Was Kosovo The Good War?
by David N. Gibbs
www.tikkun.org/, July/August 2009
[This article draws from David
N. Gibbs's new book, First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention
& the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press,
June 2009), especially from chapter 7.]
As the 1999 NATO war against Serbia reaches
its tenth anniversary, it is being recalled with a measure of
nostalgia. The Kosovo war is remembered as the "good war"
-- a genuinely moral military action, which offers a reassuring
contrast with the Iraq fiasco. The Kosovo war was undertaken (so
the argument goes) only as a last resort, to restrain an unpleasant
dictator (Slobodan Milosevic) who would only respond to force.
And the war produced positive results, in the sense that Kosovo
was freed from Serb oppression and Milosevic was soon overthrown.
Now, a decade later, the Kosovo war is recalled as an exemplary
case of humanitarian intervention, and is widely viewed as a model
for possible interventions in Darfur and elsewhere. Indeed some
of the key figures in the Obama administration, notably Samantha
Power, have advocated that "humanitarian intervention"
on the model of Kosovo should be a basic theme of U.S. policy.
Given the importance of Kosovo as a model
for future military actions, it is important to understand more
fully what actually happened in this critical case. New information
has become available in recent years from the Milosevic war crimes
trial and other basic sources -- information that casts the war
in a wholly different (and not so positive) light. In what follows,
I will review some of these revelations, and how they have discredited
widely accepted myths about the "benign" character of
the Kosovo intervention.
First, a bit of background: Kosovo had
long been an "autonomous province" of the Republic of
Serbia, initially as part of communist Yugoslavia. Within Kosovo,
the population had been divided between an ethnic Albanian majority
and a relatively small Serb minority, which constituted between
10 percent and 15 percent of the total population. Ethnic conflict
between these two groups gradually destabilized the province.
In 1989, the Republic of Serbia ended the autonomous status of
Kosovo and placed it under effective martial law. A highly repressive
system of rule was imposed that victimized Albanians in the province,
while it favored the Serbs. Albanian efforts to escape this repression
formed the basis of the armed uprising in the late 1990s, led
by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). These efforts ultimately
triggered the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. After
the Serb defeat, an international peacekeeping force occupied
Kosovo. With the peacekeepers still present, Kosovo officially
seceded from Serbia and achieved full independence in 2008. A
majority of the Serb population was ethnically cleansed from Kosovo,
shortly after the NATO bombing, although a relatively small number
of Serbs still remain in parts of the province.
Myth 1: NATO began its bombing campaign
only after it had made every effort to avoid war and to achieve
its objectives in Kosovo through diplomatic means. The war resulted
because Milosevic firmly resisted a diplomatic settlement.
In reality, Milosevic was open to a diplomatic
settlement, and this point is now well established by the very
best sources. Specifically, Milosevic signed a series of international
agreements in October 1998 that called on the Serbs to withdraw
most of their forces from Kosovo and to implement a cease-fire.
He also agreed to the deployment of an internationally organized
Kosovo Verification Mission, which would supervise implementation
of the Serb troop pullback. These agreements were brokered by
U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke.
The Holbrooke agreement gradually broke
down, as fighting continued between Serb and Albanian forces and
then escalated during late 1998. At the time, it was widely believed
that it was the Serbs who scuttled the agreement. However, we
now know that this was not the case. In fact, the Serbs implemented
the Holbrooke agreement, and it was the Albanians who caused the
agreement to break down.
The evidence that the Serb/Yugoslav forces
complied with the agreement comes from General Klaus Naumann,
a German officer who played an important role in the diplomacy
of this period (and who later participated in the 1999 NATO war).
In 2002, Naumann appeared at the Milosevic trial as a key prosecution
witness and stated the following: "The Yugoslav authorities
honored the [Holbrooke] agreement ... I think one has to really
pay tribute to what the Yugoslav authorities did. This was not
an easy thing to bring 6,000 police officers back within twenty-four
hours, but they managed." And General Naumann's views are
supported by the Independent International Commission on Kosovo,
which noted in its 2000 report: "Serbia initially implemented
the [Holbrooke] agreement and withdrew its forces accordingly."
The breakdown of the Holbrooke agreement
was actually triggered by the KLA guerrillas, who used the Serb
restraint as an opportunity to launch a new offensive. This strategy
is noted in the following exchange, between a BBC interviewer
and General Naumann. The interview cites information from NATO
and from the director of the Kosovo Verification Mission, which
was responsible for overseeing implementation of the Holbrooke
BBC: "We've obtained confidential
minutes of the North Atlantic Council or NAC, NATO's governing
body. The talk was of the KLA as the 'main initiator of the violence
... It launched what appears to be a deliberate campaign of provocation
[against the Serbs].' This is how William Walker [head of the
Kosovo Verification Mission] himself reported the situation then,
in private" (emphasis added).
General Naumann: "Ambassador Walker
stated in the NAC that the majority of violations [of the Holbrooke
agreement] was caused by the KLA."
The record is thus clear: it was the Albanian
guerillas, not the Serbs, who caused the upsurge in fighting.
During February and March of 1999, the
United States and several European allies organized an international
peace conference -- officially intended to provide a comprehensive
settlement of the Kosovo conflict -- that took place mostly at
Rambouillet, France, outside of Paris. The Western mediators who
directed the conference sought to end Serb repression in Kosovo,
to re-establish Kosovo's regional autonomy (though still as a
province of Serbia), and to establish an armed international peacekeeping
force to oversee implementation. An independent Kosovo was not
contemplated at this point.
Ultimately the Rambouillet conference
broke down, and this failure led directly to the NATO bombing
campaign. At the time, it was widely assumed that the Serbs had
refused to negotiate seriously and were determined to use military
force against the Albanians. However, a close reading of the record
shows that the conventional wisdom was again wrong. In fact, the
Serbs remained open to a negotiated settlement, and they resorted
to force when a settlement proved unachievable.
Most participants in the Rambouillet conference
conceded that the Serb delegation had actually accepted all (or
virtually all) of the political demands that were put forward
by the U.S. and European mediators. The Serbs "seemed to
have embraced the political elements of the settlement, at least
in principle," according to Marc Weller, a legal scholar
who served as an adviser to the Albanian delegation. State Department
spokesman James Rubin claims that the Serbs had agreed to "nearly
every aspect of the political agreement." U.S. diplomat Christopher
Hill stated that "Milosevic was open to the Rambouillet political
deal." Even Madeleine Albright, though hypercritical of the
Serb delegation, acknowledged that the Serbs had accepted most
of the proposals for a political settlement. With regard to the
more contentious implementation aspects, Milosevic himself implied
that he would accept a peacekeeping force in Kosovo to supervise
the agreement, led by either the UN or the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe. He did, however, continue to resist
the idea of a NATO-led force, which the United States demanded.
The available information suggests that
a full settlement of the Kosovo conflict was within reach and
could have been achieved at Rambouillet. What caused the agreement
to break down was a new development that occurred late in the
negotiation process. Specifically, the Western mediators now proposed
that a "Military Annex" be added to the final agreement.
The proposed addition affirmed that NATO peacekeeping forces would
be deployed, and that these forces would have "free and unrestricted
passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY [Federal Republic
of Yugoslavia]." This section was highly significant; it
meant that not only would Kosovo be occupied by a NATO peacekeeping
force, but potentially all of Serbia and all that remained of
Yugoslavia would be occupied as well. After the Military Annex
appeared, the Serb delegation appeared to lose all confidence
in the negotiation process, and the peace talks broke down.
The suspicious wording of the Military
Annex was originally noted by British journalist John Pilger in
1999, during the course of the NATO bombing campaign. In response,
U.S. officials have insisted that the Annex was a harmless detail,
and deny that there was any effort to sabotage the peace talks.
The truth telling was left to the British.
In a post-war parliamentary hearing, former Defense Minister of
State John Gilbert affirmed that key negotiators were in fact
seeking to sabotage the conference. Gilbert was the number two
figure in the British Defense Ministry, with a specific responsibility
for intelligence gathering, and he supported the war. He is surely
a credible source. With regard to the motives of the negotiators,
he offered this observation: "I think certain people were
spoiling for a fight in NATO at that time ... we were at a point
when some people felt that something had to be done [against Serbia],
so you just provoked a fight." With regard to the peace terms
themselves, he said, "I think the terms put to Milosevic
at Rambouillet were absolutely intolerable: How could he possibly
accept them? It was quite deliberate" (emphasis added).
Lord Gilbert did not specifically mention
the Military Annex (and its clause about NATO access to all of
Yugoslavia), but it is easy to see that the Annex fit in well
with the overall picture of provocation that Gilbert described.
And it seems likely that the United States played a major role
in crafting the Military Annex, and thus sabotaging the talks:
in memoirs, General Wesley Clark revealed that he personally helped
with the drafting. In any case, the advent of the Military Annex
undermined the prospect of a peaceful settlement.
I have elsewhere discussed at length the
Clinton administration's motives for provoking a war; in this
article, I will provide a shortened explanation. Basically, the
United States was seeking a new justification for the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization, which seemed to lack any plausible function
since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The "successful"
intervention in Kosovo played a key role in affirming NATO's importance
for the post-Cold War period, and providing it with a new function.
Whatever the motives, the record suggests
that the Clinton administration was seeking a pretext for war
with Serbia. The collapse of peace talks at Rambouillet offered
Myth 2: The Kosovo conflict was a morally
simple case of Serb oppressors and Albanian victims.
The 1999 war was widely portrayed at the
time as a small-scale replay of World War II, with the Serbs in
the role of Nazi aggressors and the Albanians as the Jews, and
this image was a central theme of Samantha Power's widely influential
book, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of
Genocide. It is certainly true that the Serbs had an ugly record
of oppression and violence against the Albanian ethnic group,
and that Milosevic himself bears considerable responsibility for
orchestrating this oppression. This part of the story is largely
accurate, and little has emerged since to refute that image.
The problem is that the Albanian political
groups backed by the United States in the war were not a great
deal better. While there were some relatively decent and nonviolent
Albanian political groups that were important in the early phase
of this conflict, the principal group to receive direct U.S. support
-- the same group that later formed the government of independent
Kosovo -- was the Kosovo Liberation Army. The KLA had a record
of viciousness and racism that differed little from that of Milosevic's
forces. Attacking Serb civilians through terrorist acts was always
a central feature of the KLA's military strategy.
The terrorist nature of KLA strategy was
widely known among Western officials; even a prosecution witness
at the Milosevic trial acknowledged this fact. British parliamentarian
Paddy Ashdown, who was extensively involved in the Kosovo diplomacy,
testified about the KLA's terrorist strategy. The transcript of
Ashdown's cross-examination includes the following exchange:
Milosevic: "It was a well-known fact
that these [KLA] were terrorists, that this was a terrorist organization."
Ashdown: "Mr. Milosevic, I never
denied that it was a terrorist organization.
According to journalist Stacy Sullivan,
who interviewed many KLA figures, the guerrillas "hit the
Serb housing settlements, and they claimed responsibility for
downing a civilian aircraft and planting a car bomb that injured
the rector of the university. By definition, these were terrorist
The purpose of such terrorist tactics
was to provoke Serb retaliation, which helped to feed a cycle
of violence. These tactics were widely recognized. Even Madeleine
Albright, whose memoirs focus almost exclusively on Serb savagery,
briefly concedes that the KLA "seemed intent on provoking
a massive Serb response so that international intervention would
be unavoidable" (emphasis added). Needless to say, this strategy
-- of baiting the Serbs into attacking Albanian civilians, and
thus increasing pressure for external intervention -- worked quite
well. This is precisely the scenario that played out during the
period 1998-1999, leading to NATO intervention and a KLA victory.
It has long been assumed that, throughout
the conflict, it was the Serbs that had perpetrated most of the
violence. In fact there were extended periods when the Albanians
were the main perpetrators. This point was noted by British Defense
Minister George Robertson during parliamentary hearings after
the war ended. Lord Robertson stated that up until January 1999,
"the KLA were responsible for more deaths in Kosovo than
the Yugoslav authorities had been."
In later phases of the war, it was clearly
the Serbs who were the main perpetrators of violence. Beginning
in January 1999, there was a substantial spike of Serb attacks,
with an ugly massacre in the Albanian village of Racak and other
outrages during the last weeks of this first phase of war. And
there was a huge escalation of Serb atrocities that took place
during the NATO bombing -- an escalation that produced horrific
results. Nevertheless, Lord Robertson suggests that initially
it was the Albanians, not the Serbs, who committed the worst violence.
The diaries of Tony Blair's press spokesman, Alistair Campbell,
also emphasize the amoral character of the KLA, and how this fact
was well known among British officials. According to Campbell,
Blair and his foreign minister Robin Cook both believed "the
KLA ... were not much better than the Serbs."
Perhaps the most damning indictment of
the KLA was the way it behaved once the Serb forces were defeated
in June 1999. Following the Serb defeat, the NATO and UN peacekeepers
effectively placed the KLA in power throughout most of Kosovo,
and the Albanian guerrillas promptly used their newfound power
to ethnically cleanse the Serbs through a campaign of violence
This campaign of terror was tracked by
the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE),
and has been described in the memoirs of former UN officials Iain
King and Whit Mason:
The summer of 1999 was a season of vengeance
and raw predatory violence. The OSCE collected dozens of horror
stories. A deaf and mute Roma man was abducted from his home,
because his family had allegedly cooperated with the former [Serb]
authorities. A 44-year-old Serb man was "beaten to death
with metal sticks by a Kosovo Albanian mob"... Serbs were
shot and killed while working in their fields. These attacks and
dozens of others like them were reported by field staff working
with the OSCE. All these attacks occurred when NATO-led [peacekeepers
were] responsible for security in Kosovo.
Between 400 and 700 Serbs were murdered
in the first eight months after the NATO victory, according to
estimates published in the London Sunday Times. The dead included
Serbs as well as Roma. Partly because of these attacks -- which
the NATO forces did little to stop -- nearly a quarter of a million
Serbs, Roma, and other despised ethnic groups fled Kosovo. The
Albanians' longstanding objective of an ethnically "clean"
Kosovo, free of Serbs, was achieved in large areas.
It is thus a myth to view this war as
a simple case of Serb aggressors and Albanian victims. In reality
both sides were quite vicious. It is of course true that, overall,
the Serbs committed more atrocities and ethnically cleansed even
larger populations than the Albanians did. And needless to say,
ethnic Serb armies committed many horrific crimes elsewhere in
the Balkans, including the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. But none
of this can excuse the crimes of the KLA, or the fact that U.S.
policy was complicit in some of these crimes through its backing
of the KLA. Now, ten years after the fact, we should not whitewash
the crimes of either side.
When the fighting ended in 1999, investigators
from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
sought to investigate crimes committed by both sides during the
war. The former chief prosecutor at the tribunal, Swiss lawyer
Carla Del Ponte, described the challenges that she faced, in her
recently published memoirs. According to Del Ponte, there were
repeated attacks and threats of violence that were directed at
anyone who cooperated with the international investigations of
KLA atrocities. It is evident that Del Ponte herself was intimidated:
"Some Swiss compatriots even cautioned against discussing
certain Albanian-related issues in this memoir, and I am discussing
them here only with extreme care."
The KLA had many other unattractive features,
including associations with al-Qaida (which had personnel present
in Kosovo) and international narcotics networks. Overall, it seems
fair to say that the KLA had an appalling record.
Myth 3: The NATO air attacks prevented
even greater Serb atrocities, and thus had a positive effect on
the human rights situation in Kosovo.
In fact, the bombing campaign increased
the scale of Serb atrocities. Up until the bombing, the total
number of persons killed in the war -- including both Serbs and
Albanians, civilians and soldiers -- totaled 2,000. The number
of Albanian civilians murdered by Serb forces has never been properly
estimated, but the total was probably in the hundreds. During
the bombing campaign, however, there was a huge escalation in
Serb-directed violence. The Serbs could do little to protect themselves
from the NATO attacks, so they took out their frustrations on
the relatively defenseless Albanians.
Let us review the chronology: By mid-March
of 1999, it was clear that the negotiation process had irretrievably
broken down, and that NATO was preparing to bomb. On March 19,
the Kosovo Verification Force began leaving the province -- a
sign that bombing was immanent. The following day, March 20, Serb
forces began a large-scale offensive in Kosovo, generating ugly
atrocities. And on March 24, NATO actually began its ten-week
bombing campaign, which led to still greater Serb atrocities.
This chronology strongly suggests that the NATO action itself
was a key cause for this upsurge in violence. It should also be
noted that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had warned President Clinton
that any bombing campaign might cause Serb revenge attacks and
augmented atrocities. The atrocities had been predicted in advance.
And when the bombing actually occurred,
the Serb forces did in fact commit substantial atrocities: approximately
10,000 persons were killed by Serb security forces during the
NATO campaign. By the end of the war, around 90 percent of the
Albanian population had been displaced. The primary moral responsibility
must rest with the Serb forces who committed the atrocities, and
with Milosevic himself, who directed them. However, NATO also
must bear some responsibility for recklessly creating a situation
that virtually guaranteed atrocities.
And the NATO campaign produced other calamities:
the bombing itself killed between 500 and 2,000 civilians, according
to Tim Judah of the BBC. Even if we accept the lower figure, then
the NATO bombing killed approximately as many civilians as all
the Serb-directed actions that preceded the bombing. NATO's strategy
entailed "hitting [Serb] civilian infrastructure," according
to the memoirs of General Rupert Smith, who served as NATO deputy
commander during the war. And when the war was over, the Albanians
launched a wave of reprisals and ethnic cleansing, resulting in
still greater atrocities, as noted above.
If the NATO operation sought to establish
the principle that ethnic cleansing is inadmissible as a means
of settling conflicts, then the operation was a conspicuous failure.
The most disturbing aspect of the Kosovo
case is that a purported humanitarian intervention served mainly
to increase the scale of atrocities. In this respect, the Kosovo
war has much in common with the 2003 Iraq invasion, which also
was sold to the public (in part) as a humanitarian effort to "save"
the Iraqi people from a violent dictator. In retrospect, however,
it seems likely that the invasion caused as many or possibly more
deaths than the total number killed by Saddam Hussein. The main
lesson of the Kosovo and Iraq experiences is that military actions
-- whether we call them "humanitarian" or not -- retain
the potential to increase human misery. The advocates of humanitarian
intervention give too little consideration to this danger.
It might be worth recalling the medical
phrase, "first do no harm." Among physicians, it has
long been recognized that medical action has the potential to
make patients worse off than before. The fact that a patient is
suffering is, by itself, insufficient reason to operate, since
operating runs the risk of increasing his or her suffering. Perhaps
the same cautions should apply with regard to military interventions.
Certainly, we should avoid risky actions that are likely to increase
the death toll (as actually occurred in Kosovo). First, we should
do no harm.
David N. Gibbs teaches history and political
science at the University of Arizona. His previous publications
include The Political Economy of Third World Intervention (Univ.
of Chicago Press, 1991).