The Indianapolis News
June 15, 1999
By Alan W. Dowd

As NATO troops prepare to herd the Serbian army out of Kosovo, it’s not too early to label Operation Allied Force a success, albeit a limited one. Kosovo’s desolate cities and deported population remind us that there is little reason to celebrate as Allied planes return home. This is a sobering victory at best.

Kosovo is dotted with land mines, its non-Serb villages hollowed-out by Belgrade’s medieval siege. 850,000 Kosovars huddle in the massive tent cities spawned by ethnic hatred--victims of a brutal forced march into Macedonia and Albania. In an attempt to make their exodus permanent, Serb soldiers confiscated and destroyed IDs, land deeds, and birth certificates.

And those are the lucky ones: Perhaps a quarter-million more are starving to death in the no-man’s land just inside the enclave’s borders. Kosovo’s women are broken and traumatized after being raped, orphaned, or widowed. Thousands of Kosovar men are dead. There is mounting evidence that in an attempt to hide their crimes, Serb soldiers used industrial furnaces as makeshift crematoria to destroy scores of bodies.

The prosecution of this war, like its conclusion, left much to be desired. Trying to walk a political and diplomatic tightrope, the president hamstrung NATO commanders with a no troops pledge, demurred to less-hawkish allies on targets, and tightly clung to the faint hopes that air power would suffice. The result was a war that took weeks rather than days to finish.

But contrary to conventional thinking--and Milosevic’s hopes--the lengthy war actually drew the allies closer together. In fact, after enduring the crucible of battle, the Alliance appears more united and stronger than before. The war cemented NATO’s leadership position across Europe and discredited Serbia’s ugly brand of nationalism--the very opposite of what many predicted in March and April.

Those who lambasted the war as a failure after the first week of bombing should have known better: Serbia’s 1960s-vintage military was in the cross-hairs of the most lethal air armada in history. Once unfettered, once it was allowed to take the fight to Milosevic, it would either force him out of Kosovo or return his country to the 14th century he so loves to romanticize.

At middle-age, NATO proved it was still relevant. Moreover, its rapid response to Kosovo’s myriad problems silenced those who once argued that the Alliance was too big and too bureaucratic to be effective.

Consider what NATO did over the last 11 weeks: As Belgrade tried to destabilize the entire Balkan region, NATO responded with a helping hand and a promise of protection. If the Allies were surprised by the speed of Milosevic’s ethnic blitzkrieg, they were by no means unprepared. NATO had pre-positioned 36,000 metric tons of food, 13,000 troops, and 400 warplanes in the region. More of each would quickly pour in.

NATO’s military-humanitarian-diplomatic operations ultimately launched some 34,000 air missions (with only two combat losses); fed, housed, and clothed 850,000 people; smothered the regional powder keg Milosevic tried to ignite; and even enlisted the Russians to tighten the diplomatic screws on Belgrade.

NATO’s postwar task promises to be just as daunting and multi-faceted. In addition to acting as Kosovo’s defacto government, the Alliance must ensure that the seeds of anger and vengeance sown in the last 11 weeks don’t take root and trigger another Balkan war. With the 17,000-strong Kosovo Liberation Army roaming western Kosovo, that is more easily said than done. Radicalized by Belgrade’s brutality and emboldened by a series of victories late in the war, the KLA will not quietly lay down its arms, as required by NATO’s peace plan.

Even if NATO can cajole or intimidate the KLA into folding, Kosovo’s postwar ethnic landscape will remain jagged for decades. That means NATO is in Kosovo for the long haul.

To the north, where Serb citizens rightly view the war as an utter defeat, there is growing evidence that NATO’s victory has so disgraced Milosevic that his regime could collapse. Serbs have attached "traitor" and "capitulation" to Milosevic’s name. An opposition leader summed up Milosevic’s war this way: "A few thousand people were killed, the economy is ruined, and the country is devastated."

Indeed, as the Serbian people emerge from the rubble to survey postwar Yugoslavia, they face the stark reality that Milosevic allowed the country to be systematically destroyed, and then signed a deal that amounted to surrender.

The Rambouillet Agreement, which Milosevic rejected before the bombs fell on March 24, would have allowed 11,000 Serb troops to remain in Kosovo. The deal that ends this war sweeps all but a handful of Serb policemen out of Kosovo, confining them to cultural sites. Pre-war peace terms called for 24,000 NATO troops; the postwar ultimatum accepted by Belgrade calls for 50,000.

Before the war, Serbia had its air force and army--and national pride--intact. Today, all of these are shattered. At least 5,000 Serb troops are dead. 10,000 lay wounded. Half of Milosevic’s air force is gone. More than 320 of his armored vehicles are destroyed, including 120 tanks. And a quarter of Serbia’s artillery pieces are smashed.

Milosevic’s propaganda ministers insisted that by walking away from Rambouillet, the Serb dictator was preserving Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity. The very opposite is true. The Rambouillet Agreement sought to keep Kosovo glued to Serbia, under a system of autonomy. The war-ending ultimatum makes the tiny enclave a NATO protectorate, effectively severing Kosovo from Belgrade.

But Kosovo isn’t the only part of Yugoslavia headed for the exit. Milosevic used the onset of war to bully and destabilize Montenegro, Yugoslavia’s defiant junior republic. That badly backfired. Milosevic’s conduct drove Montenegro much closer to the West, and this seaside republic will likely soon secede from the carcass that Yugoslavia has become.

And what did Milosevic’s 75-day holdout gain for the average Serb? Headed by a quintet of indicted war criminals, the country is an international pariah. Hundreds of civilians are dead. The nation’s roads and bridges are pocked with craters; its rail lines and electro-power grids are twisted tangles of metal; its oil refineries and government ministries are smoldering hulks; and the country’s only unifying force--its vaunted army--is routed.

The European Union will not make things any easier, promising not to send a single euro, deutschmark, franc, or pound to Belgrade until Milosevic is gone. However, that may be some time a way. Anyone who can ride out the collapse of communism, four Balkan wars, two bloody showdowns with NATO, and a war-crimes indictment has some staying power.

But if you feel sorry for the Serbs--the people who curse Milosevic with their words but endorse him with their inaction--just remember what their army did to Kosovo.