NATO's Kosovo operation was a major challenge in the history of the Atlantic alliance. For the first time, a defensive alliance launched a military campaign to avoid a humanitarian tragedy outside its own borders. For the first time, an alliance of sovereign nations fought not to conquer or preserve territory but to protect the values on which the alliance was founded. And despite many challenges, NATO prevailed.

Throughout the 1990s NATO has been instrumental in managing Europe's security evolution -- a testament both to the vitality of the transatlantic link and to its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Yet if there was any flaw in this emerging cooperative-security framework, it was the fact that parts of the Balkans remained outside NATO's borders. Having never been fully resolved over the course of this century, the Balkan question returned with a vengeance when the violent collapse of the former Yugoslavia led to a series of wars.

These wars constituted the greatest challenge for European security since World War II. Apart from causing countless humanitarian tragedies, they constantly threatened to escalate beyond their point of origin and destabilize wider regions. The origins of these wars were manifold. Although no one denies the existence of economic crises and ethnic and religious fault lines, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic deliberately manipulated these differences into violent and explosive nationalism.

The road to the 1995 Dayton Accord need not be recounted here. Suffice it to say that when the international community finally got engaged in Bosnia and pushed that country toward a sustainable peace, it did more than simply demonstrate that outside intervention can make a difference. The NATO-led international Implementation Force (ifor) united more than 30 nations, including Russia, in a unique coalition for peace and became the symbol of a new cooperative approach to security.


Whereas these developments marked a turn for the better, Kosovo took a turn for the worse. Ever since Milosevic had withdrawn the autonomy of this province in the late 1980s, the potential for unrest among its Albanian majority had been growing, with the predictable result of strengthening those who advocated violence to achieve independence. Over the course of 1998, fighting between the Kosovar Albanian and Serb forces grew, with the latter adopting a strategy that increasingly resembled the kind of ethnic cleansing seen before in Bosnia.

As a result, neighboring nations, particularly Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), were faced with the specter of instability caused by large numbers of refugees.1 Equally worrisome were the implications of the crisis for the Bosnian peace process: to allow Belgrade's campaign of ethnic cleansing to continue unabated would have put the entire project of a multiethnic Bosnia at risk.

NATO had been taking measures to stabilize those neighbors by avoiding a spillover of the conflict. Both Albania and FYROM made use of the consultation opportunities provided by the Partnership for Peace mechanism. NATO held military exercises in both countries and advised them on how to control their borders and cope with the influx of refugees. The alliance also prepared several contingency plans for the eventual support of an international force.

Yet the situation inside Kosovo deteriorated further. In fall 1998, 300,000 Kosovar civilians fled their homes, 50,000 of them going to surrounding forests and mountains. As winter approached, many faced death from cold or starvation. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1199 of September 23, 1998 -- which demanded an immediate end to hostilities -- spoke of an "impending humanitarian catastrophe" and characterized the developments as "a threat to peace and security in the region." But since the Security Council could not agree on a military response, the chances for inducing change from outside remained slim. Thus NATO faced the prospect of either witnessing a deliberately engineered mass expulsion of people in a region bordering NATO and the EU or addressing the Kosovo crisis in full.



For a while it seemed that a set of bold initiatives by the international community would be able to avert this tragedy without military intervention. With the endorsement of the Contact Group, U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke negotiated the sending of unarmed observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) into Kosovo to verify Belgrade's compliance with Resolution 1199. NATO would provide the OSCE observers with air surveillance, while its Extraction Force deployed in FYROM would help evacuate the observers in case things went wrong. NATO also supported Holbrooke's mission with military pressure on Belgrade: on October 12, the North Atlantic Council had approved the so-called Activation Order (ACTORD) for air operations against Yugoslav military assets.

Within weeks it became clear that Milosevic had not stuck to the agreement. Instead, he intensified his campaign of piecemeal military assaults, hoping to remain below the threshold of triggering outside intervention.

When NATO brought the Serbs and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) together at Rambouillet, France, in February 1999, it was clear to everyone concerned that this would be the last opportunity for a comprehensive settlement. After difficult negotiations the Kosovar Albanians signed the agreement on March 18. Milosevic, however, rejected it. Indeed, while negotiations were taking place, the substantial buildup of Serbian forces in and around Kosovo indicated that Belgrade was preparing a large-scale offensive against the KLA and the Kosovar Albanian community. Obviously Milosevic had never intended to accept a political solution. So on March 24, 1999, NATO began its Operation Allied Force.

Allied Force did not come out of the blue. It came about only after all diplomatic means had been exhausted. Still, it was a decision the allies did not take lightly. For the first time in NATO's history there would be sustained military action outside NATO territory against a sovereign state. Everyone involved knew about the risks: there would be inadvertent civilian casualties no matter how meticulous our planning, the operation would inevitably burden our relationship with Russia, and finally, we would end up with a long and expensive commitment to the future of Kosovo.

We decided that these risks were worth taking, for not to have acted would have meant that the Atlantic community legitimized ethnic cleansing in its immediate neighborhood. Having remained passive in the face of a conflict that, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it, seemed like "a throwback to the worst memories of the 20th century" would have undermined the whole value system on which our policies were built. Inaction in the face of the Kosovar plight would have undermined our policies, the credibility of Western institutions, and the transatlantic relationship.


Contrary to widespread criticism, the air campaign achieved every one of its goals. Having seriously underestimated allied resolve, Milosevic accepted the alliance's demands on June 3. After 77 days, with no casualties of its own, NATO had prevailed. A humanitarian disaster had been averted. About one million refugees could now return in safety. Ethnic cleansing had been reversed.

Some critics have alleged that the peace arrangements that Milosevic ultimately accepted were less favorable to the international community than the Rambouillet agreement. This is nonsense. No Serbian forces remain in Kosovo. NATO's current peacekeeping force is more robust than anything considered previously. It supports a U.N. civil administration that is helping to rebuild Kosovo. Although the continuing acts of vengeance against the Serb minority are deplorable, the situation in Kosovo today is better than it was before the alliance intervened, and it continues to improve.

It was the unique allied cohesion of 19 democracies, including NATO's three new members, that was crucial in establishing consensus on the legal basis and legitimacy of NATO's actions. The ACTORD of October 1998 had already raised the difficult issue of whether NATO could threaten the use of force without an explicit Security Council mandate to do so. The allies agreed that NATO could -- for it had become abundantly clear that such a step was the only likely solution. It was equally clear, though, that such a step would constitute the exception from the rule, not an attempt to create new international law.


Another lesson of Bosnia has been heeded: the need to look beyond the immediate aftermath of the conflict to engage in a comprehensive rebuilding of the region. One of the centerpieces of NATO's Washington summit was its Southeast European Cooperative Initiative, which is now supporting the EU Stability Pact. Together, these initiatives signal a comprehensive commitment to establishing a viable political and economic order -- not just in Kosovo, but across southeastern Europe.

In Kosovo proper, the challenge may be even more difficult than in Bosnia. No one harbors any illusions that, given the persistent hatred between the parties, reconciliation can be achieved within a few years. But the people deserve a chance. Despite well-publicized problems, they seem determined to take it. Indeed, the unexpectedly rapid return of refugees has been one of the most surprising and positive developments since the deployment of NATO's Kosovo Implementation Force (KFOR).

Another heartening development is Russia's decision to participate in KFOR. The significance of this decision goes far beyond Kosovo. Russia's engagement in this peacekeeping effort has put the wider NATO-Russia relationship back on track. After the Russian decision in March to withdraw from the Permanent Joint Council, this important forum resumed its work in late July and now once again serves as the focal point of NATO-Russia consultations and cooperation.

Implementing the many tasks ahead -- from creating a new Kosovo police force to establishing new democratic political structures -- will take much time and effort. One of the biggest challenges has been the demilitarization of the KLA under KFOR supervision. The KLA has complied with the terms of demilitarization agreed on in June and has relinquished all the required weapons. The U.N. Mission to Kosovo (UNMIK), working closely with KFOR, is establishing the Kosovo Protection Corps, a multiethnic civilian emergency corps modelled after the French Securite Civile. The corps will be prepared to respond to any disaster, to undertake search and rescue missions, to provide humanitarian aid, to help in demining, and to contribute to rebuilding infrastructure and communities. The United Nations has political authority over the Kosovo Protection Corps, but KFOR will actively monitor and supervise it. Many former KLA fighters will likely join this new force as part of their integration into civilian life.

There should be no doubt that the ultimate responsibility for peace in Kosovo rests with the local population, ethnic Albanians and Serbs alike. The international community can assist, but it will not allow a culture of dependency to develop. Yet without international engagement, progress is impossible.

KFOR will stay for as long as it takes to avoid conflict and build peace. Such a long-term military presence will have costs. Yet these costs become insignificant when one considers the consequences of inaction. Security in Europe still comes with a price tag, but it remains affordable. And as we have learned again and again, the price of indifference is far higher that that of engagement.


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  • Javier Solana, former Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is the European Union's High Representative for Foreign and Security Affairs.
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