As the crisis spirals out of control, everybody scrambles for a quick solution. Everybody but Milosevic.

Published March 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

"We can't help every country in every situation," Defense Secretary William Cohen said the other day. No kidding, says a growing chorus of critics, who are watching NATO airstrikes worsen the Kosovo crisis they were intended to solve. Among those critics is George Friedman, co-author (with his wife, Meredith,) of such books as "The Intelligence Edge," "The Future of War" and "The Coming War with Japan." The former director of Louisiana State University's Center for Geopolitical Studies, Friedman in 1996 founded Strafor Inc., one of the fastest-moving sources of information on global events, including the Kosovo crisis.

NATO's bombing campaign has been "ridiculous," Friedman scoffs, pathetically under-strength for the mission of fending off Serbian ground units in Kosovo, not to mention bending Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosovic to its will. Friedman flatly rules out a ground invasion of Kosovo to rescue what's left of the hapless ethnic Albanians there, for the simple reason that NATO doesn't have the tools to pull it off, he says.

Salon interviewed Friedman from his company offices in Austin, Texas, as the crisis deepened, with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Kosovo, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov calling for genocide trials -- against NATO leaders, not Milosevic -- and India threatening to form a tripartite alliance with China and Russia.

With all our-high tech gadgetry and air superiority, many people are asking why we can't destroy Serbian forces in Kosovo.

We haven't got enough firepower. NATO's only got about 166 ground attack aircraft in the operation -- totally inadequate for the type of mission that's been defined. For example, we have between 12 and 16 A-10 antitank planes in theater. If we assume 70 percent availability, and two sorties a day each, that's a pretty big country to cover. Remember in Desert Storm, it took us six months to build up our air power, and then a six-week campaign with about five times as many aircraft.

Are you saying no amount of bombing -- all of NATO's might -- can wring victory from this situation?

No, I'm saying there is an amount of bombing, but we don't have the aircraft anyway near there to do it, and it would take us two to three months to get there. It's not that the United States lacks sufficient force to carry out the mission. The problem is that they have not taken the time to deploy those forces, and for the first time since the Second World War, the United States is simultaneously involved in a second air campaign, over Iraq. We just don't have the resources to do it.

On your Web site, you've pointed out that the Serbs can bring withering anti-aircraft fire against low-flying NATO ground support planes in Kosovo. Have they been using it at all?

This is a very interesting point. They are holding back almost all of their fire, and, I think, waiting to go out with a crescendo, perhaps opening up suddenly with all their forces on the ground. Their main concern has always been the security of their forces operating in Kosovo. From their point of view, however, the number of NATO aircraft operating in Kosovo is so low they're hardly worth noticing -- 12 A-10s is a joke, that's not a mission.

And you don't think NATO will -- or should -- send in ground troops?

Not unless they want to die. You've got 20,000 crack Yugoslav troops guarding the two mountain-pass roads into Kosovo. Any attempt to dislodge those troops would cause thousands of casualties on our side and the mission would probably fail.

What would NATO troops face if they cross into Kosovo from Macedonia?

We're talking 20,000 to 30,000 Serb troops operating internally in Kosovo, and another 20,000 on the Macedonia frontier. I mean, this is ludicrous from a military point of view: We were not ready for this air campaign, in truth, and certainly not an invasion.

NATO wasn't prepared for this operation?

No. The Clinton administration believed that Milosevic would permit Serbia to be dismembered because of the threat of air power. We once more have done what we do in every war: We totally underestimate the intelligence of our opponent. We did it with the Japanese, the Viet Cong, with Saddam and now with Milosevic. He wouldn't dare challenge the United States, we thought. Well, why not?

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During the war in Bosnia, airstrikes made Milosevic back off quickly. Why didn't he back off this time?

As with the Vietnamese, we didn't understand that he was dealing with the fundamental survival of the nation. When we hit them in Bosnia, that was a peripheral issue. Now we are dealing with dismemberment of the country. What I'm getting from people in Yugoslavia is, "When the majority of Serbs wanted to secede from Bosnia and join Yugoslavia, you bombed us to prevent that. When the majority of Albanians want to withdraw from Kosovo, you bomb us to permit that. The only common theme is that you want to destroy Serbia." They say, "Look, first you're going to take Kosovo, then you're going to take Vodjovino," which is primarily Hungarian. "You are dismembering Serbia." Now, that's not the American intention, that's not the American plan, but it's now the Serbian thinking.

Some critics say we should be outright backing the KLA.

We're doing it already.

To what degree?

Well, there are reports, for example, that British SAS (Special Air Service) Forces have entered Kosovo. There also are reports that U.S. Special Forces are operating there. The doctrine of both is never to enter these areas except in conjunction with indigenous forces, which in this case is the KLA.

How much credibility do you give those reports?

I have no doubt we have special forces operating in Kosovo. Past behavior would indicate that we would be in there to conduct on-the-ground intelligence, battle damage assessment and targeting capabilities with lasers. So I would be stunned if we went into this without those capabilities.

There have also been reports that the mission led by U.S. Ambassador William Walker in January to investigate mass murders secretly left behind electronic ground locator devices on potential air targets.

I am sure -- I hope -- that we have worked for the past several months to put both an intelligence infrastructure and personnel on the ground. And that would mean that we are cooperating with the KLA, because to move around the country would require their help. I don't have any secret information to that effect, but I'd bet the house on it.

In the present situation, can our Green Berets or similar units be effective against the Serbs?

They can certainly harass the Serbs.

There's no realistic way the KLA can defeat the Serbian army?

There's no way, even with American air power. If somebody wanted Kosovo to be independent, they should've started a year ago, smuggling in weapons to the KLA. Now people want a three-day solution, and it's not possible.

When the U.S. military was first resisting involvement in the Balkans back in 1993, there was a joke about the Pentagon hanging a big banner around the building saying, "We do deserts, not mountains." Is that the problem?

We do Arabs, we don't do Serbs. I really have to say that. One of the reason the Israelis are so successful is that they get to fight the Syrians and the Egyptians. I don't know how well they'd do against the Serbs. The Serbs fought the Waffen SS to a standstill in World War II. The Russians invaded Hungary, but they wouldn't touch Yugoslavia. And don't forget, most of the Yugoslav officers were trained by us, in the 1970s and '80s. I saw them at Fort Leavenworth and other places.

It seems the White House went off half-cocked on this one.

What happened was, the administration was convinced Milosevic was bluffing, that as soon as the bombs started to fall, he would buckle. No matter what anybody told them -- including us, that it was crazy -- they believed he would not accept an air campaign. So they launched into an air campaign that they were unable to carry out.

There seems to be a parallel here with Somalia, where the White House stormed in with its heart, instead of its head.

The variable to focus on here is the illusion of air power. In Vietnam we believed that the North Vietnamese would give up the dream of a united Vietnam in order to avoid a bombing campaign. Instead, they stepped up the tempo and increased our losses, which we found unacceptable. The precise message Milosevic got from that is that the only thing we're willing to do against him is an air campaign, and we're not serious. Once again a Democratic administration has set a strategic goal, and when the military people told them the cost, instead of backing off from the goal, they decided to do it on the cheap. They can't afford the price now, so they're pretending the price they can afford to pay will do the job.

What's the endgame?

A face-saving cease-fire.

Which will come when? After the Serbs have killed or run all the Albanians out of Kosovo?

Which will come when the Russians and the French decide to make Belgrade accept the cease-fire. Right now, Belgrade thinks it has time on its side -- they're the belligerent ones now. When the Russians came to Belgrade last night they called them "scum." Washington doesn't have time. Washington has gone to Primakov and said, "What will it take to get you to help us end this?" And Primakov said, the [International Monetary Fund].

We paid in advance?

There will be a lot more money involved, believe me. This is far from the last tranche.

So what's next in this stalemate?

The Serbs are running against the clock. There's going to be a cease-fire somewhere in the next 72 hours. The Russians got their IMF loan, and they're sending Primakov. Chirac is sending his delegation. The Serbs are now at the endgame where they've got to close this thing down. What the Serbs are attempting to do is to clear out as much of Kosovo as they can to create a situation on the ground, after the cease-fire, that gives them what they want ... which is to retain Kosovo. Their reading of it is that the basic problem is demographic, and they're busy readjusting the demographics. As we move toward a cease-fire, the tempo speeds up. The Serbs will increase their brutality.

Do you expect the Russians or the French to help NATO out of this mess?

Neither the Russians nor the French are particular eager to save the American hash. This administration is looking very stupid right now, and the Russians and the French are delighted to let us dangle slowly, slowly in the wind. Both the Russians and the French want this to end, but with as much embarrassment to the Americans as possible. The Germans want this over, too. Any American call to attack into Kosovo would involve German troops fighting in Serbia again. For God's sake, this is a Social Democratic government backed by the Greens. So the Germans want this over soon, and so do the Italians.

What will a cease-fire look like?

There will be a peace-keeping force. The United States will not be included in it, Germany will not be included in it, Great Britain will not be included in it. The NATO members in it will be the French, I suspect, and the Ukrainians and the Greeks.

You sound pretty optimistic that it will be over soon, because it's in everybody's interest.

The United States has been militarily stalemated, which in this case is the same thing as saying it's been militarily defeated. The United States does not have an escalation option, therefore it has to end it.

What do you make of India saying it might enter into a tripartite alliance with China and Russia because of the bombing?

It's extremely important. What you're seeing here is the whole world basically saying the United States has lost its mind, that it's randomly going around entering into crises, and God knows what's next. The Indians are taking a look at the way the balance of power is shaping up in the rest of the world, and they're seeing two great alliances: the U.S. and England, and everybody else. They'd rather be with everybody else.

What's the obit on this operation going to read?

The Albanians will be mostly displaced to Albania. They will be slowly let in, and the Russians and the French will preside over the entire operation. And three weeks later Bill Clinton will have another moral cause.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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