June 26, 2000

Gumpline: War in Europe

Part 2: The October Agreement

Despite the current Allied insistence that "ethnic cleansing" was the reason for the air war, Milosevic had employed the tactic of emptying and burning villages throughout the summer of 1998 without provoking a NATO attack. KLA forces were not sufficiently aligned with U.S. interests to be classed as freedom fighters, so there was still some American attention given to the idea that both Russian and Allied prestige needed to be placed at stake to ensure control over Serbs and Albanians. Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, sent a classified cable to Washington on Aug. 7 1998 titled Kosovo: Time for Another Endgame Strategy.

The cable spelled out a plan to impose a political settlement in Kosovo with the cooperation of the Russians, longtime allies of the Serbs. Moscow and Washington would then go together to the Security Council. "Kosovo endgame initiative could become a model of NATO-Russian cooperation," Vershbow wrote. "No kidding."
(New York Times, April 18, 1999)

But the Milosevic tamers had chosen a showier strategy months earlier: NATO air power would keep Milosevic in check, and voodoo would control the KLA. In the transcript that PBS Online posted of Short's background interview, he tells Frontline that around February 1998 when he was a director of operations in the United States Air Forces in Europe, "General Clark went to my boss, clearly in a US-only chain, and asked him what we could do in Kosovo."

"We have made it clear," the Secretary told the elected folk in her country on March 4, 1998, "that the United States supports neither the untenable status quo nor the demand for Kosovo's independence." The televised summary of this period tells that "in Washington, Albright faced a problem in her quest to get the Clinton Administration behind her idea of threatening Milosevic with force." Frontline devotes a generous portion of its air time to President Clinton's woman troubles and the effect that cigar smoking had on his political health and military prowess. With a sex scandal available as part of the story, there is no need to bore the audience with dry theory. Where's the fun in asking whether NATO intervention without Russian support could reasonably have been expected to produce a tenable status for Kosovo within Yugoslavia's borders?

The KLA came into favour when Milosevic's indiscriminate retaliations for attacks on police became public enough to embarrass even NATO, an alliance not easily disturbed by its own members' tactics against ethnic minority rebels. The narrator describes a gathering of Clinton, Albright, and the usual American foreign policy suspects around a copy of the September 30 1998 New York Times, which featured a photo from the massacre a few days earlier at Gornje Obrinje. "At that meeting, the President's team reached a pivotal decision - if Milosevic didn't pull back in Kosovo, the U.S. and its allies would use military force."

5-7 Mar. 1998 After KLA attacks on police, Serb security forces massacre over 50 members of the Jashari family in the village of Prekaz.
31 May 1998 As many as 20 Kosovar Albanians killed in retaliation for death of a Serb policeman near Glogovac.
26 Sept. 1998 After more than a dozen Serb police are killed in fighting with the KLA, Serb security forces kill 35 villagers - including 21 members of a single family - in and around Gornje Obrinje.
(Frontline: PBS Online)

Frontline's rigorous investigation of motive is never tainted by the more sensational circumstances of the Sept. 30 decision. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1199 of Sept. 23 had called for a cease-fire, a withdrawal of troops, access for humanitarian groups to the estimated 230,000 people who had been displaced from their homes, and renewed peace negotiations. The Allies had issued an activation warning on Sept. 24 "for both a limited air option and a phased air campaign in Kosovo," daintily wiping their feet on Russia's Security Council veto power. The Obrinje virus consequently became the greatest humanitarian crisis on the planet, a communicable repudiation of NATO's authority and of America's generous efforts to direct Europe's military power.

...it is of fundamental importance to preserve NATO as the primary instrument of Western defense and security, as well as the channel for U.S. influence and participation in European security affairs. While the United States supports the goal of European integration, we must seek to prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements which would undermine NATO, particularly the alliance's integrated command structure.
(Defense Planning Guidance for Fiscal Years 1994-1999, U.S. Deptartment of Defense, Feb. 18 1992 draft reported in New York Times, March 8, 1992)

The chronology, if it had been included in the broadcast, might have helped viewers to appreciate how intolerable human suffering becomes when it threatens to clog U.S. channels of influence. Never one to concede the unidirectional nature of the flow of time without a fight, General Clark arranged the autumn's events in a more aesthetically pleasing order for his background interview. His fluid perception of cause and effect proved invaluable during Operation Save NATO.

FRONTLINE: In September 1998 there was an absolutely dreadful massacre at a place called Obrinje. Do you remember that?

GENERAL CLARK: I do remember it. It's what really triggered the UN Security Council resolution.
(Frontline: PBS Online)

To the untrained eye, autonomy within Yugoslavia would seem to have required that the Allies reach some understanding with the Russians about getting the MUP out of Kosovo and leaving the VJ in. But the Most Experienced American Diplomat in the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke, arrived in Belgrade with a less biased interpretation of the Security Council's demand for "the withdrawal of security units used for civilian repression." Holbrooke announced on Oct. 13 1998 that he had got Milosevic to agree to reduce both police and army numbers in the province to pre-crisis levels, and that NATO would verify troop movements from the air.

Frontline interviews General Clark about his Oct. 24 trip to Belgrade with General Naumann, chair of the Alliance's military committee, to settle the details of the agreement. Clark's report of using his knowledge of the Yugoslav army and of the Serbian language to corner Milosevic is so hypnotic that the interviewer forgets to ask about the early morning tryst with General Perisic on Oct. 25.

The NATO officers, Gen. Klaus Naumann of Germany, the alliance's senior military officer, and Gen. Wesley K. Clark of the United States, the Supreme Allied Commander, were sitting with General Perisic in the Presidential Palace, one officer said, when the Yugoslav officer suddenly sent a police escort out of the room and turned up the television to thwart any listening devices.

"He said that he thought the army was the only democratic institution left in Yugoslavia, and that he knew that conflict with NATO would inflict terrible damage to it," the ranking officer from Brussels said. General Perisic seemed to be trying, this officer said, to make it clear that preserving the army from the destruction the two Western generals had threatened it with if President Milosevic did not relent was more important to him than anything else.
(New York Times, April 1, 1999)

There was evidently no need for NATO to try to ally itself with the VJ against Milosevic when General Clark's mental powers could bend the dictator like a spoon to the Alliance's will. But if the U.S. and its allies were unwilling to risk a civil war between the VJ and the MUP by responding to Perisic's overture, why did Short later imagine that citizens who would catch the crossfire might storm Milosevic's castle with pitchforks and torches as soon as their electric power went out?

Satisfied that Allied leaders "tried to do the right thing" in Kosovo, Frontline hurries past the one moment in the epic when they could have been accused of strategic thought. An auspicious condition of the October agreement was the establishment by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe of a mission to monitor the cease-fire on the ground. As the OSCE included Russia, its involvement created the possibility that any further brutality from Milosevic would threaten Russian authority more than NATO's Security Council bonfire had.

"The Allies had bought some time," the narrator tells us. "But U.S. intelligence was showing that the KLA was continuing to provoke attacks," paying tribute to NATO by moving in wherever the VJ and MUP withdrew. Milosevic dismissed General Perisic on November 26 1998, and Albright's attendant James Rubin characterized this at a December 1 press briefing as the act of a desperate man whose grip on power had been weakened by Allied resolve. According to a text released by the German government during the war, however, Perisic's departure coincided with the development of a plan to chase ethnic Albanians out of key regions of KLA (UCK) support and seize the roads.

Principal purpose of the "operation horseshoe" is from our view smashing or neutralization of the UCK in Kosovo. Driving out the Kosovo Albanian population with the target of regional demographic modifications by force is obviously constituent of the plan. It has been determined that a target evacuation of Kosovo Albanians from their villages and settlement areas along a wide strip to eliminate their main connecting routes is for certain. Especially in the UCK areas of the Llap, Shala, and Drenica region with forced evacuation of the Kosovo Albanians the UCK has lost its base and support.
(Bundeswehr, Dokumentation Kosovo, April 14, 1999 - original in German)

The absence of the word "horseshoe" from the televised narrative suggests that the Frontline editors may have read the original, rather than the creative translations that appeared in U.S. media at the time. The document, a German summary of VJ and MUP activities in Kosovo up to April 1999, made the apparently newsworthy assertion that Yugoslav and Serbian forces were executing plans that had been prepared shortly after NATO made its bomb threat.

Frontline does show a Serb soldier describing the system of surrounding villages from three sides and leaving the fourth for the civilians to run, though only the background transcript indicates that he was answering the question "What was the 'horseshoe'?". The Bundeswehr had not seen fit to explain what motive the VJ would have had to blitz the KLA while there was a Russian-supported team of cease-fire monitors on the ground, or to push Kosovo's Albanians across the borders while there was still a chance that the Allies wouldn't bomb.

As neither side seemed devoted to the supposed truce that winter, NATO set up camp in Macedonia and left the Albanian border open so that everybody could get to know each other better. Carl Bildt, who had been the High Representative charged by the U.N. Security Council with overseeing implementation of the civilian aspects of the Dayton Accords, was moved to publish his admiration of Allied manners.

NATO has made clear that it is ready to use its air power against Serbia. But it has little leverage over Kosovo's ethnic Albanian separatists. This seriously undermines the possibility of political progress. In an earlier stage of the conflict, the Albanian government asked NATO to station forces along its border with Kosovo. Its immediate concern was to deter Serbian cross-border raids against KLA bases.

The reluctance of NATO to deploy forces in northern Albania has impaired efforts to work towards a settlement. Clashes in the border region between Yugoslav forces and the KLA have become frequent and can be expected to intensify. But as a result of the cross-border incursions, it has also become more difficult to demand a reduction of Serbia's military presence in the province. Meanwhile, it has become virtually impossible to exert serious pressure on the KLA, which has been building its forces in northern Albania.
(Financial Times, January 12, 1999)

Teams from the OSCE Kosovo Verification Mission and their chief, U.S. State Department veteran William Walker, went to the village of Racak on Jan. 16 1999. The OSCE's January newsletter reported that "on arriving in Racak, KVM personnel discovered 36 bodies (later confirmed as 45), 23 of which were lying in a ditch." According to the Washington Post, Allied governments intercepted telephone calls in Serbia that indicated a deliberate reprisal for a January 8 attack on an Interior Ministry convoy.

Angered by the killing of three Serbian troops, senior officials in Belgrade ordered government forces to "go in heavy" in a Jan. 15 assault on Racak to find ethnic Albanian guerrillas believed responsible for the slayings, according to the intercepts.

As the civilian death toll from the assault mounted and in the face of international condemnation, Yugoslavia's deputy prime minister and the general in command of Interior Ministry forces in Kosovo systematically sought to cover up what had taken place, according to telephone conversations between the two men.
(Washington Post story in Seattle Times, January 28, 1999)

"This is about as horrendous an event as I've seen," says the chief observer as the camera follows his Jan. 16 inspection of the corpses, "and I've been in some pretty - pretty nasty situations." Known for his cosmopolitan reticence about government nastiness when he was U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Walker was surprisingly chatty in Kosovo. Unhappily, Frontline's editors weren't able to include the press conference he held that day, which helped the laments from Racak to resonate among the Allies more loudly than the previous murmurs from Prekaz and Golgovac. Walker was ordered expelled by Milosevic after blaming "government security forces" for the killings, making Racak not only a spectacular illustration of the effectiveness of NATO strategy but a public homage to America. "Racak was," as the narrator expresses it, "finally, decisive."

The decision involved nothing so underhanded as sealing Kosovo's borders and expanding the OSCE-KVM to the size allowed under the October agreement. A guileful alliance might have indulged China's anger over Macedonia's Jan. 27 1999 recognition of Taiwan, and offered to move the U.N. Preventive Deployment from the Macedonia-Kosovo border to the Albania-Kosovo border. But NATO was above such trickery, and declined Russian suggestions to focus UNPREDEP's activities on the arms embargo against the combatants in Kosovo. A manipulative alliance might have tried to use Russia's desire for more International Monetary Fund credit and China's hope of joining the World Trade Organization to enlist their help in getting UNPREDEP into Kosovo to provide security for the OSCE mission. But the North Atlantic Allies kept their honour, gallantly planning their own deployment named KFOR.

UNPREDEP would have been hindered in any case by the presence of troops from Finland and Sweden, countries that could not hope to enjoy the same historical credibility among Kosovo Serbs that KFOR participants such as Germany and Turkey would have. But as a third of UNPREDEP's 1,050 soldiers were from U.S. Task Force Able Sentry, it did at least have the American participation that Albright identified as essential to the Kosovo Albanians' sense of security.

NEWSHOUR: If I can interrupt for a second, why is it not enough for them to see that the British might be there, the French would be there, the Russians would be there? Why is American participation key to the Kosovar Albanians?

SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Because I think that we are the key to a lot of the things happening everywhere in the world. We have said over and over again, that we are the indispensable nation and not just because we say so, but because others believe it. And I think that they see us as the country that really does and can provide the leadership. They are comfortable with us, and so there is an important part about what is going on in Kosovo itself.
(PBS Online NewsHour, Feb. 4, 1999)

Albright was of course advocating that the U.S. participate in a NATO force, and she saw no need to putter in the Security Council when America had missiles gathering dust. Generals Clark and Naumann had already demonstrated the supremacy of military pressure on January 19 when they confronted Milosevic in Belgrade and demanded that he honour his commitment to reduce troop numbers in Kosovo, allow prosecutor Louise Arbour to investigate the Racak killings, and rescind his decision to expel OSCE-KVM head Walker. The mighty Allies rattled the tyrant so thoroughly that he let slip the secret location where they could shove their bomb threats.

In contrast, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Avdeyev arrived in Belgrade on Jan. 20 with a sunny reminder for Milosevic that Russia was also part of the OSCE. This diplomatic pussyfooting, followed by a visit from OSCE Chairman-in-Office Knut Vollebaek, yielded only a brief announcement on Jan. 21 that the Yugoslav Federal Government had "decided to freeze the implementation of the decision to expel Mr. William Walker." While ignoring the bold Clark-Naumann expedition, the press release stressed that "the Federal Government particularly highly valued the efforts of the Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov, contained in yesterday's message to the President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." Obviously, America needed to use military rather than political power to bring comfort to Kosovo's Albanians and discipline to Europe's triflers.