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Feb 7, 2000 | 06:00 GMT

9 mins read

Kosovo: The United States Looking For an Exit

Summary

The United States is moving to redefine its policy in Kosovo. The immediate reason can be found in the deteriorating situation on the ground. Last week, violence intensified between ethnic Albanians and Serbs; this was not something that the United States bargained for when it intervened last year. For this and a host of other reasons, it appears that Washington is now in the process of redefining its role and quite possibly preparing to withdraw its forces.

Analysis

Increasingly, there are signs that the United States is looking for a way to reposition itself in Kosovo, nearly a year after leading NATO forces into a conflict over the province. Last week in Europe, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen suggested that U.S. forces are facing “mission creep” which neither military commanders nor political leaders want. In addition, a case is building in Washington that blames Europe for doing too little to help control Kosovo. And in the last week, the city of Mitrovica in Kosovo has been the scene of the very violence and chaos that NATO has always sought to avoid.

Ever since NATO intervened in Kosovo nearly a year ago, one of the most interesting exercises has been the attempt of serious analysts and Balkan residents to uncover the hidden reason behind the U.S.-led intervention last March. The official reason for the conflict was that the United States wanted to stop genocide in Kosovo. Particularly in Europe, this was seen as a public justification masking a hidden agenda. Theories suggested that hidden mines or even the control of the telecommunications industry were the true reasons for intervention. An entire industry was spawned to uncover the motives behind the two and a half month-long conflict.

The reality, however, is far more prosaic and, in some ways, more alarming. The U.S.-led intervention was prompted precisely by what the U.S. government said. There were reports of an impending holocaust in Kosovo. Criticized for failing to prevent genocide in Rwanda and accused of sitting idly by in Bosnia, the Clinton administration was afraid of another public relations nightmare - at a time when domestic scandals were tarnishing the administration anyway.

The administration viewed Kosovo as a low-risk, high-yield operation. The administration did not expect an extended conflict, having drawn the belief in Bosnia that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was incapable of enduring an extended bombing campaign. Expecting a repetition of events in Bosnia - when a brief bombing campaign was followed by quick capitulation - the administration was caught flat-footed when the war dragged on. The United States had been suckered into a war of limited strategic interest from which the United States could not withdraw. Milosevic, after all, had been portrayed as a monster. And the administration could not negotiate with a monster.

NATO and the United States ultimately engineered a victory, of sorts, last June when NATO forces occupied Kosovo. But their arrival did not bring anything like closure. Quite to the contrary, the alliance began an open-ended occupation in which the mission did not correspond to the reality on the ground. The mission of NATO forces was to ensure the security of all residents. The reality was that NATO forces were, quite against their intentions, acting as the agents of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The ethnic Albanian guerrillas used the NATO peacekeeping mission as a means for institutionalizing KLA rule in the province. The effect was to turn victims into victimizers and NATO peacekeepers into unwitting tools of ethnic Albanian revenge.

In this situation, NATO has never managed to find its balance or its center of gravity. NATO troops have managed to alienate all sides - a fact underscored by the ongoing violence in Mitrovica. On a larger scale, neither Washington nor Brussels had ever faced a simple fact. In the region, the prevailing view is that neutral benevolence is impossible; for NATO troops, there was no neutral standpoint from which to mount their operation. It was inevitable that the peacekeepers would find themselves caught in the crossfire between Albanians, determined to keep what they think they have won, and Serbs, increasingly determined to recover what they have lost. Milosevic remains in control in Belgrade. Nothing has been settled.

For the United States, the Kosovo experience violates the key lessons of the Vietnam experience. Withdrawing from Southeast Asia nearly 20 years ago, the United States swore never to again become embroiled, on the ground, in a civil war in another country. In Kosovo, the United States has been involved in something worse: a civil war that offers no clear exit strategy. The war, after all, cannot truly end until one warring ethnic group, or the other, is completely expelled from the region. Worse, this civil war is one in which the United States has no real stake. In Vietnam, at least, some sort of strategic logic could be asserted. But this has not been the case in Kosovo, where the driving motive for U.S. involvement has been based on humanitarian motives.

The humanitarian question is now cutting the other way as peacekeepers are turned from saviors into confused bullies in the minds of even the Albanians. This transformation is not the fault of the troops, who are still mostly combat soldiers, trained to respond to threats with overwhelming force. Keeping the peace, particularly in a chaotic situation, requires a very different sort of training - the sort that is given to police, of which there are still precious few in Kosovo.

More than having the right training, a policeman is someone who is local. NATO has taken people who were never trained as police in the first place, tossed them into an utterly alien culture - and is now discovering that the solution is not working.

It appears that the administration is slowly recognizing the insanity of the situation. In Munich last week, Cohen reportedly said, “I think it has reached the level of concern on the part of not only members of the U.S. Congress, but military commanders. They are concerned about the possibility of mission creep - that the military is being called upon to engage in police functions for which they are not properly trained and we don't want them to carry out." The administration has acknowledged that the situation is getting out of hand, that forces are not trained for the mission and that no one now wants them to carry out the mission.

Most intriguing is Cohen's reference to mission creep; there has, of course, been none. The nature of the mission has remained the same. But increasingly, there is perception of creep: the administration's perception has finally caught up with the reality of the mission it so enthusiastically undertook nearly a year ago.

As a result, administration officials and Congress members are looking for the exit. Since total withdrawal of NATO forces is impossible without even more chaos, another solution is appearing: Blame the Europeans and demand that they shoulder more of the burden. Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has claimed that the real problem in Kosovo is that Europeans have not fulfilled their obligations. They were supposed to send police, as well as $35 million for policing functions, but only a few of the former and none of the latter have arrived.

European countries have agreed to take command of the peacekeeping operation. By April, a Eurocorps contingent is scheduled to command the NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR). More than 350 personnel from the five Eurocorps countries - Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Spain - are to take command of the 50,000 troops in Kosovo. This of course does not solve the core problem. It may even compound it. The United States, desperately wanting to minimize exposure and casualties, will now find its forces under the control of a headquarters with its own agenda.

The Europeans, however, are not eager to undertake full responsibility for KFOR. Except for the British government, the rest of Europe was more than a little restrained in enthusiasm for the war. Most European governments foresaw precisely the situation that has developed. The European view has always been that the United States stumbled into a situation for which they had counseled caution.

But there are far deeper issues for European governments at this point. One is Russia. The emergence of acting President Vladimir Putin and a much more assertive, anti-Western Russia is a result of last year's war. European governments regard the end game of Kosovo, in which the Russians were outmaneuvered and humiliated, as a Pyrrhic victory. The Germans in particular now must deal with an increasingly truculent Russia - in which they have invested billions that they will never again see - and are not eager to be the flag-bearers of an operation that continues to irritate the Russians.

Indeed, the Russian factor is likely one reason that the United States wants out. Washington's relationship with Moscow is increasingly dangerous. Rhetoric aside, the upcoming Sino-Russian summit in March presents a serious threat to global American interests. The United States does not want to see a deepening of the Sino-Russian relationship. Instead, Washington needs to signal that the U.S. presence in Kosovo does not present a strategic threat to the Russians. Beginning the process of withdrawal would help enormously. The problem with this strategy is that Europeans are not likely to replace Americans as the objects of Russian ire.

As U.S. troops are caught in the crossfire between Kosovo factions, the basic irrationality of the operation becomes apparent. Having entered a civil war, the United States lacks both the will and resources to impose a settlement. The settlement at hand, a fully Albanian Kosovo, cleansed of Serbs, is intolerable. A NATO withdrawal, and the re-entry of the Yugoslav Army, is unthinkable. In addition, U.S. forces are strained by their dispersal around the globe with little strategic reason.

An exit from Kosovo will emerge as an issue in the months to come, particularly in the context of an American presidential election. The Clinton administration is setting the stage for the withdrawal of at least some forces from Kosovo, leaving the Europeans to handle it. It is far from clear that the Europeans will do it. With both strategic and political considerations coinciding, Clinton seems likely to try to trim the military commitment in Kosovo. However, having stumbled into it, it is not clear that he will now be able to stumble out. Nevertheless, he seems to be cranking up to give it his best shot.

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