Kosovo: The Way Out of the Quagmire

Report Europe

Kosovo: The Way Out of the Quagmire

February 25, 2000 18 min read
John Hulsman
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

The months following the war in Kosovo have been marred by brewing hostilities between factions in the province and a proliferation of problems for America and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) peacekeeping force known as KFOR. Just this month, nine ethnic Albanians died in violence following a rocket attack on a United Nations bus in which two Serbs were killed. Dozens have been arrested in demonstrations in Mitrovica, a city divided into a fiercely embattled Serbian enclave and the remaining primarily ethnic Albanian community.

In the most recent confrontation, U.S., British, and French soldiers have been targeted by angry crowds on both sides. U.S. soldiers were pelted with stones and bricks during a house-to-house search for illegal weapons in the Serbian section; French anti-riot police were forced to fire tear gas into the crowd and suspend the search.1 The next day, ethnic Albanians attempting to storm the bridge leading into the Serbian enclave clashed with British soldiers. As tensions between the sides escalate, U.S. and KFOR forces are finding it more than difficult to keep the peace.

The problems that underlie the conflicts in the Balkans are deep and intractable. Gross burden-sharing inequities among the NATO participants of Operation Allied Force, as well as America's commitment to the peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo and Bosnia, have significant implications for U.S. national security. The drain on the U.S. armed forces is severely harming military readiness to fight and win in other contingencies and retarding the technological basis upon which national security rests. Further, the Kosovo engagement, which threatens to become a permanent and costly commitment for the United States, has wedded the Administration to its failed policy regarding humanitarian interventions.

Now, at a time when America should be pulling back its troops, NATO Supreme Commander General Wesley Clark is calling for additional allied troops, with U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen at least considering his request.2 But the intervention has not dissipated the sectarian hatreds that provoke the continuing instability in Kosovo, and increasing the size of KFOR is not likely to change that reality.

The way out of this morass is to give America's European allies greater responsibility for the military operations in the Balkans. A mechanism for doing this already exists within NATO: the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF). This option was ratified at a NATO summit in Washington in April 1999. It would allow the United States to draw down its forces in the Balkans, extricating the military from the pernicious cycle of over-committing forces and then reacting to the consequences of that over-commitment that now characterizes U.S. foreign policy.


The Kosovo engagement demonstrates that the concept of a roughly equal NATO alliance in which members share the burden of defense--always an ideal prototype--has in fact no bearing on military realities in Europe. During the war, for example, U.S. intelligence assets identified almost all the bombing targets in Serbia and Kosovo, and U.S. aircraft flew two-thirds of the strike missions and launched nearly every precision-guided missile.3 The European contribution to the allied air campaign was technologically deficient due to the lack of computerized weapons, night-vision equipment, and advanced communications resources.

U.S. Air Force General Michael Short, who oversaw the NATO bombing campaign, has said that the shortcomings of the European aircraft--such as a lack of night-vision and laser-guided weapons--were so glaring that he had curtailed their missions to avoid unnecessary risk.4 Put simply, the European allies and Canada have done far too little to reconfigure their militaries for the realities of the post-Cold War world.

The war in Kosovo also pointed to specific areas in which European military hardware capabilities were significantly inferior to America's: strategic transport and logistics (C-17s, rapid sealift, inflatable fuel tanks, and forward repair facilities); intelligence (satellites, sensors, and computers); and high-tech weaponry (precision-guided explosives and cruise missiles). Due to poor procurement practices, Western Europe's defense budget--which is two-thirds that of the United States--produces less than one-fourth of the deployable fighting strength of the U.S. military.5

Technological deficiencies also arise because the European states simply do not devote enough of their resources to defense-related research and development. The United States spends nearly four times as much as its European allies in this area.6 Overall, the United States spent 3.2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense in 1998, while France spent 2.8 percent, the United Kingdom 2.7 percent, Italy 2 percent, Germany 1.5 percent, and Spain 1.3 percent of their respective GDPs.7 These two facts--the technological disparity and the differences in defense spending--have resulted in the burden-sharing chasm that explained America's military over-commitment in the Kosovo campaign.

NATO always has been a two-tier rather than a twin-pillar alliance, with the United States acting as senior partner in the defense burden. However, Kosovo shows that this military gap has been widening. This trend, if left unchecked, will have devastating consequences for the alliance.

Increasingly, Americans resent being asked to shoulder more than their fair share of the military burden. Such inequity is not politically sustainable and is a major portion of the discontent eating away at the heart of NATO. The burden-sharing disparity must be reversed if the alliance is to
continue playing a pivotal role in U.S. defense and security calculations. With the passing of the Cold War, America's geopolitical interests have changed, but the defense habits of its allies in Europe have not. The problems in Kosovo make it clear that a crisis within the alliance will be inevitable if the burden-sharing issue is not resolved.


The costs of America's involvement in peacekeeping in the Balkans are not limited to heavy lifting in military matters. Another consequence of bearing too large a burden is that the ongoing U.S. peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and Bosnia directly threaten national security.

The Balkans operations have tied down 10,000 U.S. troops who will not be available for other contingencies should they develop. The troops involved in the peacekeeping operations incur significant combat readiness deficiencies, including losing their fighting edge, by being required to perform civilian duties.8 For example, rather than serving as soldiers and maintaining combat skills, the U.S. troops in Kosovo have served as de facto mayors, engineers, and even social workers. Such duties, combined with the long commitment of time for which peacekeeping is notorious, are blunting U.S. combat readiness.

The deterioration of machines has proceeded apace along with the stagnation of the troops as a direct result of the Kosovo operation. A spare parts shortage in the armed forces, accompanied by a lack of funding for technology maintenance and development, threatens current capabilities.

In 1995, the Pentagon reported that it would have to spend at least $60 billion a year on procurement of new weaponry.9 The Congressional Budget Office now says that amount is not enough: The United States must spend $90 billion a year to reach 1995 readiness targets.10 As one recent article in The Washington Post noted, "Defense officials say they would have gotten to a larger procurement figure earlier if not for higher-than-expected operational and maintenance costs, which have drained money from modernization accounts."11

The Pentagon believes it missed its procurement targets for the past five years because of unexpected costs associated with the military operations in Kosovo and Bosnia. In other words, the United States has failed to invest in the modernization of its weaponry for the past five years because of the high costs of its military commitment in the Balkans. As Kim Holmes of The Heritage Foundation puts it, "We have failed to invest in our future security because the Europeans refuse to pay for theirs now."12 Primary national security imperatives around the world require that the United States begin to draw down its forces in the Balkans.


Although the war in Kosovo unquestionably showcased America's military supremacy, it regrettably also illustrated the serious disconnect between military action and long-lasting geopolitical goals in the Clinton Administration's foreign policy. For example, the Administration's commitment to the war and the peacekeeping campaign is based on the flawed assumption that peaceful coexistence of the hostile ethnic/religious factions in the Balkans could be achieved by military force. As President Bill Clinton told the troops in Macedonia after the end of the war:

Never forget if we do this here...we can then say to the people of the world, whether you live in Africa, or central Europe or any other place: If somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it's within our power to stop it, we will stop it.13

The sad fact, however, is that the allied victory in the air campaign did not stop the killing in Kosovo. The reason: Ethnic and/or religious harmony has rarely existed in the Balkans. Not surprisingly, the region remains the seething sectarian cauldron it was before the intervention in Kosovo began. Keeping the United States military bogged down indefinitely in this quagmire, in a peacekeeping operation with no end in sight, is wrong.

Indeed, the most serious problem confronting the U.S. and KFOR troops is sectarian hostility with deep historical roots. After suffering mightily under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian-dominated regime, the Kosovars found themselves in a far more powerful political position, and many turned on the Serb minority with a vengeance. The massacre of Serbs by returning Kosovars provoked another mass exodus from the province; this time, it is the Serbs who flee to Serbia. Only around 50,000 of the 200,000 Serbs who lived in Kosovo before the NATO intervention remain there today. The Serbs have been the victims of at least 36 percent of the 380-odd murders committed since KFOR arrived in June 1999.14

This turn of events means that it is the Serbs who are asking, as did Kosovar Albanians not many months ago, for protection from the violence and intolerance. Serb leaders in Kosovo have begun to form their own national council and self-defense corps in defiance of the U.N. and NATO. They wish to establish self-rule in areas in which Serbs are heavily concentrated, primarily in the northern portion of Kosovo along the border with Serbia proper. Creating secure Serb enclaves and their own protection force, they argue, is the only way to protect the Serbian population.15

Recent events confirm Serbian fears. On October 27, 1999, a NATO-escorted convoy of Serbs leaving Kosovo was attacked in downtown Pec, a Kosovar Albanian stronghold. Apparently provoked when some of the Serb refugees flashed a three-finger salute symbolizing Serb nationalism, a crowd of 1,500 ethnic Albanians attacked the convoy, burning 19 vehicles and injuring 18 Serbs. On February 3, eight were killed and 20 wounded after a night of shootings and arson in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo. On February 13, Mitrovica erupted for the second time in less than two weeks. Forty arrests were made (39 ethnic Albanians and 1 Serb).

Even more disturbing, for the first time ethnic Albanians made Western peacekeepers (French soldiers) the targets of their rioting. On February 20, in a renewed outbreak of hostilities, hundreds of Serbs threw bricks and stones at U.S. soldiers before a French general ordered a retreat.16

Specific political intimidation of the remaining Serbian leaders in the province has increased as well. Long-time Milosevic foe Momcilo Trajkovic, described by the head of the U.N. mission in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, as "one of our [the West's] most important allies in our efforts to build a tolerant and multiethnic Kosovo,"17 was shot and wounded by two ethnic Albanians at his home on November 1.

The shooting of the moderate Trajkovic sent an unmistakable message that Serbs are not safe in Kosovo. According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees and the previous Yugoslav census, Kosovo is 93 percent Kosovar Albanian and only 5 percent Serb. The dream of a harmonious multisectarian Kosovo--one of the Administration's foremost goals in the intervention--is appearing to be less and less achievable.

The United States finds itself tied to a failed policy in the Balkans--a state of affairs that, given the intractable nature of the problems in the region, is not likely to change. As America found in Vietnam, military intervention is not the equivalent of nation building; the costly intervention is doing nothing to change the hearts and minds of the people in Kosovo and Serbia. The peacekeeping efforts have not altered the unwillingness of the Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Kosovars to live together.


Until now, the 19 member states of NATO had only two options in a military crisis--either advocate the use of force and commit troops to a full alliance mission or veto NATO involvement. Such a rigid decision-making structure was bound to cause political tensions within the alliance for every such crisis.

In April 1999, NATO ratified the new Combined Joint Task Force mechanism as a third option that adds a needed dimension of flexibility to alliance operations. Through the CJTF mechanism, states can decline to participate actively in a specific mission if they do not feel their vital interests are in danger; but their opting out of a mission would not stop other NATO members from participating in an intervention if they chose to do so. The CJTF initiative was a response to European members' complaints that U.S. dominance of NATO operational decision-making limited their ability to respond to crises when European interests were involved but U.S. interests were not paramount.

By using the CJTF option, the United States would be able to draw down its forces in the region, thus partially alleviating the burden-sharing tensions among the NATO members, lessening the erosion of U.S. military strength, and extricating America from the consequences of a failed policy. The CJTF mechanism is an important innovation; it is designed to reduce the need for the United States to bear the brunt of the alliance's military burden while giving the Europeans a greater role in the decision-making process.

This new organizational military structure offers the European countries the use of American communications, logistics, and intelligence-sharing support without requiring that U.S. troops be directly committed to an operation. CJTFs would allow European "coalitions of the willing" to use NATO's assets on an ad hoc basis for specific multinational out-of-area missions. They would remain dependent on NATO headquarters as well as infrastructure and assets governed by alliance protocols.

Using the CJTF mechanism in Kosovo would allow the United States to maintain a small presence in the Balkans (through supplying intelligence and logistics for the European ground troops) while disengaging from a primary position of responsibility in KFOR. The European states would wholly command the new KFOR mission under nominal NATO auspices.

Creating a CJTF for Kosovo and another CJTF for Bosnia would give the Europeans greater flexibility to act in light of their specific interests in the Balkans--interests the United States may not share in every case. Such geopolitical considerations differ for the countries of Western Europe that border on this tumultuous region. The European-controlled CJTFs would effectively buttress alliance unity by making NATO more of a true partnership in burden-sharing. It also would extricate the United States from a region in which it has no real stake but which threatens military readiness and national security.

Critics may charge that the CJTF option would destroy U.S. credibility and leadership in the alliance. By drawing down forces in the region, they will contend, the United States would endanger its leadership position around the globe. Regardless of whether the Kosovo engagement was the product of a miscalculation of Serbian resolve at meetings in Rambouillet to establish peace, they argue that America should stay the course in Kosovo or risk losing credibility. Such an argument has not been heard since the heyday of the Vietnam War.

The harsh reality is that staying in Kosovo to maintain international credibility and continue the Administration's current policy could well lead to a significant military and geopolitical disaster for America. The United States stands to lose far more long-term credibility by continuing to support this dubious and open-ended intervention than it does by making a strategic reappraisal of the cost of its involvement.

America must cut its losses in the Balkans that affect military readiness and U.S. national security; the CJTF mechanism would allow the U.S. military to draw down its forces while beginning to balance burden-sharing within the alliance.


Since Congress has a role to play in funding peacekeeping operations, it should encourage the Administration to seek a coherent alternative to its policy that has locked U.S. troops in costly, open-ended peacekeeping commitments in both Kosovo and Bosnia. Such an alternative exists in the CJTF option within NATO.

To fully assess the threat that Kosovo-like operations pose to U.S. security and how CJTFs would provide a workable alternative, Congress should consider conducting staff investigations or convening public hearings on the Kosovo intervention. It should seek testimony from across the political spectrum, including from military experts and other officials involved in the intervention, that could shed light on such topics as the decision-making process, what is currently transpiring in Kosovo, the problems the U.S. military faces, and alternatives to the status quo.

For example, despite the best of intentions, this military action in Kosovo has failed to avert humanitarian catastrophe, promote sectarian harmony, clarify Kosovo's status, advance military readiness, or promote larger U.S. security interests. Moreover, the Administration's serious intelligence and decision-making errors during the war have aggravated America's relationships with many other countries. These facts highlight the problems of disproportionate burden-sharing in NATO operations.

Such Kosovo hearings should provide clear answers to fundamental questions about the wisdom and consequences of continuing the direct U.S. involvement on the ground. Armed with these facts, Congress should consider calling for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Balkans and urging the Administration to consider using the Combined Joint Task Force mechanism within NATO as a way to strengthen the alliance relationship and draw down U.S. commitments.

Although the Clinton Administration is unlikely to seek the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Kosovo during its remaining months in office, the next Administration should be prepared to use the information gleaned in the hearings to implement a concrete plan that would extricate the United States military from open-ended commitments in the Balkans.


The Clinton Administration gained a false peace in Kosovo--a lull in the fighting that will last, at best, only as long as peacekeepers remain. The Economist observed last year that, "As for Kosovo, the `peace' that NATO has secured is still punctuated by massacres--of Serbs now, not Albanians--and even optimists admit that full-scale blood-letting will resume unless outside troops keep the combatants apart, certainly for years, maybe for decades."18

But as the British found in Cyprus, although the alliance may strive to keep the combatants apart, doing so will not mitigate the hatreds that enflame their hostilities. The sectarian hatreds are the primary reason for the instability in Kosovo, and they have not been lessened or remedied by the intervention. As long as this remains the case, the problems in the Balkans will remain intractable.

John C. Hulsman, Ph.D., is Senior European Policy Analyst in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


1. R. Jeffrey Smith, "NATO, Ethnic Albanians Clash," The Washington Post, February 22, 2000, p. Al3; Elena Becatoros, "Ethnic Albanians Break NATO Barrier," Associated Press, February 21, 2000; and Elena Becatoros, "Serbs Pelt Peacemakers with Rock," Associated Press, February 20, 2000.

2. Bradley Graham, "NATO Chief Makes Appeal for Additional Kosovo Troops," The Washington Post, February 24, 2000, p. A13.

3. William Drozdiak, "U.S. Allies' Air Power Was Lacking in Conflict," The Orlando Sentinel, July 11, 1999.

4. Ibid.

5. Bruce Clark, "Armies and Arms," The Economist, April 24, 1999.

6. Kenneth I. Juster, "The Mistake of a Separate Peace," The Washington Post, August 9, 1999, p. A15. Kenneth Juster is a Washington, D.C., lawyer and served as a senior official in the State Department during the Bush Administration.

7. William Cohen, Report on Allied Contributions to the Common Defense: A Report to the United States Congress by the Secretary of Defense, March 1999, p. III-4.

8. Kim R. Holmes, "U.S. and Europe in the 21st Century: Partners or Competitors?" speech delivered at a Center for Constructive Alternatives seminar, Hillsdale College, Michigan, February 10, 2000.

9. Bradley Graham, "Clinton Passes Litmus Test, But It Was the One for 1995," The Washington Post, February 4, 2000.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Holmes, "U.S. and Europe in the 21st Century."

13. Charles Trueheart, "Putting a Doctrine to the Test," The Washington Post, September 19, 1999.

14. Andrew Gray, "Kosovo Awaits Clinton with Mixed Feelings," Reuters, November 22, 1999.

15. George Jahn, "Serbs to Form Own Protection Force," Associated Press, October 19, 1999.

16. R. Jeffrey Smith, "Ethnic Tensions Coming to a Head in Kosovo Again," The Washington Post, February 21, 2000, p. A19.

17. David Holley, "Kosovo Serb Leader Shot in Leg at Home," London Times, November 2, 1999.

18. "Other People's Wars," The Economist, July 31, 1999.


John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow