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Friday, August 20, 1999 Published at 03:34 GMT 04:34 UK

World: Europe

Nato's inner Kosovo conflict

General Clark: "didn't always defer to those who wanted targets withheld"

In a special Newsnight programme Mark Urban investigates Nato's handling of the Kosovo crisis. Interviewing the key players he finds that the Allies were far from united. (Newsnight - BBC Two - 10.30pm - Friday 20 August)

Talk to the people running Nato's war against Slobodan Milosevic and many will tell you it was a "near run thing".

Strobe Talbott: "A good thing that the conflict ended when it did"
Strobe Talbott, the American Deputy Secretary of State, told BBC's Newsnight Kosovo Special "there would have been increasing difficulty within the alliance in preserving the solidarity and the resolve of the alliance" had the Serbian leader not given in on 3 June.

Mr Talbott, regarded as the man closest to President Clinton in the Washington foreign policy team, adds: "I think it was a good thing that the conflict ended when it did."

From last summer, when the western alliance first began to think seriously about intervening, until the last day of the airstrikes this June, there were enormous difficulties getting members of the organisation to agree a common line on the use of force.

General Wesley Clark sums up the campaign as "high-stakes coercion"
Not only would it have been very hard to get an agreement in Nato for a ground war against President Milosevic, but even continued airstrikes might have been jeopardised by disunity.

The decision to go on bombing was the only thing the Allies could agree because hawks (arguing for all options up to a full-scale invasion) and doves (who wanted a pause in the bombing) cancelled one another out. Alliance decisions had to be agreed by all 19 members.

Military frustration

This meant that clear warnings from Nato's military experts had to be ignored in the interests of consensus.

General Klaus Naumann, chairman of Nato's Military Committee during last summer's first alliance discussions about intervention says he formally cautioned Nato's top political body that, "one has to be prepared to escalate, if one doesn't achieve the political objective with the first military actions".

[ image: Nato's member countries were divided over bombing raids]
Nato's member countries were divided over bombing raids
That warning that everything up to a full-scale invasion might be needed was ignored.

Gen Naumann is critical of the Americans for ruling out the commitment of ground troops.

Even last October, America's reluctance to endanger its soldiers was limiting Nato's freedom of action.

When an agreement was signed for a ceasefire in Kosovo to be monitored by outsiders it was thought the absence of western soldiers was a concession to President Milosevic.

Richard Holbrooke: "I asked him if he understood, and he said 'Yes, you will bomb us'"
In fact it did not happen because, as Javier Solana the Nato Secretary-General told Newsnight, the American who negotiated that agreement, "didn't have instructions to go that far from this country".

[ image:  ]
On 13 October last year, when Nato voted through the airstrikes plan that it actually used this March, its governments ruled out even planning for a ground war - a restriction which American officials later tried to blame on the Europeans.

When June's deal was finally done to send in the international Kosovo Force (K-For), the whole operation had to be postponed for 24 hours because US troops were not ready to go in.

Kosovo: Special Report
The reason: the White House had refused to let them go ashore until it was absolutely clear they wouldn't have to fight their way into Kosovo.

President Clinton was determined to conduct the operation by airpower alone.

And if President Milosevic had still been holding out right now? Then he might have had to consider seriously using ground troops, but what would have been the chances of such an operation being approved by Nato as a whole?

Decidedly slim it is now clear.

Division over bombing

As for the "increasing difficulties" Mr Talbott thinks might have plagued the continued air campaign - it is now becoming clear that several allies came close to trying to "pause" the bombing and that America had to stop them by fair means and foul.

Richard Holbrooke: "Milosevic wanted to clean up the KLA, whom he called Narco-Mafioso"
Within two days of Operation Allied Force starting, Italy suggested there be a diplomatic solution.

Several countries - including France, Germany, Italy and Greece - decided at this early stage that they were not prepared to escalate the bombing beyond certain limits clearly laid out in the war plans approved the previous 13 October.

General Wesley Clark: "Milosevic told me: 'We know how to handle these Albanian killers'"
On 27 March these dissenters agreed to an escalation from Phase One of that blueprint to Phase Two, which allowed Nato to bomb Yugoslav forces and supply bases.

These countries made clear though that they were not prepared to got to Phase Three which included targets such as power stations and buildings in central Belgrade connected with Milosevic's system of rule.

[ image: Washington had a big impact on how the Nato Kosovo campaign was conducted]
Washington had a big impact on how the Nato Kosovo campaign was conducted
Those countries felt they had a cast-iron case, since the resolution passed back in October by the alliance's top political body, the North Atlantic Council, made clear that moving up the ladder of escalation required a unanimous vote from all members.

General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander by going to Mr Solana and telling him the war could not be run on the basis of "least common denominator solutions".

On 30 March, Mr Solana, Gen Clark and Gen Naumann jointly informed Nato ambassadors that the old phased war plan with its political safeguards was being thrown away.

George Robertson: "We had to delegate quite a degree of authority to military commanders"
In return for a promise that Nato would only hit "strictly military targets", the lukewarm allies were pursuaded to back them.

Gen Clark then hit the Milosevic party HQ, the presidential palace and the TV stations - all targets taken from the Phase Three list that several allies had refused to vote for.

[ image:  ]
The Supreme Commander then proceeded with his escalation, occasionally phoning the key political leaders to get particularly sensitive targets okayed.

"I didn't always defer to those who wanted targets withheld," Gen Clark now reveals.

Many people at Nato feel the Supreme Commander did the only thing he could to win the war under what were initially very tight political restrictions.

"You cannot fight wars by committee", says one.

Power struggle

The political/military dilemma at the heart of the air war remains unresolved which is why ministers continue to insist only "strictly military targets" were hit whereas it is obvious that most people would not call a TV station or electricitical power plants "military".

So Nato had to sideline its reluctant members in order to win.

Richard Holbrooke: "Milosevic and his military knew the bombing was ready to go"
Those who had tried to brake the escalation either ducked questions about their attitude to what had happened or tried to claim they had stopped Gen Clark escalating further.

President Jacques Chirac of France for example boasted that it was thanks to him that any bridges had been left standing across the River Danube.

What about those like Germany and Italy who were suggesting a bombing pause?

London and Washinton thought this would be disastrous, so they made clear they would not even allow the idea to be formally tabled.

Strobe Talbott: "Rambouillet was tough, but the only way of dealing with an impossible situation"
As Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Secretary and leading advocate of a halt to airstrikes now reflects, "I had to realise that this was not workable in an alliance. This was too complicated."

The "triumph of Nato resolve" trumpeted by some leaders after Milosevic agreed to withdraw is therefore emerging now as a triumph of ruthless alliance management by Washington.

When it suited them - for example in keeping the 'bombing pause' lobby in check they used Nato's constitution with its stress on unanimity skilfully.

When Washington needed to escalate the bombing and it didn't suit them, they worked their way around these same rules.

For the decision-makers involved the ends justified the means.

The alternative, a humiliating climbdown for Nato, was too awful to contemplate.

The war though, did not win them a permanent solution to the Kosovo issue. Allied splits are once again evident about what should happen there in the future: America favours independence for the Albanian community, France and Germany are dead against it.

Without the imperative of an on-going war, it will be much harder to keep the allies united on resolving these future problems.

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