towards a possible ground operation during the summer. In the first days of June, Nato leaders were forced to discuss seriously the possibility of a ground offensive. Had Milosevic not yielded, the Nato leaders would have been faced with serious decisions at the 18 June G8 summit in Cologne.

Two other factors, however, were decisive for Nato's success. First, the Russian leadership around Yeltsin, while publicly denouncing western policy and after a lot of wavering, came out decisively for Nato when the cruch came. Yeltsin's support for Nato aroused furious opposition from within the Russian military and provoked a wave of national hostility to the west. But Yeltsin, Chernomyrdin and the clique around them need another $4.5 million from the west, and their lucrative business activities depend on their connections with western big business. They know which side their bread's buttered on.

Chernomyrdin's backing for the Nato position put to Milosevic by the Finnish president, Ahtisaari, on 3 June demonstrated the Serbian regime's isolation. Nato's acceptance of a United Nations mandate and the inclusion of 3,500 Russian troops in K-For was a relatively small price to pay. As time goes on, however, the price may rise. A Russian force in Kosova can complicate the position for the western powers.

  Moreover, an overwhelming popular feeling in Russia that Yeltsin, representing the wealthy pro-western oligarchy, capitulated to Nato's demands may well ensure the election of an anti-West president next year.

Second, the military balance was decisively tipped in favour of Nato and against Milosevic by the offensive of KLA forces in the last two weeks of the war. In fact, the air-power-alone theory is undermined by Nato's development of the KLA as a surrogate ground force. The western powers rescued KLA fighters from Kosova, regrouped and re-equipped them in Albanian camps, and sent them back into Kosova with Nato logistical support and air cover. They played a vital role in cracking the Serbian forces' strategy of hiding, hunkering down and trying to ride out the air war.

According to the post-conflict assessments of Nato and Pentagon commanders, the role of the KLA was decisive. "The timing of Belgrade's surrender, a Nato ambassador said, came from the psychological distress when casualties suddenly started mounting in Serbian ranks…

"The toll on Serbian forces became psychologically dramatic in the last two weeks of the campaign, from May 29 to June 10, when Nato air power could cover KLA ground forces against Serbian forces…" (The War in Review, International Herald Tribune, 23 June)

"The air campaign began to decimate Yugoslav forces only in late May, about two months into the fight, when KLA rebels attempted to open a second corridor from Albania into south-western Kosovo. By drawing Yugoslav armour and artillery out of hiding, the rebels provided easy targets for A-10 'Warthog' planes and B-52 bombers. In the final two weeks of the war, Nato warplanes struck twice as many tanks, four times as many armoured personnel carriers, and ten times as many artillery pieces in Kosovo as they had during the previous eight weeks, according to the Pentagon." (New Battlefront Inside the Pentagon, IHT, 23 June)

  top     Punishing the Serbian people

Clinton and other western leaders justified the war on the grounds of a moral imperative to prevent a humanitarian disaster. But the air-power-alone strategy inflicted terrible damage, not primarily on Milosevic's forces, but on the Serbian people. Nato comprises of western powers who account for over half the world's output. Serbia's gross domestic product is only about one-fifteenth of the US defence budget. How could it be doubted that, ultimately, Nato would prevail over Serbia? But it is hard to describe it as a war. More accurately, it was the violent, military punishment of the Serbian people. Is this moral?

According to the Pentagon, about 5,000 Serbian military were killed, with 10,000 casualties. Milosevic claims there were around 600 military killed. It is estimated that about 1,200 Serbian civilians were killed, with an as yet unknown number of casualties.

At the same time, Serbia's social and economic infrastructure has been shattered. The country has been set back ten or twenty years. Millions are now unemployed, and eighty percent are living in poverty.

Milosevic is still in power, though his political position has undoubtedly been weakened. Whatever the short-term political developments, however, there will be enormous bitterness amongst Serbs towards the western powers for their brutal bombardment.

This casualty-free war may have worked out politically cost-free for Clinton and some other Nato leaders. But internationally it will not be cost-free for imperialism. "At the global level," writes one commentator, "decreasing confidence in American leadership will soon be manifest elsewhere… already the bombing only strategy… has undercut America's moral standing. Anti-American dictators are probably recalculating their own limits for successful actions against United States interests." (New York Times, 6 June)

Warning the leaders of US imperialism against the complacent conclusion that air-power will solve all its problems, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Carter, writes: "[A] major issue growing out of Kosovo is that the American way of war smacks too much of the world as a new technological racism. The high-tech stand-off war was waged as if its underlying premise was that the life of even one American serviceman was not worth risking in order to save the lives of thousands of Kosovars… Gloating over the ultimate 'score' of 5,000 Serbs killed to zero Americans simply reinforces the global perception of a troubling moral standard." (Wall Street Journal, 15 June)

  top     Fruits of victory?

What are the fruits of victory for the Nato powers? It is still early days, but some results are already clear.

The economic cost to the West will be massive. Apart from the direct costs of the military operation, it will cost between $30 billion (EU estimate) and $100 billion (estimate of Stiglitz of the World Bank) for the reconstruction of Kosova, Macedonia and neighbouring Balkan states. If the West fails to deliver on its promised aid (as it has done in Bosnia, providing only $5 billion out of $20 billion) the whole region will slide into further disintegration and instability. If the West denies adequate aid to Serbia (on the grounds Milosevic is still in power), the regional crisis will be even deeper. There can be no Balkan recovery without Serbia's recovery.

In Kosova, the West will now be responsible for a Nato protectorate, policed by 50,000 Nato troops and administered by a small army of UN bureaucrats. Legally, Kosova will be an autonomous part of Serbia. De facto, it is now an independent statelet, with an ambiguous status. As a result of the war, the KLA is now Kosova's predominant political force. While collaborating closely with Nato, the KLA has not, in reality, abandoned its demand for independence, which has the overwhelming support of the Kosovar Albanians. Many of the KLA leaders, moreover, are committed to the idea of a Greater Albania, recipe for another Balkan war.

Serbia has been heavily defeated. But as the tragic example of Cambodia (Kampuchea) after the Vietnam war showed, the smashing of a country and the impoverishment of its people is a formula for prolonged regional instability and crisis.

Far from neutralising the Balkan powder keg, Nato's latest intervention has lit more slow-burning fuses. The US-sponsored Dayton accord for Bosnia sparked off the chain reaction which led to Kosova; Kosova will trigger new problems. Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, and Greece have all been shaken by these events. Their rulers are terrified of the knock-on effects of nationalistic rivalries and ethnic conflict, for which they have no solutions.

  Though congratulating themselves on a painless victory (at least to the West), imperialism, in reality, is not in a stronger position as a result of this war. Despite their flawed strategy, the Nato powers managed to prevail. But it would be a mistake to believe that imperialism now has the strategic power to intervene wherever it chooses. Brzezinski warns US leaders against generalising from exceptional circumstances: "[This] war fought at no political risk and at no human cost may prove to have set a paralysing precedent for any future American president." The air-power-alone strategy will only work in exceptional circumstances.

The intervention against Serbia, Nato's first war, was a test run for Nato's new role as an international intervention force. The rationale is that the western powers, led by the US superpower, should be able to intervene wherever necessary to defend humanitarian values and uphold peace and stability. The result, however, will be the opposite of what they claim. Active super-power interventionism, pre-empting diplomacy and by-passing the United Nations (which once gave a limited voice to smaller states), will push many regimes to strengthen their military defences against big-power pressure and external interventions.

"The success of the US-led multi-national coalition in Kosovo," says Yale professor Paul Bracken, "will reinforce the spread of missiles and weapons of mass destruction in Asia. The reason is that Asian nations do not want to become like Kosovo, targets of western attack without any deterrents whatsoever." (IHT, 19 June) This is already evident in the escalating arms race between India and Pakistan, with an escalation of the conflict over Kashmir.

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