No Ground War in Kosovo

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No Ground War in Kosovo

April 22, 1999 7 min read
Acting Senior Vice President, Research
Kim R. Holmes, oversaw the think tank’s defense and foreign policy team for more than two decades.

The Clinton Administration has stumbled into an indecisive air war over Kosovo that is not likely to attain its declared goal: ending Serbian oppression against the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo. In fact, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing campaign has backfired and made matters worse for the Albanian Kosovars. It has encouraged Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic to accelerate his ethnic cleansing campaign, has led Serbs to rally around Milosevic, and has sown the seeds for a wider conflict.

To salvage the situation, the Administration appears to be considering a ground war in the Balkans. This would be a costly and grueling endeavor that would bog down U.S. troops in Kosovo for years as peacekeepers and guarantors of the Kosovars' human rights. This open-ended commitment would divert America's military forces from more urgent threats to U.S. national interests, such as those posed by Iraq and North Korea.

America should not be involved in a ground war in Kosovo under these conditions. Such a war would not be in America's vital interest, and thus is not worth the risk and cost. There are other alternatives to a U.S. ground war that are more appropriate to the level of interest America has in solving conflicts in the Balkans. Only if the conflict were to spread and threaten vital American interests in Europe as a whole should the United States even consider involving ground troops in a land war in the Balkans.


The Clinton Administration has boxed the United States and NATO into a corner. It underestimated the ruthlessness of Milosevic, overestimated the effectiveness of its half-hearted air campaign, and failed to respond quickly to unexpected contingencies. The Administration did not anticipate Milosevic's reaction to the bombing; the Yugoslav President used it as cover to step up ethnic cleansing operations. President Clinton's choice of means--an incremental Vietnam-type escalation of the air war--is insufficient to attain his ambitious ends: protecting the Kosovars from Serbian oppression. To make matters worse, the Administration has changed its aims repeatedly, thereby confusing Americans about the purposes of the war while signaling Milosevic that NATO is uncertain of, and therefore probably not committed to, achieving its goals.

A ground war cannot protect the Albanian Kosovars. It would take months to build up sufficient NATO forces to liberate Kosovo.1 During that time, the Serbs could complete their campaign to drive the ethnic Albanians out of the province; and once there, NATO forces would be put in the awkward position of having to remove Serb civilians from Kosovo or assume responsibility for their safety in the face of a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) that may be spoiling for revenge.

America's Vital Interests Are Not at Stake.
The United States does not have the resources or the willpower to function as a global policeman with endless involvement in far-flung conflicts, civil wars, and sectarian feuds. Such a foreign policy of promiscuous intervention inevitably would fail and trigger an isolationist backlash. Instead of leading a crusade for vigilante justice, the United States must be more prudent and selective in its foreign military interventions. The United States should not risk the lives of American troops, deplete the already underfunded defense budget, and reduce its ability to meet other security commitments unless vital national interests are at stake.

America's vital interest in Europe is to prevent the domination of the continent by a hostile power or set of powers. NATO's role should be that of a defensive alliance in which the United States agrees to defend any NATO ally from outside aggression--a situation not found in the current Balkan conflict. The essential post-Cold War strategic purpose of NATO should be to provide insurance against a possibility of a resurgent, hostile Russia. Americans should be willing to commit ground troops to a combat situation only to defend a NATO ally from attack.

However, America does have a secondary interest in stability and in the spread and consolidation of democracy in Europe. To this end, the United States should be willing to commit significant resources, including possibly even support for peacekeeping forces; but this interest alone does not warrant the risk of a major ground war involving U.S. forces.

NATO should not be an international police force. It should remain a defensive alliance to safeguard the security of its members. NATO should assume full responsibility for Balkan security only if Balkan states are made full members of the alliance. This requires not only the official approval of all members, but also the ratification by their legislatures--in America's case, by the U.S. Congress.


If anyone should be fighting the Serbs on the ground, it should be the Albanian Kosovars. The United States should help them to defend themselves by providing arms and other assistance. If the Europeans were to reject this option and yet insist on a ground war--something, thankfully, they will be reluctant to do--then the U.S. should tell them that they will have to provide their own ground troops. After all, Kosovo is in the Europeans' backyard, and the European allies are largely unencumbered by the global security commitments that the United States has undertaken over the past 50 years to contain the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and Iraq.

Some have argued that refusing to commit ground troops will tarnish American leadership of NATO. But America's leadership already has been tarnished by the Clinton Administration's unfortunate linking of NATO's future to peace in the Balkans, a notoriously unstable region. It is a critical mistake to suggest that the United States cannot exercise NATO leadership without deploying combat troops. Leadership does not mean that the United States must do everything itself. Sometimes leadership entails prioritizing and delegating responsibilities. The United States has too many more important security commitments in East Asia, the Persian Gulf, and Europe itself to risk being drawn into a Balkan ground war.


Rather than wading deeper into the Balkan quagmire by launching a ground war, the United States should:

  • Help the Albanian Kosovars to defend themselves.
    The United States should provide Kosovar resistance forces with anti-tank weapons, mortars, heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, and ammunition. These should be provided in conjunction with logistical, intelligence, and medical support as well as humanitarian aid. The United States should work with neighboring Albania to establish staging areas to train, equip, and support the Kosovars in defending themselves. American aid should be conditioned on guarantees from the Albanian Kosovar leadership that it (1) will not resort to terrorism against Serb civilians; (2) will not pursue the goal of a Greater Albania, which would cause further destabilization; and (3) will not fund its activities with profits from narcotics trafficking.

  • Find a way to end the air war with as little damage as possible to the power and credibility of the United States and NATO.
    At a minimum, this means inflicting enough damage on Serbia's military machine and economic infrastructure to demonstrate clearly that the Milosevic regime was forced to pay an unacceptably high price for its repression in Kosovo. Moreover, in the aftermath of any negotiated settlement, NATO should enforce a no-fly zone over Kosovo to limit the Serbs' ability to attack Kosovar resistance forces.

  • Develop a long-term plan to encourage Serbian political opposition to the Milosevic regime.
    NATO should follow up its air war against the Serbian armed forces and economy with carefully targeted economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Milosevic regime. The aim should be to drive a wedge between the Milosevic regime and the Serbian people by demonstrating conclusively that Milosevic's aggression undermines the long-term interests of Serbia and the welfare of its people.


Air power alone thus far has not stopped Serbian attacks on Kosovar civilians. Even a NATO ground offensive cannot protect those civilians, because it would take months to organize an invasion of Kosovo. Committing U.S. troops to a ground war in Kosovo would be fighting the wrong war, in the wrong place, and for the wrong reasons.

The United States should balance its humanitarian impulse with a realistic appraisal of its national interests. It should help the Kosovars to defend themselves and even offer them air support, but it should not fight their war for them. Depleting American military capabilities in a marginal war in Kosovo--especially when the Europeans are capable of handling the problem themselves with American assistance--is dangerous not only for the security interests of the United States, but also for those of U.S. allies in Asia, the Middle East, and even in Europe.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

1. For further information, see James H. Anderson, Ph.D., "Ground Troop Scenarios for Yugoslavia: What Would They Take?" Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1275, April 21, 1999.


Kim Holmes

Acting Senior Vice President, Research

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