In the war on terrorism, alliances are not an obstacle to victory - they're the key to it. So says the American who ran the Kosovo warby / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
A few days after 11th September, I was at the Pentagon and ran into an old acquaintance, now a senior official. We chatted about television coverage of the crisis and the impending operation in Afghanistan. I began to talk about how we had waged the war in Kosovo by working within Nato-but he cut me off. “We read your book,” he scoffed. “No one’s going to tell us where we can or can’t bomb.”
That was exactly how the US proceeded. The campaign in Afghanistan wasn’t an all-American show. The US sought and won help from an array of countries. But unlike the Kosovo campaign, where Nato provided a consensus-shaping process, allied support in this war took the form of “flexible” coalitions. Countries supported the US in the manner and to the extent they felt able to, but without any pretence of sharing in the decisions. European leaders sought to be more involved. At Europe’s urging, Nato even declared that the attack on the US represented an attack on every member. Even so, Washington marginalised the alliance. The UN was similarly sidelined.
The first weeks of the campaign against the Taleban went well. Early success reinforced the conviction of some within the US government that a war against terror is best waged outside the structures of international institutions-that US leadership must be “unfettered.” This is a fundamental misjudgement. The longer this war goes on the more our success depends on the willing co-operation and active participation of our allies to root out terrorist cells in Europe and Asia, to cut off funding and support of terrorists and to deal with Saddam Hussein and other threats. We are far more likely to win the support we need by working through international institutions. Because the Bush administration has refused to engage our allies through Nato, we are fighting with one hand tied behind our back.
That official I met at the Pentagon had misread the lessons of Kosovo. Nato wasn’t an obstacle to victory in Kosovo; it was the reason for our victory. For 78 days in the spring of 1999, the alliance battled to halt the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s Albanians by the mainly Serb troops and government of Slobodan Milosevic. It was the first war against a sovereign state Nato had fought in its 50-year history. Like the war in Afghanistan, it was mainly an air campaign (although the threat of a ground attack proved decisive). America provided the leadership, the target nominations and almost all of the precision strikes. Still, it was very much a Nato war. Allied countries flew 60 per cent of the sorties. Because it was a Nato campaign, each bomb dropped represented a target that had been approved, at least in theory, by each of the alliance’s 19 governments. Much of my time as Nato allied commander was spent with European officials, walking them through proposed targets and the reasoning behind them. Sometimes there were disagreements and occasionally we had to modify those lists to take into account the different countries’ political concerns and military judgements. For all of us involved-the president, secretaries of state and defence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and me-it was a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process. But in the end, this was the decisive process for success, because whatever we lost in military effectiveness we gained manyfold in strategic impact.
Nato works through consensus, so every decision is an opportunity for members to dissent-but every decision also generates pressure to agree. Greece, for example, never blocked a Nato action, although its people strongly opposed the war and the Greek government maintained a certain distance from Nato actions. This process evokes leadership from the stronger states and pulls the others along.
Of course, this wasn’t a pleasant experience for any of the participants. For US leaders, it meant some hard exchanges with allies to get them on board. For some European leaders, the experience must have been the reverse: a continuing pressure from the US to approve actions that would generate domestic criticism.
In the darkest days before the Nato 50th anniversary summit in late April in Washington, Tony Blair came to our headquarters in Belgium on very short notice. It wasn’t altogether clear why he was coming. But as he and I sat alone in my office, it quickly became apparent. “Are we going to win?” he asked me. “Will we win with an air campaign alone? Will you get ground troops if you need them?” Blair made it clear that the future of every government in western Europe, including his, depended on a successful outcome of the war. Therefore, he was going to do everything it took to succeed.
That was the real lesson of Kosovo: Nato worked. It held political leaders accountable to their electorates. It made a US-dominated effort their effort. It made a US-led success their success. And, because a US-led failure would have been their failure, these leaders became determined to prevail.
Milosevic was hoping the alliance would crack and the bombing campaign would fall apart. Instead, Nato’s determination increased over time. He was hoping that neighbouring countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, would not co-operate with the west and indeed, large majorities of their citizens initially opposed the war. But the power of Nato extended even to these countries, which were non-members. We made clear to their leaders that if they wanted to be considered for membership in Nato-and they did-then they would have to help us against Milosevic, which they did.
Other international institutions helped us tighten the noose. The US acted under the authority of UN Security Council resolution 1199, passed in the autumn of 1998, which resolved to take action on the crisis in Kosovo-in language which helped give our military intervention legal and moral authority. The threat against Milosevic of war crime charges was additional leverage. When the International Criminal Tribunal indicted him, the resolve of our European allies notably stiffened.
In the end, Nato achieved all its aims. Milosevic pulled out of Kosovo. Nearly 1m Kosovars returned to their homes. Although Serbia and Kosovo are still struggling with the aftermath of ethnic conflict and autocratic leadership, they are now governed by democratically elected leaders eager for good relations with the west. All this was achieved with minimal destruction on the ground, no Nato casualties and relatively few civilian deaths, despite the use of 23,000 bombs and missiles.
What caused this outcome was not just the weapons of war. The lesson of Kosovo is that international institutions and alliances are another form of power. They have their limitations and can require a lot of maintenance. But used effectively, they can be strategically decisive. Kosovo also suggests a better way to win the war against terrorism: greater reliance on diplomacy and law and relatively less on the military alone. Soon after 11th September, without surrendering our right of self- defence, we should have helped the UN create an International Criminal Tribunal on International Terrorism. We could have taken advantage of the outpourings of shock and sympathy to forge a legal definition of terrorism and obtain the indictment of Osama bin Laden and the Taleban as war criminals. Had we done so, we would have had greater legitimacy and won stronger support in the Islamic world.
We could have used the increased legitimacy to raise pressure on Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to cut off fully the moral, religious, intellectual, and financial support to terrorism. On a practical level, we might have avoided the arguments during the encirclement of Kandahar in December 2001, when the Afghan leader wanted to offer the Taleban leader amnesty, asking what law he had broken, while the US insisted that none should be granted. We might have avoided the continuing difficulties of maintaining hundreds of prisoners in a legal no man’s land at Guantanamo Bay, which has undercut US legitimacy in the eyes of many.
We should have prosecuted the Afghan campaign with Nato. Of course, it would have been difficult to involve our allies early on, when we didn’t know what we wanted to do, or how to do it. But in the end, we could have kept Nato involved without surrendering the design of the campaign.
The most serious difficulties we had in winning European support for the Kosovo air campaign concerned bombing the “dual-use” targets: bridges, power stations, television towers, and government buildings in Belgrade. The US believed such attacks were crucial to breaking Milosevic’s ability to wage war. The Europeans, concerned about civilian casualties, preferred to hit military targets in Kosovo. In the end, we bombed both. But a similar disagreement in Afghanistan between the US and Europeans would have been very unlikely, for the simple reason that the US bombing campaign focused exclusively on military targets.
As Bush himself has said, the struggle against terror requires far more than military force. Indeed, the most important aspect of the war may be in law enforcement and judicial activities. Much of the terrorist network draws support and resources from within countries allied to us. Terrorists living in Europe planned the 11th September attack, and the greatest concentration of “sleeper cells” outside the middle east is probably in Europe. Yet this is a threat that the US military can do little to combat. We need closer alignment of police and judicial activities with our allies: greater co-operation in police investigations, sharing of evidence, harmonious evidence standards and procedures, plus common definitions of terrorism-associated crimes.
Even with the limited information publicly available, it is clear that the police and judicial measures taken to detect, identify, track, detain, interrogate, arrest, charge, convict, and punish terrorists and their accomplices within friendly countries have been less than fully successful. Since last autumn, European governments have arrested, then released, numerous suspected terrorists whom the US government would have preferred to see kept behind bars. In April, for instance, Spanish police arrested a Syrian-born al Qaeda suspect, but let him go, citing lack of evidence. Yet, at the time of his arrest, he had in his possession hours of videotape of the World Trade Centre from every conceivable angle, plus surveillance images of the Golden Gate bridge. Fortunately, the Spanish police re-arrested the man in July. But that same month, British courts released an Egyptian wanted in the US for allegedly funding a terrorist leader.
The full co-operation we seek is unlikely without an overall consensus-building mechanism, like Nato, to drive the process. It is hard enough getting the CIA and FBI to share information, even when both answer to the president and Congress. Imagine how difficult it is to get co-operation among US agencies and their counterparts in 20 different European countries.
The longer the war goes on, the more support we will need from other nations-instead, we seem to be getting less. After 11th September, the US gave the UN a list of groups and individuals suspected of funding terrorists. European governments froze their assets. In the spring, the US government provided an updated list-and most European governments ignored it.
Last autumn, all of Europe understood that the 11th September attacks had been planned on European soil, that European targets were on the terrorists’ lists, and that Europeans by the hundreds died in the World Trade Centre. Gerhard Schr?der braved a no-confidence vote to win approval for German combat troops to be made available for Afghanistan. Even the French expressed solidarity with us. Today, that support is being replaced by growing anger at the US. Instead of focusing on the threat of terrorism, Europeans are focusing on the dangers of US hegemony. Their leaders are free to play to these fears because, without Nato involvement, the war is not seen as theirs, but ours. Not a single European election hinges on the success of the war on terrorism. European politicians don’t have a stake in the outcome.
Some Americans seem to take a certain delight in Europe’s outrage. But this outrage is undermining our ability to carry out the next stages of the war including, perhaps, toppling Saddam. We don’t need Europe’s military support for a war against Saddam. But we need its diplomatic support now and its assistance in the aftermath. Without this support, others will have an excuse for not co-operating. King Abdullah of Jordan recently told the Washington Post why his country could not be used as a staging area for a US invasion: “Everyone is saying that this is a bad idea. If it seems America wants to hit Baghdad, that’s not what Jordanians think, or the British, or French.”
It is still not too late to enlist Nato in the fight against terrorism-to handle peacekeeping duties in an increasingly chaotic Afghanistan, to deepen its involvement in the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to host the harmonisation of judicial and law-enforcement activities. If there is to be a military operation against Iraq, then involving Nato more deeply would give European leaders a personal stake in the war. In particular, bringing Nato into a new peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan might convince the Europeans that the US is serious about stability in post-conflict situations.
In the twilight of the second world war, we recognised the need for allies and we affirmed the idea that we must banish from the world what President Truman, addressing the founding of the UN, called “the fundamental philosophy of our enemies, namely, that ‘might makes right.'” The US has the opportunity to use the international institutions it established to triumph over terrorists who threaten not just the US, but the world. What a tragedy it will be if we walk away from 60 years of post-second world war experience.