Kosovo: the final reckoning of a campaign riddled with errors

* Government tactics worsened the humanitarian disaster * British forces were severely underequipped and badly advised * Use of cluster bombs had 'questionable legitimacy'
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair was accused last night of presiding over a series of political and military blunders in Kosovo after a damning new report attacked the Government's handling of the war.

Tony Blair was accused last night of presiding over a series of political and military blunders in Kosovo after a damning new report attacked the Government's handling of the war.

The most comprehensive inquiry into the conflict to date found that Britain's contribution to the Nato operation had been characterised by weapons failures, poor planning, obsolete communications and a heavy reliance on United States support.

The all-party Commons Select Committee on Defence concluded an eight-month investigation into the war with a highly critical attack on the catalogue of blunders in Operation Allied Force.

In one crucial conclusion, the committee stated that the Prime Minister's early decision to rule out a ground force invasion of Kosovo actually worsened the humanitarian "disaster" of fleeing refugees.

Yet the overstretched nature of the nation's armed forces meant that the Territorial Army would have been needed to help man any infantry force charged with taking on the Serbs on the ground.

The MPs, who interviewed nearly all of Britain's most senior defence chiefs, confirmed that the UK's armed forces were severely under-equipped and badly advised for the task of ousting Slobodan Milosevic's Serb forces from the Yugoslav province in 1998. Operation Allied Force could fairly be counted a "success" in that it eventually resulted in Serb withdrawal, but it was heavily qualified by a long list of failures.

The committee found that the overall cost of the operation, together with Britain's continuing involvement in the region, would amount to £866m over five years to 2004.

Last night, the Ministry of Defence said that the recent removal from power of Mr Milosevic proved that the 78-day campaign had been worthwhile. John Spellar, the Armed Forces minister, said: "The departure of Milosevic's troops from Kosovo, the return of Kosovar Albanians and now the rejection of Milosevic's dictatorship by the people of Serbia has shown that Nato's approach was right.

"It is right that we should look at the lessons that can be learnt. But we must not let this overshadow the fact that our objectives were achieved."

However, Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory defence spokesman, described the report as "a damning indictment of Labour's past, current and future defence policy".

"It underlines yet again how the Government entered into military action in Kosovo on a wing and a prayer," he said last night. "The report makes it clear that the eventual plans for the Kosovo operation were not the same as the ones that set out the initial campaign. What was the Foreign Office role in creating such a messy start to the operation?" Mr Duncan Smith said the report showed that US assistance was essential for anything more than "limited" military operations. He pointed out that the report also underlined the key role of the Territorial Army, which the Government has cut by 18,000 troops since coming to office.

"In short, the Government has done, and will do, little to put right what is said in the report. In fact, it is set on making things worse. The Government clearly hasn't learnt the lessons of Kosovo," he said.

In the most damaging section of the 344-page report, the MPs concluded that Mr Blair and the US President, Bill Clinton, had been wrong to rule out the possibility of ground troops. "It was unwise for politicians within the Alliance to either have thought or ever suggested that a humanitarian disaster on the ground could be averted from the air. On the contrary, all evidence suggests that plans to initiate the air campaign hastened the onset of the disaster," they said.

"The failure to predict, anticipate and prepare for Milosevic's manipulation of the refugees as an instrument of aggression was a serious failure of imagination and planning. These failures had the effect of narrowing the range of options open to the Alliance and pushing the process towards conflict."

The report said UK air forces suffered from a lack of precision-guided weapons and made up less than 5 per cent of Nato sorties flown. The 2 per cent of 1,000lb unguided bombs confirmed as hitting their targets was "distressingly low", it said. "Our major contribution [to the campaign] was in the form of unguided cluster bombs - a contribution of limited military value and questionable legitimacy."