General Wesley K. Clark, U.S.A. (Ret.), was Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, from 1997 to 2000 and is currently a military analyst for CNN. He served previously as director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon from 1994 to 1996 and was the lead military negotiator for the Bosnian Peace Accords at Daytona in 1995. He is in business in Little Rock, AR and Washington, D.C.
The NATO defense ministers met in June, 1998. A lot of people have said that was a really important meeting. What did they ask you to do?
It was a critical meeting, because that's the meeting in which NATO began to seriously discuss the process of taking action, if necessary. There was a lot of discussion of what was going on in Kosovo. People had finally come to terms with the fact that it wasn't just an ordinary reaction to some domestic terrorism that was taking place--they were seeing the first stages of unfolding drama that was likely to culminate in ethnic cleansing. It's a pattern that's been seen elsewhere in the Balkans.
Secretary Cohen made a speech which, people told me, drew gasps in the room. He was tough.
Secretary Cohen explained that it was time for NATO to essentially lay down the law and take a stand. . . . He said we should cut off what the Serbs were doing, and make it very clear that it wouldn't be tolerated. He was very direct in asking that this be done, and it drew a lot of discussion around the table.
So the defense ministers were trying to get a grip on this, and trying to deter it. They asked us to undertake some planning, and to underscore the fact that we were going to do some planning, they asked us to do an air exercise. So we set up an air exercise, and did it in only 48 hours. We brought in over 100 aircraft, flew around the periphery of Kosovo, went into Albania, flew in Albania, then around Macedonia, and around the border. We knew we were being picked up by Yugoslav radar, which we thought was there.
What was the purpose of taking action at that point? Was it to get a political settlement? Was it to frighten Milosevic a bit?
We had 300,000, 400,000 people who'd been made homeless in an on-going campaign of counter-insurgency that was basically directed at the local populace. Their reasoning was that, since they couldn't get at the guerillas, they had to go after their support base. So they just ran people out of villages, and destroyed homes and so forth, making a lot of people miserable. They killed a few people in the process. It had to be stopped, because it was going to destabilize the region. . . . So the purpose of the NATO action was to forcefully underscore diplomatic efforts and to persuade Milosevic to stop.
The air campaign was phased.
The air campaign was designed to strike different targets at different phases. In the first phase, we made clear that if we cross the threshold and start using manned aircraft over Yugoslavia, that we're going to have to go after the Integrated Air Defense System, wherever it is. There would be no sanctuary for this Integrated Air Defense System. The political leadership in some nations was uncomfortable with this, and so they asked if we could do something more limited. We said we could, but not with manned aircraft--if you want us to do something that's limited only to Kosovo, then we'll use Cruise missiles. That was the second option, the so-called "limited air" option. It was designed to be a single riposte in return for an egregious act of ethnic cleansing.
If Milosevic hadn't buckled, I have no doubt that the alliance would have moved toward the commitment of ground forces. That would have been my advice.
So, in reality, we had these two air plans. There was an activation order for both plans--one that called for an immediate strike of Cruise missiles focused in Kosovo, and another that called for a phased air operation. It began with phase one, with targets primarily on an Integrated Air Defense System, but also targeting some field and forces in Kosovo. Then it expands to encompass a broader array of targets throughout the depth of Yugoslavia.
General Naumann has told me that, as early as July, he was telling the politicians that they should think about joint operations, that an air war wouldn't do the trick, and you should consider ground troops as well. What were you saying to them at that time?
I was continuing to advise that we needed a variety of options. . . . It was clear when we got into the discussions of the ground options that there was no consensus to do any detailed work on ground options. Indeed, it was hoped and believed that the threat of the air action would be enough to compel Milosevic to stop whatever it is he was doing.
What were people worried about? . . . What were the politicians back in Washington worried about?
People in various nations were concerned that about getting into a situation where the costs of the action didn't match the interests involved, or, to put it a different way, getting into an operation which they couldn't sustain public support. They felt that air was easier to get public support for than ground options. Nevertheless, they recognized that you had to plan for all of it. If the threat didn't work, you'd have to actually use the air, and what if using the air wasn't enough? Then you'd have to use ground. That was all recognized and discussed up front.
I understood that you looked at options. I know they weren't taken forward, but you looked at options that encompassed a whole range of things. What did they include?
We were tasked to plan a whole array of options, maybe 12 or 15 of them. We started with planning an air option, and we added a second air option. We looked at preventive deployments into Albania, into Macedonia, and throughout the region--whether they were going to be in the mountains or at the ports, and how many people were needed, and what they would do. We looked at what we would do if we had to go in and enforce a cease-fire, or if there was a peace settlement, or if we'd done an air campaign and Milosevic still didn't want to yield--what would to do then. We considered what to do if we went in on the ground and he still didn't want to stop the fighting. The planning did encompass ground options.
At that stage, were you planning a war, or were you planning a diplomatic threat?
The military planning served a diplomatic purpose.
General Naumann said that later on you and he inherited this plan, and it had never really been planned as a war--it had been planned by the politicians to frighten Milosevic a bit. Was there a sense at that time that you were planning something to frighten Milosevic, rather than to do it?
No, absolutely not. In the sense of what we were doing inside the military chain of command, we did very real military planning. On the other hand, the planning consisted of giving a concept, and then being asked to elaborate on it. Once we'd done the concept on the ground operations, it was clear there wasn't any appetite for much elaboration. . . . When people think about using force, they want to use the least possible force, and then increase it only if necessary. And no one wanted to declare war on Serbia.
Why wasn't one of the options at that time to plan a downtown blitz, in intense Baghdad style?
As we looked at the options laid out, they had to meet the political test. They run a political critique. All NATO options and war plans are vetted, approved by the North Atlantic Council--they're not war plans that a military officer can create--they're war plans that he submits for approval. We were given certain guidance, and we hammered around the edges until the plan met the political guidance.
Would you have liked a downtown blitz to be one of the options?
Any time you cross the boundary to using force, it makes sense to escalate the force as rapidly as possible to be as decisive as possible. On the other hand, we never thought during the campaign, and I would not have thought before that, that it made sense to shatter NATO in order to drop a few more bombs on the target. So it was a matter of what would the political climate of opinion accept. We pushed very hard to raise the bar, and to get a more robust first effort.
In September 1998 there was an absolutely dreadful massacre at a place called Obrinje. Do you remember that?
I do remember it. It's what really triggered the UN Security Council resolution.
I know a lot of countries were bothered about the legality of taking action. Did the Obrinje massacre sweep aside a lot of these concerns?
It brought to a sharp focal point the recognition that the Serbs were doing something in there, and it was wrong.
What was the purpose of the Holbrooke mission?
On the military side of it, we were hoping to buy a halt in the Milosevic campaign with the air threat. Holbrooke tried to buy that halt by creating and inserting the OSCE verifiers. It probably could have been done another way, but that's what he did.
We thought that Dick Holbrooke's mission was absolutely essential. In the past, we'd seen that it's much more effective to convey the threat of the use of force with an emissary who can go in and work the issue with the intended recipient. Holbrooke had, in the past, proved to be very effective at doing this.
When you heard about the Holbrooke deal, what did you think about it?
After about three days, Dick Holbrooke came back through Brussels, and he wanted to brief us on what he'd achieved. . . . I was concerned that we really hadn't achieved much initially with the OSCE agreement, because Milosevic had already said that there could be some OSCE observers in there. . . . At first, it didn't seem to be a very significant concession by Milosevic.
The OSCE mission looked like it was going to place unarmed people at risk, and in addition, it was going to place people on the ground whose very presence would enable them to be taken hostage and, therefore, checkmate the air threat. We'd seen this in Bosnia. So there was some ambivalence among many on the staff when they head about the deal. The way we overcame this was to then link the ground mission with the air verification mission. . . .
The NATO aircraft would be able to over-fly Kosovo, and would provide pictures and information for the OSCE people on the ground. That way, you'd have real teamwork. On the ground, you'd have unarmed verifiers, who were backed up both symbolically and in practice by NATO muscle.
We felt that . . . linking the missions would give us the kind of leverage that we needed to continue to press for compliance with the agreement that that Holbrooke was brokering--which was essentially the UN Security Council resolution. We also made clear at that point that if we didn't have the NATO connection into this, we weren't going to have anything that was meaningful in itself.
You went down to see Milosevic. Can you recreate the warning you delivered to him? What did you say to him, and what did he say to you?
We actually went down because we weren't sure that there was anything in writing that said Milosevic was actually going to comply with the UN Security Council resolution. The agreement stated that we had a monitoring mission on the ground, and we had a monitoring mission in the air. But the resolution called for them to withdraw the excess forces and to stop the excessive violence there. And that wasn't part of the signed agreement.
So when we went down there, we said, "Mr. President, you're going to withdraw your forces that don't belong here, aren't you?" He said, "There are no such forces." I said, "Have you ever heard of the 211th Armor Brigade?" He said, "No, I have not." And he looked over the chief of defense staff, who said, "Oh, yes, that's in there, in Serbia." And Milosevic looked back at us. He said, "Okay, we have such a unit. It will be withdrawn. . . . " This discussion went on and on, and we continued to roll out the list of excess units that were in there that had to be withdrawn.
. . . We told the Serbs that we wanted the facts about whether they were complying, and that we wouldn't do anything about the activation order without that information. . . I flew back again, about four or five days later, armed with the information the Serbs had given us.
We went through an evening of discussions. I called President Milosevic aside and I said, "Mr. President, you have to understand that NATO is very serious. You have to pull out the excess forces. If you don't, there's an activation order. And if they tell me to bomb you, I'm going to bomb you good." Milosevic wasn't happy about this, and he put on the Balkan macho act at first. It was sort of, "Well, General Clark, NATO must do what . . ." I said, "Come on, Mr. President, you don't want to get bombed by NATO. You tell your generals to cooperate. You figure out a way to get those forces out of here."
And so we said very directly to President Milosevic, "You're going to have to pull out the extra police, pull them out. It's your problem. You signed up, you agreed to do this, and you pull them out." We spent the rest of the night working up the written agreement on this. He promised NATO that he would pull out 4,000 police, and promised to pull out the excess heavy weapons that were there. He promised not to use anything other than ordinary police methodology, and he promised to give advance warning of any deployment of forces, and so forth. These were the so-called promises to NATO. We carried these back to the Security Council, and the Council said, "Okay. At that point, we'll suspend the implementation of the activation order."
. . . He recounted to us that he knew how to deal with the Albanians, that in 1946, the Albanians that he called "murderers and bandits," were handled by "killing them all, although it took several years, we killed them all." He then signed the promises to NATO that he would only use normal policing methods. . . .
Do you think Kosovo mattered to him? What did he say to you about Kosovo?
He became excessively emotional about the Albanians. . . . He gave his set platform speech about how bad these people were. It was a dehumanization of another group. It's a straight incitement to ethnic cleansing. We had to stop him a couple of times and say, "Mr. President, we're not even talking about the Albanians here. We're talking about your obligations to NATO." . . . .
When we left the discussions on October 25, we left with the promise given by Milosevic to NATO. But we also left knowing, given his attitudes and the dynamics in the Balkans, that we only had two to four months before fighting would resume--it usually happens in the spring. . . . It appeared that, if we didn't get a diplomatic agreement within a couple of months or so, intensified fighting would resume, and there'd be another big round of ethnic cleansing..
What were intelligence sources suggesting to you about his intentions? What did you think he might actually do to the Albanians during this period?
Step by step, Milosevic began to break the promises he had made to NATO. There were already indications of excessive forces being brought in, of maneuvering around the key line of communication between Pristina and Belgrade. There were other indicators that these commitments weren't going to be taken seriously. So we began to have very grave concerns.
We watched the situation escalate during the Christmas holidays. When NATO reassembled in January, 1999, we warned the secretary general about the grave threat to NATO's credibility. Before NATO could take action, we received a call from Ambassador Bill Walker one Saturday about the massacre in Racak. He told me, "I've been there, I've looked at it, and there's no doubt. This is not the first time I've seen dead bodies. I know what I am looking at." I immediately called Secretary General Solana and said, "Here's the next triggering event." . . . General Naumann and I were directed to go back to discuss what had happened as soon as possible with President Milosevic.
What did you say when you met with Milosevic, and what did he say to you?
General Naumann and I flew down. NATO released a press statement expressing its grave concern . . . calling on Milosevic to uphold the promises that he'd made only two months before to NATO, which led to the suspension of the activation order.
We had basically these three topics. We said, "Let's talk about the massacre." He said, "It's not a massacre. Our people would not do such a thing." We said, "Very good. And how do you know this?" He said, "We just know this. We're having an investigation, which will show that our people didn't do this." . . . Then he began to backtrack, and realize what he was saying. He said, "But the investigation is only being done because this is in accordance with Serbian law. We already know what the answer is." I said, "I am very glad that none of us are involved in that investigation, if you've already determined what the outcome is going to be."
The next issue was whether Louise Arbour, from the International Criminal Tribunal, was going to come in. Milosevic said that she could come in, like any other tourist. I asked, "But she be allowed to go down and look at the site of the massacre?" He said she could, if she spoke to the minister of justice. Then he turned and asked one of his cronies, "Now, what's the name of our minister of justice?" That shows you how important that minister is. He says that the minister of justice can take her down there, but she won't be able to talk to anyone. He said, "She has no jurisdiction. We have told you this." I said, "But I'm asking you now on behalf of the Council." So we went through this intensively. . . . Finally I said to him, "Mr. President, let's be honest with each other. You're not going to let her come in there and do an investigation. You're not going to let her really see what happened. So, if you're not going to do that, why are we going through this charade? Just let her come in, or tell us she's not going to be allowed to do it." He said, "She will not be allowed to do it."
Then there's Ambassador Bill Walker, who Milosevic finds to be a very bad guy, anti-Serb. So we talked a long time about this. The final issue was, what about the promises to NATO? We went through all of these issues with him in great and excruciating detail, and when we finished, we got the three no's. No, he's not going to let the International Criminal Tribunal investigate. No, he's not going to accept Ambassador Bill Walker continuing in his position. And no, he's not going to uphold his promises to NATO.
Milosevic was extremely stubborn. . . . He already knew what he wanted in this meeting, at least, that's the impression we had. I asked him, "You told Dick Holbrooke that Kosovo's 'more important than your neck.' What do you mean by that?" He said, "I said Kosovo's more important than my head." He began to tell me how Kosovo was the center of Serb civilization, and repeated the ethnic cleansing rhetoric again about Kosovo. So when we left there, we knew we had a pretty serious problem.
Was that the last time you saw him?
That's the last time that I've had anything to do with President Milosevic.
When it became clear in the first couple of days that Milosevic wasn't going to buckle immediately, do you remember pushing to bomb Belgrade?
What are your memories of that?
I talked to everybody. I talked to diplomats, NATO political leaders, national political leaders, and national chiefs of defense. There was a constant round of telephone calls, pushing and shoving and bargaining and cajoling, trying to raise the threshold for NATO attacks.
Some generals would lean back. I've spoken to generals who say, "The politicians can give me an order. I'll lean back."
It's a matter of trying to follow through on what you know to be the underlying strategy in military forces at play. An air campaign is a race of destruction against reconstruction. It's a race against time. In the early stages of an air campaign, you take the most lucrative targets. As the air campaign continues, the targeting has to be more refined, and you have a greater risk of collateral damage. You also have a greater risk of other problems interfering, like re-supply from the outside, or changes in the accompanying political conditions. So once the threshold is crossed, one of the military commander's obligation is to push very strongly--if he's not using decisive force at the outset--to get to decisive force as soon as possible.
In the first two weeks, although I know things changed after that, there was a lot of political interference. What was it like being in your office? It sounds like there was a prime minister on the phone every two minutes. Just describe it to me.
I don't call what happened in the first couple of weeks "political inference." I call it the process of sorting out procedures, authorities and concepts of operations.
It was difficult for everybody who was engaged in it. We were stretching the envelope of our understanding. This was the first time NATO had ever done such an operation. It's the process of bringing the military world together with the political world.
When did you realize war was inevitable?
We always believed that there was a way that diplomacy could have worked. But we recognized that fighting was going to occur on the ground after October, in two to four months, unless there was an agreement. Then it was a question of, how good is the diplomacy, how effective can we be in bringing Milosevic to the table, what are the positive and negative incentives that can be applied against him, how do we get the Albanian side to the table, and is it going to be enough to prevent the outbreak of conflict? . . . During the Rambouillet talks, it became apparent that we were going to end up relying on the military means to coerce Milosevic into an agreement.
What was your advice to the politicians at that time about the likely length of bombing that would be required?
When we started into this thing, my concern was that it be a serious sustained effort that could be prolonged virtually indefinitely. My advice wasn't about the length of the campaign; the advice was about the intensity of the campaign. The length of the campaign was going to be decided by two factors: what it took for Milosevic to comply, and what it took for the alliance to keep going. There was a lot of concern among some in the alliance that we might be forced to accept a bombing pause. So one of my responsibilities was to argue against the bombing pause.
It would have given the Serbs a chance to recover their defense system. It would have given them a chance to continue the ethnic cleansing campaign on the ground. And it would have made Western political leaders and NATO appear as though we didn't really have a strategy and a program to move ahead. And we couldn't afford any of that--we had to move forward in this campaign. And that position prevailed.
In your heart of hearts, what did you think was going to be the likely length? Did you think it would be three, four, five days?
I always thought there was a chance that Milosevic could concede early--but it was only a chance. . . . The planned phased air operation was meant to go for a long time--as long as it took. . . . There was a lot of focus on the first couple of day's targets, because we could then gauge the domestic political response, the results on the ground, and so forth. I got agreement from alliance nations to support the targets set for the first couple of nights, knowing that, after the first night, we'd have to go and look ahead. . . .
Next, it was time to ratchet up of the intensity of the air campaign. We had to take the targets in downtown Belgrade under attack. We had to go to the headquarters of the organizations that were doing the ethnic cleansing..
What were the dangers of doing that? General Naumann told me that it was, for him, one of the most difficult decisions that had to be taken. He was worried about collateral damage. . .
In Europe, quite understandably, there's a terrible aftermath of World War II. There's memories of the terror of bombing, and what it does to civilian populations. Many NATO leaders, as children, experienced the aftermath of World War II or lived through bombing raids. There was a particularly vicious German raid against Belgrade on April 6, 1941 where 17,000 people reportedly were killed in Belgrade in a single night--a real blot in German memories, and in the memories of many others. European leaders were acutely aware of the sensitivity of their publics . . . to the dangers of unrestricted aerial warfare. So we had to explain that we weren't into unrestricted aerial warfare. We had to convince them of the validity of the targets, the accuracy of the delivery systems, the skill and courage of the airmen, and their ability to deliver weapons with pinpoint accuracy. Over a period of time, we did that. . . .
Our plan was to escalate as rapidly as possible, to do as much as we could. But we also recognized that no single target, no set of targets, and no bombing series was more important than maintaining the consensus of NATO
What are your memories of first hearing that he was cleansing people in the country, pushing them over the borders? How much of a shock was this, that hundreds of thousands of people could be expelled in this way?
. . . We'd always known it was a possibility. But we thought it probably wasn't the most likely possibility, because we knew that if Milosevic did that, he would raise the ire of Western publics, and increase the pressure for more stringent military action against him.
To some people sitting at home, it made the air war look irrelevant. They thought the air war had been launched to protect these people, and they could see them flooding across the borders. Tell me about that.
That was a very painful period for us. We wanted to do everything we could to help these people, and yet they were on the ground, and the weather was bad, and we couldn't even do the bombing strikes we wanted to do in Kosovo without risk of hurting these people. It definitely complicated what we were doing. . . . We did a lot of work to prop up NATO, so NATO could provide positive assistance in the refugee area. It was a period of real humanitarian concern.
People should understand that, in this campaign, the men and women who flew every day over Kosovo were not only doing their professional duty--they were very personally and emotionally committed to it. They wanted to stop the ethnic cleansing. It made them sick to see the burning on the ground below them. They often couldn't stop it, because it's the nature of things that people are mixed up on the ground. Also, bombs from aircraft are not the appropriate means to stop paramilitary murder, and we said that at the time. But the person who could stop the paramilitary murder was, of course, Milosevic, and that's what the bombs were directed toward.
Bombing the Serb forces on the ground became very important. . .
It was very important politically, and it was very important militarily. These forces were the agents and the support of the ethnic cleansing. A few days before the war, Milosevic had told some of our generals that he could finish off the KLA in five to seven days. It was clear that he was going to use his military forces to do this. Therefore, they quite properly became one of the focuses of the campaign.
Tell me about the political control of targeting. . . . Clearly, there was a lot of stuff that was non-controversial. But if you had something controversial like the TV channels, how did it work?
There were a lot of purely military targets, such as ordinary bridges, railroad tunnels, storage tanks, ammunition bunkers and barracks. Our only concern there was not to attack targets that have too great a risk of harming innocent people on the ground. We had a complete detailed system set up, so we could assess what the risk of collateral damage was. In some cases, the pilots adjusted the size of the bombs they were dropping, or the angle of approach to the target, to reduce the chance of collateral damage. Overall, they did an outstanding job in this.
There were other types of targets that had a high political symbolism, which went beyond their actual military value--like the television system. We knew that Milosevic used TV as an instrument of command and control. He used it to control the population, to inflame the passions of ethnic cleansing, and so forth. Because freedom of the press is one of our values, the symbolic value of that to Western nations is enormous. . . . So that decision had a huge political component. And we had to work it through the nations, step by step. . . . We'd out who was in favor, who was opposed, and why, and work to assure them as we moved forward on these specific types of targets.
What did you think when Belgrade was hit on April 3?
I think the strike on Belgrade conveyed a seriousness of purpose, and of resolve by the alliance. It was a stroke felt around the world. It was amplified on television with the pictures of the burning buildings and so forth. There was a clear message that NATO was in this, that NATO meant to stay and meant to win.
You were very concerned with wanting to bomb Serb forces on the ground. General Short, as it is well known, didn't want Serb forces bombed on the ground. Why did you think it was so important? Was it primarily political? I understand that you wanted to make it work, but why?
There were three ways that this war could end. One is that you could persuade Milosevic to give up. Or, you could persuade people around Milosevic, who had access to him, to get rid of him if he didn't want to give up, and they could give up for him or for Yugoslavia. Or, you could take away his means of prosecuting ethnic cleansing.
Now, one couldn't know exactly what the threshold was where Milosevic would give up. In fact, there was never a single target, or single set of targets, that were guaranteed to produce the surrender. There wasn't, in that sense, a military center of gravity strategically--not one that we could get at. There may have been a political center of gravity, if you could cause so much erosion to Milosevic's credibility, but there's no formula for doing that. It's not like disrupting a certain percent of his rail movement capacity. There was no linkage between that kind of disruption, or shutting out his electric power, or taking out the television, and his ultimate to give up.
There was, however, a clear relationship between attacking his forces on the ground and our being able to run him out of Kosovo. If that could have been done more successfully, we probably would have brought the war to a much more rapid conclusion. As it was, we did enough to inhibit the use of these forces against the KLA. Milosevic was proved wrong when he boasted at the outset that he could finish off the KLA in five days.
What's your memory of the night when the refugee column was bombed?
At first, we heard a radio intercept that made it sound as though the Serbs had machine-gunned the column. . . . By the way, we're still not sure that they didn't machine-gun a column, or part of that column during the day--we'll never get to the bottom of this. But over a period of four days, we ended up going back to the airmen who flew and who took all the TV footage and all of the gunsight imagery, from the gunsight video.
We put it all together and laid out exactly what happened, because we had a record of where each bomb was dropped. Then it was a matter of looking at what was actually on the ground. You could look at some of the CNN video and others, and rotate it, and figure out, for instance, that this house is right here, and this is this picture, so this bomb fell here and it hit tractors.
But it never answered the question of who was on the tractor. We had eyewitness pilots, who said they saw the tractor stop and then the houses burst into flame. I doubt very seriously that those were Albanians who were setting their own homes on fire. And so, he felt that that was a hostile act, so he attacked the tractors in one case. In another case, a pilot had identified Serb military vehicles in a column, and then attacked, and what we saw the next day were pictures of this column with some bodies at odd angles.
That was a little suspicious. And afterwards, we recovered from a newspaperman's journal some confirmation that the Albanians had seen some bodies being moved by the Serbs, and placed into these craters, and so forth. How and why the people were killed, we'll never know.
What's the bottom line of that whole incident?
The bottom line is that it shows the limitations in providing public information during an air campaign. You just can't get to the bottom of these incidents as rapidly as an incident can be flashed across a television screen.
While this is all going on, you are trying to keep options open. In mid- April, 1999, you gathered senior officers to sound out their views on ground options. Tell me about that meeting. What was its significance? What were you trying to do?
We gathered several times together to really look at the options on what to do on the ground. We had an assessment process going early on. It was a very closely held effort to go back and look at the planning that was done in the summer of 1998, and to update it, so it fit the current situation. . . .
What did you want to achieve at the Washington NATO summit in terms of ground planning? What was your hope?
Any achievement at the Washington summit was going to be determined by political leaders, not by me. But it was clear that the sooner a decision was made to begin preparing forces, the earlier a ground attack could be launched--assuming it needed to be--and it would be better to launch it in July than in August, and better in August than September. By October, we'd be likely to be dealing with some weather that would not favor us as much as it might favor the enemy. So--the sooner, the better.
What happened after the Washington summit?
We brought a multinational team together here at Supreme Headquarters. It was a multinational and a multi-echelon team. We went in great detail into assessing the ground options and determining what might work, until we could convince ourselves that there was indeed a feasible, achievable ground war option in the near term.
How conscious were you of the timelines pressing in?
Extremely conscious--it was a continuing factor.
On May 3, 1999 electricity transformers were hit in the air war. Was that a big move forward?
The strike against the electricity was a big step in terms of taking away the ability of the Serb leadership to save fuel, and to easily coordinate mobilizing the population. Electricity is like the circulatory system in the body. It's fundamental to everything the country and the military infrastructure is doing. . . .
Lots of other things were happened the night of May 7. In particular, you hit a bunker in Milosevic's villa that night. You played a role in finding that target. Tell me about that.
During the air war in Bosnia in 1995, Holbrooke and I and the delegation were in Belgrade. We were taken to a little hunting lodge on the outskirts of Belgrade. We got out, and we talked to President Milosevic for a few minutes. . . . He asked us to speak to General Mladic and Mr. Karadzic to help work out what they must do to stop the bombing. . . . We agreed to talk with them, assuming it would be on some other day. Milosevic said, "Well, they're 200 meters away, and they'll be here very shortly."
So we remembered where this was. We talked about this. We began to look within a couple of hundred meters away from this hunting lodge, and we found it.
And then you went for it?
We went for it. And we hit it.
How did you hear about the Chinese embassy?
Around midnight, CNN aired a report that the Chinese embassy had been struck. We considered this unlikely. We looked at the targets again, just to be sure. No target looked like it might be the Chinese embassy. We had a Belgrade map, and we didn't strike any targets anywhere near the Chinese embassy that was marked on the Belgrade map. So I went to bed a second time feeling pretty comfortable. We got another call, which said we've confirmed it, so I went back to bed a third time. About five in the morning, I had another call that said, "Whoops. It looks like the embassy was moved. We've hit an annex of a new embassy, or a new embassy or something, it's down here." We went back to the target photograph--by that time, we had a clearer picture of what was being shown on CNN. And you could see that we'd struck what was pictured on CNN as the Chinese embassy.
What effects did that bombing have on your strategy? . . .
It really had no effect on our strategy. In fact, the same night that we bombed the embassy, we hit several other targets in Belgrade. That was a big downtown Belgrade package. It took us several days to develop new targets to go after and make sure that they were safe to attack. But there weren't any immediate restrictions because of the bombing of the Chinese embassy.
Obviously, we went back through out procedures, and asked if we did anything wrong. The answer was that this was the target given to us. We measured it, photographed it, and figured out exactly how to strike it and destroy it. We did all of the things that military people are supposed to do. We double-checked and triple-checked it. But no matter how good your procedures are, if you start with the wrong target, you're going to end up striking the wrong target. So we went back and put in another double check on the targeting process itself to make sure that people who really knew Belgrade could identify each target.
You went to Washington on May 19 to brief at the Pentagon. What reaction did you get?
I got the reaction I expected, which was that it looks like it's going to be difficult. Yes, it's going to be difficult. It's looks like it's going to take a lot of Americans. Yes, it's going to take a lot of Americans. It looks like it might be hard to do. Yes, it'll be hard to do. It looks like we're going to have to make a decision pretty soon. Yes, just about what I expected.
And you kept pressing? You were still pressing . . .
Well, a commander has to have an option. There was never a doubt that we were winning the air campaign. We said from the outset that we were winning, and that he was losing, and he knew it. But there was no guarantee that you would cross the threshold in which he'd throw in the towel. We did cross that threshold, thank goodness.
During the military talks on May 27, 1999, how worried were you that Milosevic was playing his usual games--trying to delay until it was too late to launch a ground option?
Milosevic was playing his usual games. But in this case, he had decided that he'd have to concede somehow to get this stopped, and in his way of making decisions, he'd made that decision. So he moved on pretty smartly with it.
Why were you determined to keep bombing?
When you go through circumstances like this, you don't know whether your adversary really means it or not, so it's important that a campaign not be unilaterally and prematurely terminated. In many respects, it was the most important phase of the campaign, because it showed that NATO had the resolution to keep bombing even as it was talking. It was captured beautifully by CNN, who said, "Despite negotiations, NATO continues to bomb." I called one of my friends at CNN and said, "It's a wrong line. It's because of the bombing that the negotiations are continuing, and that's why we're going to keep the bombing up until the negotiations are completed."
Tell me about the Russian column moving into Pristina.
My American liaison officer for the Russians called. The Russians had crossed the river from Bosnia into Yugoslavia at 0850 on Friday morning. I knew they were moving. They were moving into take an airfield that would enable them to be . . . they'd already told us their mission was to be the sort of forward edge or later air flow.
What action did you take?
I ordered Mike Jackson to prepare to execute a plan that he said he had on the shelf. Four airborne companies would arrive, and land by helicopter into the Pristina airfield as soon as possible--so when the Russians arrived, they'd be properly greeted. . . .
Next, we begin to get indications that there were second thoughts down the line--risks began to arise, and there were concerns, and so forth. But the first thing I really did when this happened was to call Javier Solana, and tell Solana what was going on. He said, "You must get to the Pristina airfield first." I said, "I want to be sure I have the authority to do this." He said, "Of course you have the authority. You're the supreme commander."
I then called Washington and said, "Look, I'm going to be giving this order. This is going to be sensitive and sticky. I want to make sure that Washington understands this, and will work this with various people." I had my British deputy and a German chief of staff there. The idea was that we were going to make sure we had the political leadership behind us and aware that this was a substantially different set of circumstances than what had been contemplated 12 hours before. And so, everything was in motion at once-- tactical planning, strategic planning and policy-level political decisions. Everything was churning. Basically, a policy decision was made not to contest the Russian move--in part, because Ivanov told Washington that it was all a mistake, and his troops really weren't going there.
What does it bode for NATO in the future if you get a situation where a general doesn't obey the supreme commander?
I wouldn't cast it on those terms. As I said, this is a policy issue. What it says for the future is you'd better damn well have thought through the policies before you run through the operations.
A lot of people, in the States in particular, say . . . "Why didn't we just go in and smash him? Why did we pussyfoot around?"
I don't think anyone sensible in America said that. . . . Let's just say that I reject the premises of the question. This was a case where there was an agreement made to try to get a political solution, and as part of that agreement, there was an incentive card thrown on the table called an air campaign. One of the measures the international community would use was a NATO air campaign. It wasn't a war--there was no intent to destroy Serbia, and there was no intent to take Milosevic out of power. We may not have liked him very much, but before this campaign, he wasn't an indicted war criminal. Only a couple of years before, in Dayton, he'd been viewed as the key to achieving the peace. So I think that the early revisionists have to go back and think about the circumstances a little bit more thoroughly. This was an effort to reinforce diplomacy. That's the way it began.
Once crossed the threshold with the use of force, then my military colleagues and I had to speak up, and drive it toward the effective use of force. I think it was recognized by all the political leadership that it was "do or die" for NATO. That was one of Milosevic's other great miscalculations--that somehow because NATO was far away and Serbia was close, that he would maintain the interest and the commitment to Kosovo, and NATO would lose interest. He failed to understand NATO.
Was it worth it?
Of course it was worth it. There would have been a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kosovo Albanians if NATO had done nothing. It would have resulted in more devastation, more deaths. . . . and it would have also discredited the international community further. It was the only thing that could be done, and it was precisely what we had to do.
You know Milosevic so well, and he didn't buckle. I wonder if you really did misread him, or whether it was the politicians who misread him. What did you think Milosevic . . .
I always thought there was a chance that he would concede early, but there was no guarantee of it. He talks tough a lot of times. When he says Kosovo is "more important than my head," you have to ask, does he really mean it, and with what degree of determination? He ranges all the way from being a fragile bluffer to being a very strong and resolute opponent, and you never know for sure where actually he's going to fall on this. So was it reasonable to think there was a chance that after a couple of days he would toss in the towel? Yes, it was reasonable to think that. There was no evidence that would have totally, absolutely ruled this out, because the only evidence is what Milosevic himself might think.
You weren't going to let Milosevic off the hook?
Did you regard Milosevic as the root to a solution, or was he the problem? What do you think of him--can you sum him up?
I think it was clear to most people in the international community by mid-1998 that Milosevic really wasn't the key to a solution--he was the problem.
He's a very smart, savvy guy who really understands power and how to use it. He's a master at taking legal procedural issues and using them to befuddle and hamstring his opposition domestically. He has full control, or has had nearly full control of the legal system, the police structure, the information, and the media, and so he has many different power plays that he can use. It's not necessarily crude naked force. It starts with something more gradual. He offers assistance, then he offers some intimidation, and then the bottom line is that if you disagree, you'll be destroyed. He has a full spectrum of measures that give him control. Milosevic has had a decade in power to deepen his grip on his country, at a terrible expense.
I've spent hundreds of hours of dealing with Milosevic. He's a very shrewd, forceful, tough, wily negotiator. He's not afraid to make bold decisions, and he's not afraid to use force. He plays by his own rules, and he has his own standards of rationality. Sometimes people in the West don't understand the rationality that he operates on. What other autocrat could lose four wars in ten years, see his country cut to pieces, and still survive? But that's the dynamic of his maintenance of power. He sets one ethnic group against another, and then builds his support amongst his own ethnic group. That's how he's maintained power.
I know this is speculation. But if Milosevic hadn't buckled on June 1, June 2, what would your advice have been?
If Milosevic hadn't buckled, I have no doubt that the alliance would have moved toward the commitment of ground forces. That would have been my advice.
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