Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 April 1999
The crucial question in Kosovo is not whether western military intervention is justified but what sort of military intervention could possibly stop Serb pogroms there.
It is becoming increasingly clear that bombing alone will not suffice – indeed, that bombing alone will make matters worse. The NATO bombardment of Serbian military bases has given Serbian terror squads the excuse they wanted to go on the rampage, expelling Kosovars from their homes and killing anyone who resists or gives the impression of being capable of mounting resistance. More bombs will not stop them. Only a massive and immediate deployment of ground troops, which would never get Serb approval, could possibly halt the carnage.
Yet that is precisely what the United States and Britain, the only two powers capable of such a deployment, have ruled out.
The half-respectable reason is military logistics. Kosovo is a mountainous place. The few roads into it go through passes that are easily defended by the JNA, the Yugoslav People’s Army, from the surrounding heights. It would be difficult to invade by land under any circumstances – let alone with thousands of refugees streaming across its borders in the opposite direction. The JNA, so the argument goes, is a potent force that cannot be messed with lightly. In any case NATO does not have tanks suited to the terrain. What’s more, plans do not exist for any deployment of ground troops. The idea was looked at and dismissed as impractical last autumn.
But the more important reason for the rejection of deployment of ground troops is political. The truth is that the logistics are difficult but not impossible. The mountains and narrow roads are as much of an obstacle to the JNA as they are to NATO. The JNA is big, but it is poorly equipped and its morale is low. With its overwhelming air superiority, NATO could, if only the will were there, launch an occupation of Kosovo with airborne troops playing the key role.
That, however, might be a bloody business. It might mean body bags coming home to Detroit, Dagenham and Dusseldorf – and that is why Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have so emphatically ruled it out.
Of course, it is hardly novel for states to attempt to maximise their military clout at the same time as minimising the vulnerability of their combatants. That is the story of military technology over the centuries. But it is remarkable, since the movement against the war in Vietnam, how exclusively the US has adopted a policy of wielding the biggest possible high-tech stick while making its top priority the avoidance of US casualties – a policy that other western states have followed.
Now that the Cold War is over, using the high-tech stick is much more of an option in foreign policy than it was. But it can be used only if the danger to western combatants is minimal, perhaps even eliminated. Bombing is fine; risking the lives of our servicemen is not.
If this is better in some ways than the First World War generals’ casual disregard for the poor bloody infantry, it is also profoundly debilitating. Slobodan Milosevic knows that, if he can survive the bombing, there is not much else up NATO’s sleeve.
As things stand, it appears that Milosevic and his war criminal cronies could cling to power for a very long time. It is possible that “moderate” elements in the JNA will stage a coup against him, but otherwise the prospects of his being overthrown by his compatriots are slim. Serbian civil society has all but ceased to exist: the opposition is in tatters.
All of which makes the rhetoric of Blair and Clinton about finishing off this dreadful dictator look thin at best. I’d like to see the back of Milosevic as much as anyone, and like Blair and Clinton I think that the only way to get rid of him now is to inflict a comprehensive military defeat. But to will the end you have to will the means – and without ground troops the means are not there.