Focus: War in Europe - A very strange way to fight

Nato has turned the rules of warfare on their head. The result so far is the exact opposite of what it intended
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ever, surely, in all history has there been a war which so quickly, so comprehensively, has precipitated exactly the opposite of what was intended. The bombing of Yugoslavia was supposed to be a final expedient in Kosovo, halt a tyrant and head off a wider destabilisation of the central Balkans.

Less than four weeks on, Kosovo stands as a humanitarian disaster to match anything this century, and the conflict is on the verge of sucking in at least three neighbouring countries. As for the tyrant, his popularity among his own people rises with his intransigence. But then again, rarely has there been a conflict which has so stood the norms of warmaking on their head. For the first time in modern warfare, humanitarian has met high-tech, where soldiers can't be hit, and civilians mustn't be.

Once upon a time - until last month in fact - wars were fought in the prosecution of a national interest. They were conducted by a country or by an alliance of countries to seize territory or natural resources, or to defeat a foe who threatened national security. either motive applies in Kosovo.

However barbarous his behaviour, Slobodan Milosevic does not constitute the slightest security threat to ato; indeed the one ato member which he might directly inconvenience, Greece, is the one where sympathy for Serbia runs highest. A year ago, the Kosovo Liberation Army, with whom ato is now in de facto alliance, was still being described by the State Department as a terrorist organisation. For perhaps the first time in history, a war has been undertaken out of altruism, for entirely humanitarian purposes.

Others have claimed to be pursuing such a selfless crusade before. Those who led Europe's colonial predations in the 19th century comforted themselves they were acting from the noblest motives, to bring civilisation and Western enlightenment to backward peoples. If that required brutal repression and war, so be it; omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs.

But the humanitarian rationale was always largely a mask, covering a race to gain control of raw materials, ensure strategic staging posts, and thwart the ambitions of rivals closer to home. That was the backcloth of the entry of first Portugal, then Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Germany into the empire-building business. In other words, the protection of national interest. But "national interest" in the case of Kosovo boils down to the need to protect the credibility of ato and its members; if the allies failed to respond after so many threats, so mockingly ignored by President Milosevic, they would no longer be taken seriously.

So it has responded, but again in a way which contradicts the war's standard operating procedures. An alliance set up for defensive purposes has for the first time gone onto the offensive. But it has been a calibrated offence; not the use of overwhelming force (the doctrine which underpinned the Gulf War) but force administered like a medicine, whose dose can, and is, being increased as required - except that never can the doctors have had their hands so tied by the hospital administrators, ruling out in advance the use of the most effective drug.

The simple fact is that only once has air power unequivocally won a war on its own: at Hiroshima and agasaki. Yet the sort of land war, using the Abrams tanks, the Challengers and the Scorpions which actually drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, has been ruled out in advance and for the foreseeable future. Tony Blair says an invasion force would take months to prepare. However, in 1982 his predecessor but one managed to assemble a taskforce and send it 8,000 miles by sea to the Falklands in just six weeks. President Clinton might recall that in 11 weeks in 1950, President Truman shipped forces across the Pacific, to rout the orth Korean invaders of the South.

But the politicians have deemed otherwise, and Kosovo, as few wars before it, is a politician's war. In vain did ato planners and Pentagon commanders plead for the ground war option. Instead, they aren't even allowed a free hand in what they may go after from the air. Government lawyers fret over proposed target lists, to make sure they conform with the rules of war, and minimise civilian casualties. But this is one sense at least in which Kosovo is a thoroughly typical modern war.

At the start of this century, 90 per cent of a war's casualties were soldiers. These days, 90 per cent of the victims are civilian. Kosovo was supposed to be a surgeon's war, neatly excising Yugoslav army units and Serb military targets. Instead, not a single ato airman or soldier has been killed, as the Albanian population suffers an exercise in ruthless ethnic engineering that would have made Hitler or Stalin proud.

And here again the politicians tie their hands. They liken Slobodan Milosevic to Hitler (from "Boney" whose terrible deeds were used to scare English children two centuries ago, to Satan-as-Saddam, every war needs a demon figure). But in the next breath they assure ordinary Serbs they have no quarrel with them. o one talked like that in the Second World War; there might have been good Germans, but as long as the azis were around, we were at war with every German.

The formula was first wheeled out during the Gulf war, in order not to upset Arab countries in the coalition. Eight years on, ordinary Iraqis in their suffering must be baffled by the distinction. Today, Kosovo is meant to be the humanitarian war in which only very bad guys actually get killed. Except, those government lawyers interject again, you can't actually make the assassination of a leader of another country part of a declared war aim. Stymied again.

In retrospect, nothing did a greater disservice to the West's approach to warmaking than the Gulf. Politicians, famously, always want to fight the last war (assuming their side won it). But the Gulf was an exception, not the rule. For America it was perfect exorcism of Vietnam: comprehensive victory over a clear-cut foe at minimal human cost in minimal time. If this was 1991 and Kosovo was Kuwait, we would be 10 days away from a land war, and two weeks from final triumph. The Gulf made war too painless, too easy to contemplate, particularly when war is aimed at erasing a manifest injustice - whether or not that injustice has a bearing on the national interest. Indeed, absence of crude national interest only increases the warrior politician's sense of righteousness. So to another incongruity, of a war not followed by a peace settlement, but to enforce a peace settlement.

And again we forget. Wars mostly last a long time. The Middle Ages had one which lasted 100 years. Since the 19th century most others - the Crimean War, the American Civil War, two World Wars, the Korean War, the Bosnian War - lasted between three and six years. A nationalist war of independence, which Kosovo ultimately is, usually is an even more protracted affair. The Algerian war lasted eight years, the present civil war in Sudan is into its 16th year, while Vietnam's continued for a quarter of a century.

In its murder, rape and pillage, Kosovo perhaps most resembles the 17th century religious war in Europe better known as the Thirty Years War. It wasn't meant to be like that. But then Kosovo is a very strange war.