Bush and Powell Need to Remember the Lessons of Kosovo

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
Michael E. O’Hanlon

November 1, 2001

When the United States led its NATO partners into a war against Serbia in March 1999, the initial effort was rightly derided as inadequate. President Bill Clinton had ruled out deployment of ground forces. Preparations for the bombing strikes suggested that political and military leaders expected a relatively short, easy campaign.

Critics of the initial strategy argued that the United States should prosecute the war with a clear determination to win, which required more airpower as well as the option to use ground forces to wrest Kosovo from Belgrade’s control.

Prominent among these critics were people who now bear responsibility for prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, including the secretary of state and the president. Colin Powell derided Mr. Clinton’s Kosovo effort as a “hope to win” strategy. Governor George W. Bush said the United States must “use whatever means necessary to achieve our objective,” including ground forces. General Powell, Mr. Bush and other critics were right in their assessment of the initial U.S. and NATO strategy and in what needed to be done to ensure success. To its credit, the Clinton administration listened. It tripled the number of air assets in the Kosovo theater, intensified the bombing and gave notice that it was prepared to invade Yugoslavia to get its way. Seventy-eight days after the bombing started, Belgrade relented.

U.S. and British leaders are now prosecuting a war in Afghanistan for far more serious ends. The initial effort bears a disturbing resemblance to the Kosovo war.

The air effort has been paltry. The daily number of combat sorties has averaged far less than 100?well below the number of initial sorties in Kosovo, let alone during the early days of Desert Storm. To be sure, Afghanistan is not a target-rich environment. But even strikes against Taliban troops in the field have been wholly inadequate, largely consisting of pinprick attacks against limited armor rather than wholesale bombing of frontline troops.

Although ground troops have not been taken off the table, we are told not to expect any significant deployments into Afghanistan. Only small numbers of special forces will likely be inside Afghanistan at any one time; and perhaps a small contingent of regular army troops could be inserted for some weeks to protect a base in friendly territory so as to allow forward operations of these special forces.

There are apparently no plans to send significant numbers of combat troops?several thousand or more.

Concern about civilian casualties and the need to keep regional allies on board help explain why the bombing campaign has been so slow. Fear of getting bogged down in another quagmire helps explain the reluctance to use ground troops. Similar issues bedeviled the NATO effort in 1999.

But then, as now, the answer was not to modulate the military effort but to strike swiftly and severely with whatever force necessary to achieve a certain and rapid victory.

The time for pinprick bombing has passed. It was a mistake to try to calibrate military efforts to the search for a politically acceptable coalition government that could take over from the Taliban, if only because that coalition cannot take power until the Taliban are defeated.

Contrary, apparently, to the expectations of some, the Taliban have proven to be a dogged foe. A bit of bombing has not dislodged them from power nor led to widespread defections among their troops.

So the coalition needs a more intense effort. It should bomb Taliban troop concentrations day and night and step up direct support for the resistance. And it should prepare for the possibility of using its own forces alongside the opposition to dislodge the Taliban if an intensified bombing campaign and a strengthened resistance cannot do it on their own. Humanitarian aid efforts to avert mass starvation in the months ahead should be stepped up, possibly including setting up safe areas for refugees to gain access to food and shelter.

The Bush administration should heed the lessons of the Kosovo campaign and practice what its key members preached at that earlier time. The air effort has been paltry.