War In the Balkans: Can we now solve the Balkan question?
Friday 04 June 1999
Nato can only be claimed to have compromised by taking seriously the exaggerated allegations made about its intentions - for example, the occupation of all of Yugoslavia. Kosovo remains an "autonomous province" but in practice it is lost, an international protectorate guarded by foreign troops. Slobodan Milosevic accepted war in March to prevent the entry of these foreign troops into Kosovo, precisely because they could thwart his plans for the province.
The only possible mitigation for Yugoslavia would be if Milosevic resigned and left for some internal exile. As the extreme radical party, led by Vojslav Seselj, will leave the government because of the capitulation, Milosevic may try to find a more acceptable face by bringing in more moderate political figures. But as an indicted war criminal he is now an impossible leader for a self-respecting country. Yugoslavia desperately needs a government capable of repairing relations with the West, not least because of the resources required if they are to repair their bridges, oil refineries and factories.
For Nato the first emotion is one of enormous relief. This has been a curious war. The alliance has suffered no casualties (other than the crew of an Apache helicopter which crashed while training), and lost hardly any equipment. The price was paid by the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians whose ordeal was extended because of the reluctance to accept any unnecessary risks, especially the introduction of land forces. This point needs to be recalled when we are told that this has been a triumph for air power acting alone. A reason for the breakthrough now was the conspicuous preparations for a land campaign.
In addition, one of Milosevic's many miscalculations was his belief that ethnic cleansing could actually serve to eliminate the Kosovo Liberation Army. It may well be that the war appeared lost to Belgrade because of the increasing evidence of the KLA's growing strength. As Serb units battled against the KLA they provided lucrative targets for Nato aircraft which would have otherwise found it difficult to flush them out. The role to be played by the KLA in the new Kosovo threatens to be one of the difficult issues for the new administration, once appointed by the Security Council. It is as vital that it draws the KLA's leadership into political responsibility as it is that it discourages any attempt to use the army to assert its political demands or as an instrument of revenge.
The pain of this war for Nato leaders lay in having to stay firm every time one of their aircraft hit the wrong target or caused some human tragedy. There is no doubt that Milosevic's only serious strategy was to hope that this would aggravate the natural divisions in the alliance. This was another miscalculation, because of the way that alliances work in war.
Nobody could accuse the alliance of being nimble in its strategy. The tortuous, often coded, debates about planning for ground forces illustrated the problems of getting 19 members to agree on any revisions to the original concept. Yet the same factors that made it hard for the alliance to move forward also made it hard to go back. Having embarked on the air campaign in a collective outrage at ethnic cleansing, they had little choice but to see it through. Some might waver after each blunder, but a government would have been extraordinarily naive to authorise an air campaign and then profess surprise when innocents got killed.
Having discovered that they can fight a war to a moderately successful conclusion the allies will be wondering what sort of precedent they have set. Will they now be expected to take action in the face of every injustice and humanitarian catastrophe, or can intervention be limited to cases in the neighbourhood where the cause is just and interests are clear? In practice, it is hard to think of that many scenarios where the alliance can even contemplate a repeat performance.
The price of victory is now the reconstruction of Kosovo, which will require a long-term commitment of troops and resources, and an overall responsibility for the Balkans as a whole. A large number of regional stresses and strains have been aggravated because of the war and they will require some tough political bargaining, as well as even more resources, to sort them out. Instability in the Balkans has dogged Europe through this century. There could be no better result from this painful war for the next century to start with a determined effort to address this instability once and for all.
The author is Professor of War Studies at King's College, London
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