If No Ground Troops, NATO Should Cut Its Losses

Charles A. Kupchan and Ivo H. Daalder
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

April 25, 1999

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is stuck in a no man’s land in its war against Yugoslavia. It is continuing an ineffectual air campaign that is only expediting the slaughter and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. This weekend’s NATO summit in Washington represents a moment of truth. If NATO is to prevail, the Western alliance must decide to escalate immediately to a ground war and expel Serb forces from Kosovo. If allied leaders cannot muster the courage to do this, however, they must stop the bombing and cut their losses, even if that means playing into the hands of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Backing away from its objectives would deal NATO a grievous blow but is preferable to continuing a futile bombing campaign that only makes matters worse.

The need for ground troops is now self-evident. With or without Apache helicopters, NATO cannot stop the Serb offensive from the air. Even the most sophisticated bombs and missiles will be unable to track down the dispersed and mobile units operating in Kosovo. Nor will interdicting supply lines do the trick. Serb troops in Kosovo have all the oil, ammunition and food they need to rid Kosovo of its Albanian population. In short, if NATO is serious about saving Kosovo, it must send in ground troops to crush the Yugoslav army and effectively strip Serbia of its southern province. This is the only way for NATO to stop the ethnic cleansing and bring a definitive end to Milosevic’s reign of terror over the Balkans.

NATO leaders should therefore emerge from their deliberations today and launch a ground campaign in Kosovo without further delay. They cannot continue to bomb Yugoslovia from a safe 15,000 feet and hope Milosevic gives up. If ground troops are still out of the question by the time the summit ends this afternoon, it behooves President Bill Clinton and his NATO counterparts to admit the air campaign is not working and, however unsatisfactory, map out an alternative strategy to save NATO and the south Balkans from the fiasco they are headed toward.

Expelling Serb forces from Kosovo would require roughly 100,000 NATO troops. By first building up these troops along Kosovo’s borders with Macedonia and Albania, NATO would compel Serb forces to concentrate in defensive formations, making them easier to degrade from the air. After weakening these defenses through bombardment, NATO ground forces could readily defeat Serb forces in Kosovo and then secure the border between Kosovo and a rump Serbia.

NATO forces would, no doubt, suffer considerable casualties. But the interests at stake warrant such sacrifice. The fighting threatens not just the Albanians in Kosovo, but also the stability of Macedonia and Albania. If these two countries enter the fray, a wider Balkan war becomes a reality, probably dragging in Bulgaria and Greece. NATO could not stand by if war engulfs southern Europe.

The benefits of expelling the Serbs from Kosovo would also be great. The Milosevic regime could well fall apart after the loss of Kosovo and defeat of the Yugoslav army. The slaughter of Albanians would stop. The refugees could return home. NATO would demonstrate its relevance to European security and enter the next century in top form.

If NATO leaders do not have the stomach for a ground war, they cannot afford to prolong the air war. The results have been catastrophic. Serb forces have already murdered many thousands of Albanians. Of 1.8 million Albanians in Kosovo, 1.3 million have been expelled from their homes. The lucky ones have made it to neighboring countries, but some 700,000 remain in Kosovo, fleeing from Serb forces. No letup is in sight. Despite a punishing bombardment of Belgrade—indeed, because of it—Milosevic is stronger than ever. Continuing the futile bombing will not just destabilize the region, but ultimately leave NATO and its credibility in shambles.

The only responsible alternative is for NATO to cut its losses by backing away from military confrontation and pursuing an alternative solution that leaves Milosevic in control of Kosovo but limits his ability to do further damage to the region. This is hardly attractive: It would constitute a major setback for NATO, Europe and the Balkans. But it is the only viable alternative.

If NATO does not choose ground troops, it must opt for an endgame strategy guided by three objectives: 1) write off Kosovo, but degrade the Serb military and rigidly contain Yugoslavia within its current borders; 2) stabilize the countries surrounding Yugoslavia through military and economic initiatives; and 3) enlist Russia’s help both to contain Yugoslavia and repair NATO-Russian relations.

The first part of this strategy entails NATO’s acceptance of a Kosovo that is neither independent nor autonomous. Milosevic may ultimately make a deal exchanging autonomy for an end to the bombing, but his track record makes clear he would never honor the agreement. Writing off Kosovo would not be easy for NATO, but it is the logical consequence of NATO’s unwillingness to fight a ground war. Indeed, NATO would have to accept that all Yugoslavia is beyond its reach. Albanians expelled from Kosovo in the last month would not be able to return. Milosevic would also have a free hand in dealing with the pro-Western Montenegrins, Hungarians in Vojvodina and Muslims in Sandzak. Not a pretty picture. But better than months of senseless bombing and the decimation of Kosovo’s Albanians.

At the same time that NATO would have to learn to live with Milosevic, it would have to implement a policy aimed at the rigid containment of Yugoslavia. Critical to this strategy would be a temporary intensification of the air war, to maximize the destruction of the Serb military, internal security forces and strategic infrastructure. This short but massive air campaign would limit Milosevic’s ability to pose a threat to his immediate neighbors. Following the bombing, effective containment would require complete isolation of Yugoslavia, including an economic embargo on everything but food and medicine and a ban on any participation in international political and cultural life. Over time, such pressure might result in the collapse of the current regime.

The second part of this endgame strategy would be a stabilization program for the region surrounding Yugoslavia. The Clinton administration took a step in the right direction last week by indicating that NATO was preparing a massive assistance program for the Balkans. But of more immediate importance would be ensuring that war does not spill over into Albania and Macedonia, a task that would require a long-term NATO presence on the borders of both countries. NATO would also have to help beef up defenses in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. (Bosnia is already a NATO protectorate.)

Regional stabilization would require dealing with the million or so Albanians expelled from Kosovo. Only a small number can remain in Macedonia if that country is to avoid strife between Macedonians and the growing Albanian population. Albania is a desperately poor country with a barely functioning economy and a government unable to exert much control beyond the capital of Tirana. Absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees with little more than the clothes on their backs would mean a massive assistance program. Housing and infrastructure would have to be built and a functioning state put into place, requiring billions in foreign aid.

The third part of this endgame entails repairing NATO’s relations with Moscow and making Russia a key player in NATO’s strategy for Balkan stabilization. The war in Yugoslavia, coupled with NATO’s decision to expand into Central Europe, has brought NATO’s relationship with Russia to the breaking point. It is not Slav brotherhood that motivates Moscow’s angst, but Russia’s marginalization in the new Europe.

NATO should turn adversity into advantage by making a bargain with Russia. NATO ceases its air war against Yugoslavia. In return, Russia helps isolate Belgrade and contributes a contingent of troops to implement containment of Milosevic. If NATO backs down on defeating Yugoslavia, it might as well salvage a cooperative relationship with Russia.

Capitulation to Milosevic is hardly a fitting course for NATO to adopt on its 50th anniversary. But if the Western Alliance pursues this three-part strategy, it has a good chance of emerging from this war intact, if scathed and reeling. This outcome would be far from optimal, but clearly preferable to one in which NATO bombs Kosovo and itself into oblivion.

As NATO leaders deliberate in Washington through the weekend, they must choose between two options. They should deploy the ground forces necessary to evict Serb forces from Kosovo and effectively neutralize Milosevic. If not, they must scale back their objectives by giving up on Kosovo and adopting a long-term strategy of containing Yugoslavia, with all the costs backing down entails. What they cannot do is avoid making this stark choice.