Humanitarian enclave?

Experts debate NATO's options for protecting Kosovar Albanians without a massive commitment of ground troops.

Published April 1, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's stillborn diplomatic mission to Belgrade Tuesday accomplished little but to underscore Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's intransigence. As reports of Serbian atrocities inside Kosovo continue, prompting a grim march of refugees into neighboring Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia, the world is waiting for new military and diplomatic solutions. Can and should ground troops be deployed? Would ground forces need to be massive, or could NATO protect Kosovar Albanians with as few as 20,000 soldiers? Should the United States continue to negotiate with Milosevic, or press to indict him as a war criminal?

Salon asked two defense experts to talk about the diplomatic, strategic and military options facing NATO and the Clinton administration.

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Joseph Collins is a senior fellow in the political-military program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Gulf War colonel.

Do you think ground troops will be necessary to resolve the crisis?

Let's put it this way: If ground troops are necessary, it would take eight to 10 weeks to organize a significant force. If you wanted to go in and create a humanitarian enclave, you could get away with maybe 20,000 troops and you could get that seven days after you gave the order to go. A serious war-fighting force of over 100,000 would clearly be a couple of months away.

What degree of casualties would you expect in a ground troop scenario?

There could be two scenarios. One would be that the Yugoslavs would see it as the ultimate symbol of our commitment and therefore back off. Or perhaps more likely, back into a secure area of Kosovo and create de facto partition. That would bring light-to-moderate casualties. But a war with the Yugoslav army would be a significant fight and a much tougher combat than Desert Storm was. Right now, Yugoslavia has 40,000 troops in Kosovo. They could have twice that number that you would have to contend with. They've got 400 tanks right now and there may even be a lot more.

What would the humanitarian enclave scenario entail?

Essentially, if such an enclave became necessary -- and I certainly think it was a few days ago -- it would consist of three or more brigades that would serve as a light but moderately armed shield, behind which government and non-government organizations would be able to tend to the refugees, without them flowing into Macedonia or Albania. That force also would be an implicit signal to Mr. Milosevic that his jig was up, and that this could be the cat's paw for a much larger force. One could argue that this would be a small force and that it would be attacked by Milosevic with his tank armies, but the best thing to happen to the U.S. Air Force would be for those tanks to get on the road and try to move into southern Yugoslavia. With hundreds, perhaps thousands of armored vehicles on the road, they would finally be the greatest target that our Air Force has seen since the Mile of Death in the Desert Storm war.

The enclave is an idea that ought to be seriously considered. It could be sustained almost indefinitely, particularly if it weren't under serious attack. As a small force, it could also be removed very quickly. The Albanians would also have all the power of the Allies behind them -- a significant force on the ground to stop those "ethnic cleansers" who are coming around in trucks and Mercedes and lightly armored vehicles and telling whole villages that they have to move it.

Will support ever materialize among NATO members and in the United States for ground troops?

Support for a major 100,000-person force is unlikely. The leadership has set in the minds of people that there will be no ground operation, and there would be some risk. The European armies are not used to long engagements and deployments from home. In some cases, they're still conscript armies. That bodes against them being able to jump up their level of force here.

Were adequate strategic preparations made by NATO forces before launching an offensive against Yugoslavia?

I think it was a terrible mistake to declare straight away that we wouldn't use ground forces for any purposes. A second mistake that followed was that we didn't queue up or marshal any ground forces.

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Do you think Milosevic's force and resilience have taken NATO by surprise?

I think so. It appears from what we're seeing that there was a lack of imagination in planning. He realized straight away that he could improve his position in Kosovo. I'm sad to say that our efforts against ethnic cleansing have instead become a catalyst for the acceleration of it. Before we invaded he had stepped up his ethnic cleansing, but clearly it's gone into warp speed since bombing begin.

Did NATO foresee Milosevic stepping up his push to drive ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo?

It's not clear we expected him to do what he did -- it's almost as if we expected him to do two things in sequence: endure and then surrender. The business of escalating laterally was never even thought of. The plan we came up with has two speeds -- bombing and more bombing. Milosevic, on the other hand, has tried a number of things -- he's tried a diplomatic tact, he's tried to send his planes into Bosnia and he stepped up his propaganda and further isolated his people from Western press. He's doing any number of things that were unpredictable.

Have the airstrikes successfully debilitated the Milosevic-led military and government in Yugoslavia?

There's no doubt in my mind that they've been a very serious body blow. Whole segments of the Yugoslav armed forces are disappearing. Their Mig-29 inventory has been cut in half or less; critical facilities have been wiped out; installation after installation has been taken down, including command and control and air defense. You name it and they're suffering.

And now in Kosovo and other places Yugoslav armored units are going to begin to get seriously picked away by A-10 aircraft and possibly even attack helicopters. That's some vicious business. Those guys miss very infrequently ... and they can hang around and wait for you to come out of hiding. And when they hit you with their maverick missiles, their automatic cannons or any tank-guided missiles, you've had it. What's coming for the Yugoslav armed forces is even worse than what they've already had.

But the real question for strategists is whether what is happening from a military perspective is causing the right political effects. The right effect would be to get Milosevic to sign on to the Rambouillet accords and begin to behave himself in Kosovo.

With all that's happened in the past week, will it be possible to return to Rambouillet?

It's hard to say. A lot of the people who signed for the Kosovars are dead or in hiding. Milosevic doesn't say no, he says, "Hell No!" And the United States is beginning to talk about independence for Kosovo. You heard that from the president and a little bit more from James Rubin this afternoon.

What other strategic options exist, besides bombing and ground troops?

I think all of these things can become dozens of options when they are played in conjunction with diplomacy, and let us also not forget economic sanctions, which are, of course, biting Yugoslavia pretty hard right now. Sanctions were off after the Dayton accords, but they've been back on for the better part of two years.

Should NATO or the United States arm the Kosovo Liberation Army or other opposition groups?

Arming the KLA is an option beyond ground troops and bombing, but it's something that will only pay off months from now. Look at how long it was after we started helping the Afghanistan mujahadeen before they began to have an effect. That's an option, but not for the near-term future.

Has the United States moved into a mind-set where it believes it can win a war without losing any soldiers?

There is a bit of dissent that as the world's only superpower that we can engage in what you might call Tomahawk diplomacy or immaculate interventions, where we go in, kick the furniture, get what we want and nobody gets hurt but a few unfortunate people on the other side of the fence. In some instances, that's enough, like with our recent missile strikes in Afghanistan and the Sudan with Osama bin Laden. That was enough to make the point. But Kosovo is a complex situation that calls for great determination and complex tools that must work together over long periods of time to get the job done. The notion that we can somehow break Milosevic and his thugs and breaking their will vis ` vis Kosovo is only one or two cruise missiles away is an inadequate attitude.

How would you rate the Clinton administration's handling of the war in Yugoslavia?

Of all the Clinton military operations so far, this has been by far the most disappointing. We seem to have underestimated our opponent and we seem to have gotten into it with one hand tied behind our back. Why we would choose to do both of those things is a mystery.

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Nick Dowling is a senior fellow at National Defense University and the former director of European affairs for the National Security Council.

What's the outlook for negotiations with Milosevic?

The results of Primakov's discussion don't offer much hope. Milosevic offered a cease-fire if NATO stops its bombing and promises to talk. But Milosevic's word is not worth much these days in Western capitals. NATO's demands from the beginning of this operation were much more robust than that -- they were a cease-fire, withdrawal of forces, signing of a peace agreement and accepting a NATO peacekeeping force. Milosevic is not coming close to meeting international demands. I think he's going to get a pretty cold reception in the NATO capitals.

You're only going to see a possible return to negotiations if and when the NATO airstrikes begin to have a more clear impact on Serbian forces conducting aggression. Once we see Milosevic starting to press more for diplomatic options, we'll know that he's starting to realize his position is unsustainable. But I'm not optimistic Milosevic is going to come to the bargaining table anytime soon. He is willing to let his people get bombed, and he's willing to conduct inhumane acts of ethnic cleansing on a scale that seems to be beyond what we've seen from him before. He doesn't necessarily have a long-term plan. He sees what he thinks his short-term interests are. Right now he thinks he can outlast NATO.

Did Wednesday's meeting between Primakov and Milosevic help at all?

Primakov going to Belgrade could have been helpful, but what he came out with was vastly inadequate. The Russians have not been helpful in constraining Milosevic's ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The Russians should have taken a much stronger position against the genocide and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo than they have. They should be more critical of Milosevic, even while respecting the fact that they disagree with the NATO airstrikes.

Some have branded Milosevic a "war criminal." Will it be possible to negotiate with him if that characterization spreads among NATO member nations?

Ultimately, whether he's a war criminal or not is a decision for the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, whose jurisdiction covers this, and the question is really for them. If the tribunal indicted Milosevic, it would make it less likely that the United States would want to deal with Milosevic on a direct diplomatic basis. If the U.S. has to negotiate with Milosevic to end the violence and create regional stability, it would still do so.

On the military front, do you think airstrikes can stop Milosevic?

The airstrikes are aimed at reducing or degrading the Serbian military and its ability to conduct repression. Will they be able to do that quickly? No, it will take time. It will be a phased campaign that will take at least a number of weeks. Even to the point where they reduce heavy weapon capabilities of the Serbs, they'll never through air power alone be able to prevent the fighting and repression from continuing. But they can improve the situation for the Albanians considerably.

There's growing speculation that NATO may consider deploying ground troops in Yugoslavia. What's the likelihood of a ground-based front?

Unfortunately, I don't think it's likely. There are too many barriers and obstacles to such an operation. The main issue is the political will of 19 nations in NATO to take on such a mission. I don't think there's American public support to send ground troops into a hostile Yugoslavia. The mission there would be impossibly difficult -- it would possibly require several hundred thousand troops.

How long would it take to deploy ground troops in Kosovo?

It would depend upon how many troops you sent in, what the mission of the force is and some planning factors. We could get some ground troops in quickly. The 82nd airborne and [certain] other troops are prepared to deploy in 24 to 48 hours notice. The issue is: Would you send in a light force like that? Probably not. We have about 2,000 NATO troops, primarily European (French, English, German and Italian) in Macedonia. They would be the forward element of any ground force, and you would expect that they could get in quickly. But again, it would be a question of building a NATO force that would be robust enough to defeat whatever resistance they met from Serbian forces.

What is the scope of Serbian resistance that NATO troops would face?

Serbia has a sizable regional army of about 100,000 personnel. It is equipped with 1970s-era Soviet military equipment, including about 1,000 tanks and 1,200 artillery pieces. Qualitatively, the army is no match for NATO. But dug in and defending their mountainous homeland, the Serbs have historically been a very tough opponent. The Serbian people have suffered under Milosevic and many do not like him, but they will resist NATO fiercely, putting the alliance in an untenable position.

Could ground forces be deployed fast enough to stop Milosevic from evacuating all the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo?

In theory, yes. NATO could at great sacrifice interpose itself into the bloody hills of Kosovo. But there is no evidence that the American public or our European allies are willing to pay that heavy a price. In any case, Milosevic will not be able to drive the Albanians out of Kosovo altogether. Over time, the NATO air campaign will decimate the Yugoslav armed forces. No matter how brutal Milosevic is, armed Kosovars will continue to resist, conducting raids from hideouts in the mountains or from neighboring Albania and Macedonia. Isolated in the international community, its forces weary from NATO air attacks and Kosovar resistance, the Serbs will someday have to respect Albanian rights in Kosovo. In all likelihood, NATO resolve will force Milosevic to accept this reality much sooner.

Has NATO intervention accelerated Milosevic's efforts to drive out Kosovar Albanians?

There's an accusation in some quarters that NATO, by taking its decision to conduct airstrikes, is somehow to blame for the massacre. This is incredibly unfair and damaging for the following reasons: It was very clear that Milosevic was planning to do this operation from both intelligence and open sources -- in terms of amassing operations and the plans he was putting in place. He had begun operation before NATO began its airstrikes. He had burned villages and massacred civilians. The fact that he has continued to accelerate as the airstrikes have begun merely is a madman carrying out his plan, realizing that his days of being able to operate with impunity are ending. Blaming NATO for this is akin to blaming the police for investigating a mass murderer who is accelerating his murdering sprees as the police are pursuing him. The blame for the terrible events in Kosovo falls squarely to Milosevic.

In a recent Boston Globe essay, you said bringing a "more moderate regime" to Belgrade should be a primary goal of the administration. How do you realize that goal?

At a minimum, the United States and Europe should dramatically increase resources and develop broader strategies to support opposition groups, support independent media and attack the sources of the Milosevic regime's power -- including his finances, access, and prestige. The International Tribunal should indict Milosevic for war crimes. We must get the message to the Serb people and key groups that Milosevic is the problem and Yugoslavia is suffering for it. Serbian Americans can help play a key role in this, by talking to their friends and families back in Yugoslavia. Every possible option or opportunity should be pursued.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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