War in Europe: How Nato fights a war by committee

The alliance's labyrinthine structure is not making life easy for the generals

FOR weeks, its car park has been jammed, its cafeteria packed and desk space in its press room at a premium. But this weekend, with the top brass in Washington at a 50th anniversary summit, Nato's deserted headquarters in Brussels hardly looks like the nerve centre of the alliance's first offensive military campaign.

Thirty miles to the south lies another scene from the Marie Celeste in an equally drab, 1950s complex outside Mons, close to the Belgian-French border. This is the headquarters of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (Shape), the home of General Wesley Clark, the alliance's top general, who is in charge of the Kosovo campaign. Needless to say, Gen Clark is not in his wood-panelled office this weekend, but at Nato's ceremonial gathering in Washington.

The flight of the generals and bureaucrats to the citadel of western politics underlines a central feature of the Balkan crisis. The military may be in day-to-day charge but they are fighting a politicians' war, and a particularly complex one at that.

If Gen Clark has sometimes given the impression that he is working with one hand tied behind his back, it is because the objectives of the Kosovo campaign are set by committee, and not by his high command. Unlike most military leaders, the American general is answerable to 19 nations, each with a different agenda.

The physical separation of Shape and Nato is hardly the extent of his problem. Gen Clark is hundreds of miles from the command centre for his multi-national force of airmen, soldiers and sailors. That unit, Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSouth), commanded by an American admiral, James Ellis, is in Naples, which is also the headquarters of the air and naval campaigns. Humanitarian and peace implementation forces are in Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Daily contact is through a secure video link.

The general also has a quasi-diplomatic function. He has to keep on good terms with the chiefs of staff of all 19 alliance nations, particularly those providing men and equipment. High on his list is the Chief of the Defence Staff in London, General Sir Charles Guthrie, with whom he speaks regularly.

As the conflict enters its fifth week, the alliance is counting the cost of its co-ordination difficulties, and of the divergent views held by its military and political leaderships. It has also been forced to re-examine its tactics. On the assumption that President Milosevic wanted an excuse to back down, the air campaign began slowly, taking 10 days to build up to the level with which the Gulf War began. Strict guidelines were laid down for targeting, with the politicians anxious that nothing overtly civilian should be hit. When permission was canvassed to target Serbian television, it was denied. Only after weeks of pressure were the military allowed to go ahead on Friday night.

With poor weather adding to Nato's woes, it has had to admit that the air campaign has not destroyed Mr Milosevic's will, let alone curtailed the humanitarian disaster in Kosovo.

Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, has taken much of the criticism for that early misjudgement. But she had good reason to hope that Mr Milosevic would back down. The Nato nations have maintained unity, but their solidarity masks deeper tensions. Several members have acute reservations about the campaign. In Greece, where popular opposition to the bombardment has reached 95 per cent in some polls, the Pasok (socialist) government has refused to supply aircraft and would balk at the idea of aiding a ground invasion. It faces European elections in June and national elections within a year, and knows the war is a losing issue. And Athens believes that the Kosovo Liberation Army's real agenda is for a greater Albania including parts of Greece.

Italy, geographically close to the bombing, is so sensitive it held up an EU oil embargo before relenting last Wednesday. Spain and Portugal made only small deployments and kept low profiles. Even in Germany, doubts about the wisdom of intervention go deep. Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister and Green party leader, has pushed for a diplomatic settlement, stressing the need to maintain contacts with Russia.

His efforts are prompted partly by pressure from inside the Greens, but this determination to keep diplomacy alive reflects a wider alarm among the German public. "In Britain," said one diplomat last week, "your public is used to this kind of military campaign. You have had the Falklands war, the Gulf War. For Germany this is the first military action since 1945. For us, the longer it goes on the more difficult it becomes to explain."

That makes one likely scenario, an intensified bombing campaign over months, an unpalatable one. But the alternative, a ground war, may be worse. On this vexed issue the military planners and the politicians may be moving closer together. Yet this brings to the fore the dilemma of Nato's less bellicose nations; they want the conflict over quickly, but are the most reluctant to risk their soldiers' lives to bring about an early end to the crisis.

The alliance's difficulties presenting its case became clear in the row over the bombing of the refugee convoy, the biggest public relations disaster of the campaign. In the face of what one senior diplomat describes as "a Goebbels-quality propaganda in Belgrade", the alliance has come off second best.

Its failure to admit early on that it had caused civilian casualties gave the Yugoslav government a chance to exploit scepticism about Nato's version of events. Western journalists taken to the scene saw fatalities, some of which Nato now believes were inflicted by Belgrade.

In Brussels, Nato's press spokesman, Jamie Shea, battled in vain to persuade Shape to provide an early explanation, and his embarrassment was compounded when the Pentagon publicly contradicted the Nato version of events. Mr Shea, a Nato official, has limited power to determine what information reaches the public; that decision ultimately rests with Shape.

Five days after the event Nato presented a fuller and more convincing picture, but not before Downing Street had offered to bolster the alliance's over-stretched press operation. Several hours before the press conference on Monday, Tony Blair's chief spokesman, Alastair Campbell, went to Brussels to give behind-the-scenes advice. Meanwhile, one of his deputies, Julian Braithwaite, has been seconded to Nato.

But augmenting the press operation has provoked other tensions. Mr Shea is British and his daily briefing was normally accompanied by a military update from an RAF Air Commodore, David Wilby. With greater Downing Street involvement, Nato's press operation has had to battle accusations of an Anglo-Saxon takeover. As a result, Air Commodore Wilby has taken a back seat to an Italian general, Giuseppe Marani, whose accent has caused consternation among US TV crews.

Waging a real conflict is not as easy as conducting the Cold War for which the alliance was established 50 years ago. Accompanying the universal outrage at Mr Milosevic's tactics is a new respect for his toughness. What is needed, argued one source last week, is a thorough tightening of the operation, linking Nato's bureaucracy to Shape's line of command "to create a political and military structure that speaks with one voice". Only then will the most powerful alliance in history be an effective adversary for Belgrade.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
fashionEveryone, apparently
Voices
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
art
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Sport
Husain Abdullah returns an interception off Tom Brady for a touchdown
nflLeague has rules against 'sliding to ground on knees'
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Maths teacher require...

KS1 Teacher

£21500 - £31500 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work...

Java Developer - web services, XML and API

£330 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Lond...

Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Maths Teacher required to teach Furthe...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style