The Times of London, April 18 1999
Air power has failed and the allies' only
real option is to get out, writes General Sir
Nato must head for door marked exit
The tragic accidental bombing by Nato of
civilians in Kosovo will not surprise those
who understand the difficulties aircrews face
flying missions over Yugoslavia and the
limitations of Nato air power. Its weapons
systems were designed for general war against
the Warsaw Pact - not for the limited type of
engagement taking place over Yugoslavia.
Think back to February 1994, when Nato issued
another ultimatum. Then the United Nations
brokered an agreement between the Bosnians
and the Serbs to establish a 20-kilometre
exclusion zone around Sarajevo; Nato said it
would launch airstrikes against any heavy
weapons that remained within the zone.
But surveillance aircraft found it impossible
to determine accurately whether there were
any tanks or guns in the exclusion zone. On
one occasion, air reconnaissance identified a
Serbian mortar position that turned out to be
a collection of haystacks. Nato had to rely
on UN military observers on the ground to
verify possible targets.
It is not easy for pilots flying at more than
400mph over broken country to identify the
sort of targets that will have to be
destroyed if Nato is to succeed in Kosovo.
The lesson that can be drawn from the sad
incidents that have occurred so far is that
air power is a blunt weapon, wholly
inappropriate for use by itself in this form
Without soldiers on the ground able to verify
targets and direct airstrikes, the terrible
mistakes (the bombing of a passenger train
and refugee convoy) that occurred last week
will inevitably continue to happen.
Such a lesson is not clearly understood by
Nato. On April 14, at the daily press
conference, Jamie Shea, the alliance's press
spokesman, said Nato had chosen a modus
operandi in line with its policy not to be at
war with the Serbian people. The alliance, he
said, wished to avoid inflicting "unnecessary
pain on the Serbian people or their economy".
Within a few hours many Kosovo Albanians had
been killed and wounded by Nato airstrikes.
Expressions of regret, however sincere,
coupled with bland assurances that Nato is
doing all it can to avoid such mistakes - and
that anyway Milosevic is to blame - are an
insufficient response to these mistakes.
Civilised people will not stand by for ever
and watch the Serbian people, who have
already been reduced to the edge of survival
by their brutal rulers, being bombed.
One of the more worrying characteristics that
has emerged during the first month of the war
is the degree to which rhetoric has taken
over from reality. Daily, we are being
subjected to increasingly irrelevant accounts
of military actions being routinely
undertaken by Nato against civilian and
military targets in Yugoslavia - without any
real analysis as to whether what is being
done is delivering the stated objectives.
Instead, we get the sort of fairy tale told
by Shea that "every morning President
Milosevic wakes up and realises that in the
last 24 hours he has become weaker, he also
sees that Nato is becoming stronger".
These musings are usually accompanied by
emotional descriptions of the terrible things
that are being done by Milosevic's brutal
regime - as if their repeated telling would
somehow justify the continuation of a Nato
strategy that has already failed.
Before long, the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo
will be halted - not because of anything Nato
may have done, but because there will be no
Kosovo Albanians left in Serbia.
The alliance's credibility is already hanging
on a thread. Clear thinking coupled with firm
action, not words, are required if it is to
emerge intact from its war in the Balkans. We
urgently need to find a way for Nato to
extricate itself with some vestige of honour
from this increasingly messy situation.
Assuming it is now too late to prevent
Milosevic from achieving his objectives in
Kosovo, Nato will be left with the options of
continuing the air campaign for the
foreseeable future, escalating the war to
include the use of ground forces, or seeking
a political compromise.
Nato and the Americans seem to favour the
first course of action. This would reinforce
failure, leave the initiative to Milosevic
and assume the continuing unity of the
alliance. But success would still not be
The second option, while making military
sense, having moral right on its side, still
seems to be ruled out by most of the
contributing countries; they are either too
worried about the possibility of military
casualties or do not believe they have armies
properly equipped or trained to fight a
ground offensive in Kosovo. Such an option
would also require the presence of combat
troops on the ground for many years.
Most armies have been drastically reduced in
size since the end of the cold war, and it is
unlikely that they could undertake the sort
of commitment still being met in South Korea
by the American army almost 50 years after
the Korean war ended. At present levels of
operational deployment, tour intervals in the
British Army are less than 12 months. This is
unsustainable even in the short term.
The third and, in my view, the most likely
option is that Nato will agree a political
compromise through the mediation of the
Russians and the UN. It would meet some, but
not all of Milosevic's political aspirations.
With his typical ruthlessness, he would
probably judge that by ceding part of Kosovo
to the Albanians he would be ridding Serbia
of a big problem for ever.
The long-term benefits of this would greatly
outweigh the loss of territory that a
partition would imply.
He has done so before: in 1994 he struck a
secret deal with Franjo Tudjman to quit
Krajina in return for an early end to the war
Whatever the outcome of the war, Nato cannot
continue to ignore the fact that it has
suffered a strategic defeat. It cannot go on
using words to conceal the absence of a
suitable exit strategy from the increasingly
counterproductive war in which it is now
involved. Above all, it is worth reminding
the political and military masters of Shea,
who recently described life in Kosovo as
"nasty, brutish and short", that Thomas
Hobbes also wrote that words were "the money
General Sir Michael Rose is a former
commander of the UN in Bosnia and author of
Fighting for Peace