NATO and Kosovo

NATO and Kosovo

Mini Teaser: The writer accuses Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz of blaming the victims and exonerating the perpetrators in Kosovo.  The authors respond.

by Author(s): Ivo DaalderChristopher LayneBenjamin Schwarz

During the early weeks of the Kosovo war, critics of the Clinton administration were appalled by NATO's lack of planning. NATO, after all, had gone to war for the ostensible purpose of protecting the Kosovar Albanians, only to see 1.5 million of them being forced from their homes. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it ought to be evident to these critics that their conclusions about the administration's fallibility were premature. While the diplomatic and military strategies hardly proved optimal, there can be little doubt that NATO won the war. Having myself been one of the critics, I have no compunction admitting that this is the case. Not so Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz, who recently argued in these pages that the Clinton administration bears primary responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo ("For the Record", Fall 1999).

Layne and Schwarz's contention is based on three arguments. First, the conflict in Kosovo was essentially one that pitted a radicalized and violent Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), bent on independence, against a Belgrade government that sought to defend the status quo. Second, the humanitarian calamity that befell the Kosovar Albanians (who constituted 90 percent of Kosovo's population) was the result not of what Serb military, paramilitary and police forces did, but of NATO's decision to bomb Serbia. Third, the people of Kosovo today are worse off because NATO intervened.

In essence, Layne and Schwarz blame the victims for the crimes inflicted on them and then compound that error by confusing those who sought, however ineptly, to prevent the crimes with those who perpetrated them. But even a cursory examination of the evidence suggests Serb responsibility for the conflict. What is more, NATO's intervention in the end created a situation that is infinitely preferable for individual Kosovars to the one in which they found themselves before the war. Indeed, their life is better and their future more promising than would have been the case under the Rambouillet agreement, the rejection of which by Slobodan Milosevic was the reason for NATO's intervention.

Layne and Schwarz rightly contend that the "historical background of the Kosovo crisis is complex", but they then proceed to ignore even the most basic historical facts of the conflict. This is unfortunate, since such facts might help explain why Serb and Albanian aims proved irreconcilable. For example, it might be useful to acknowledge that Milosevic rose to power in Serbia partly on the backs of the Kosovar Albanians. In 1989 he stripped away the constitutional autonomy Kosovo had enjoyed during the previous fifteen years. In its stead emerged a highly repressive Serb regime that denied Albanians any authority in running day-to-day life in the province. It is equally important to recall that for eight years after autonomy was taken from them, the Albanian people resisted Serb repression without violence. Instead, they contented themselves with setting up parallel state structures--organizing elections for a "presidency" and "parliament", providing Albanian-language education for their young, and seeking in many other ways to circumvent Serb authority.

Yet, eight years of non-violent resistance proved incapable of either denting Serb control or gaining international sympathy. As a result, some Kosovars came to believe that violence offered a better prospect for success. Indeed, the Dayton Accord that ended the war in neighboring Bosnia suggested that the most effective means of attracting international attention was through violence rather than peaceful resistance. This helps to explain the emergence of the KLA--a small, ideologically diverse group that initially consisted of no more than a few hundred fighters.

Rather than dealing with the problem posed by the KLA in a proportionate manner, Serb authorities decided to show the Kosovars who was boss. By the summer of 1998, some 30,000 Serb interior police and army forces were engaged in a systematic campaign to eradicate the KLA. At times, their actions proved particularly brutal, as when Serb forces raided the village of Gornji Obrinje in late September, massacring 34 people, including 21 women, children and elderly ranging in age from 4 to 95. By early fall, some 450,000 Kosovar Albanians--25 percent of those living in Kosovo--had been expelled from or fled their homes. Of these, about 50,000 huddled in the mountains with neither food nor shelter--facing the prospect of a strong winter above and marauding Serb forces below.

This, then, was the kind of counterinsurgency that Serb forces conducted during 1998. Contrary to Layne and Schwarz's contention that this was a normal or even an effective way of dealing with the KLA, Serb actions proved to be not only brutal but counterproductive. The KLA grew rapidly in size and support; the Albanian population became radicalized; and the international community was galvanized to act--hardly the textbook outcome of a successful counterinsurgency campaign. This was not just a conflict pitting two irreconcilable sides against one another. It was a fight between a government bent on wreaking havoc and a defenseless population looking for protection from what had started out as little more than a ragtag band of rebels.

When NATO bombing commenced on March 24, 1999, Serb forces accelerated their campaign against the Kosovar Albanians by forcibly expelling as many of them as possible from Kosovo. Layne and Schwarz pin the blame for this development squarely on NATO: "not until NATO began its bombing did Belgrade's objective in Kosovo change from counterinsurgency to a deliberate campaign to expel the province's ethnic Albanians." This confuses pace with intent. What changed was the pace with which Serb forces acted, not their purpose, which remained unchanged.

There is no doubt that the NATO bombing led to an acceleration of atrocities against the Kosovar Albanian population. Prior to the commencement of the air campaign, Serb forces had paced themselves in the belief that, as one Serb diplomat reportedly put it, "a village a day keeps NATO away." However, once the bombing started and the prospect of using NATO ground troops had been publicly ruled out, the constraint on Serb actions was lifted. NATO's mistake, as Layne and Schwarz rightly argue, was in believing that the bombing would force Belgrade to the negotiating table and in failing to prepare for the possibility that Milosevic might instead accelerate his campaign against the Kosovar Albanians.

Essay Types: Essay