The Secret Agents
Life Inside an al Qaeda Cell
Stephen Biddle is on leave from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, while serving as Associate Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
From March 29 to June 9, 1999, the NATO alliance, led by the world's only superpower, waged war on a lone republic in an already conflict-ridden region. The combined population of NATO's 19 countries exceeded Serbia's 11 million people by a factor of 65. NATO's annual defense budget was 25 times larger than Serbia's entire economy. Its armed forces outnumbered Serbia's by a factor of 35.
The big news: NATO won.
Does this feat really merit three books in a single year? Actually, it does, for mundane as it should have been, NATO's success was far from certain at the time. And this curious little war has had important implications for U.S. military policy in the three years since. As Andrew Bacevich and Eliot Cohen argue in War Over Kosovo, the conflict helped crystallize a fundamentally new "American way of war." The merits of this new approach have been hotly debated ever since, and this debate frames the central themes of all three books.
For Cohen and Bacevich, this new way of war stems from a collision between subtle strategic problems and an unsubtle strategic culture. With communism's demise, they argue, the United States found itself in a world of legitimate but lesser security concerns. Balkan thugs posed no existential threat to America, but civil war in Kosovo could lead to ethnic cleansing, which could create a refugee crisis, destabilize Macedonia and Albania, draw Greece into war, spur renewed Greco-Turkish conflict, and on and on. To prevent this cascade, and potentially others like it, U.S. leadership and military muscle would be needed. Americans, however, are uncomfortable shedding blood for such murky causes. The country likes its aims noble, its objectives clear, its enemies evil, and its commitments short. Americans do well in crusades to end fascism or save democracy; they are not suited, according to Cohen and Bacevich, to the dirty work of imperial policing to secure second- or third-tier interests.
How to square this circle? The Clinton administration's answer, say Cohen and Bacevich, was intervention on the cheap. If the costs were low enough, the public would accept the police work needed to maintain order in the provinces and allow Washington to advance longer-term U.S. goals of political and economic openness around the world. U.S. military involvements should thus be limited to air power, any action should be cloaked in multinational coalitions to lend legitimacy and spread responsibility, and public scrutiny should be limited through careful control of information. Using ground forces, which are more susceptible to casualties and more difficult to withdraw, was to be avoided. Thanks to new technologies, precision bombing from beyond enemy reach could destroy critical economic and military infrastructure while neither killing civilians (which might fracture coalition solidarity) nor sacrificing Americans (which could undermine political support at home). Wars would be short and efficient: the threat of losing bridges, power grids, secret-police offices, barracks, and supply depots without any prospect of killing Americans or halting the damage would soon bring hostile autocrats to reason.
Kosovo would not be the last such war of limited American liability. Even as NATO bombs fell on Belgrade, U.S. and British aircraft carried out a sustained (if nearly invisible) war on Iraq, one that expended more than 2,000 bombs and missiles in 1999 alone -- not nearly the number used in Kosovo but still a sizeable show of force. And the 2001-2 campaign in Afghanistan was both a clear descendant of and a reaction to the military model unveiled in Kosovo.
The analysts in the War Over Kosovo anthology, however, see important problems with this model. Some concerns are practical, such as Michael Vickers' fear that the military will fail to procure the necessary information and precision weapon technologies. Anatol Lieven questions whether limited force from the air will succeed against tribal or other subnational enemies who have little infrastructure to threaten, and James Kurth thinks it will be useful only against a half-dozen rogue states small enough to be bullied but modern enough to be vulnerable.
Others raise moral and political red flags. Bacevich asks whether keeping wars below the threshold of popular concern is consistent with American political values. Could such a policy ultimately give rise to an isolated, mercenary military conducting shadowy operations in places far away from prying public eyes -- and if so, at what cost to American democracy? Alberto Coll raises a series of difficult moral ambiguities by considering who will suffer: although the new approach strives to avoid killing civilians, it deliberately targets a population's electrical power, transportation network, jobs, and livelihoods. In fact, an explicit aim is to pressure enemy governments by creating suffering among their civilian populations. Economic sanctions, though nonviolent, are now widely pilloried as cruel; can this new way of war be any better? And by making war cheaper, will the new approach make wars too easy to start without adequate moral justification or reflection?
WAR OF WORDS
Among the most important questions, however, is the new strategy's efficacy against the mid-size rogue states it was designed to defeat, such as Iraq, Iran, or North Korea. Before the Kosovo war, Clinton administration defense planners certainly believed in coercion on the cheap: they assumed a mere week or two of bombing would bring Slobodan Milosevic to his knees. The NATO victory took more than two months but still seemed to vindicate the new mantra. Indeed, that coercive air power alone can win wars at minimal cost has become conventional wisdom for many commentators.
For most of its 78 days of bombing, however, NATO was much less certain. As Benjamin Lambeth's lucid narrative reminds us, the received view at the time was that NATO was in real danger of losing the war. In fact, Milosevic's ultimate concession surprised many in the alliance, producing audible sighs of relief from Washington to Ankara.
To what extent was this surrender attributable to America's new way of war -- that is, to the NATO bombing? Many observers have pointed out a variety of other factors that could have contributed, ranging from the threat of a land invasion to Milosevic's indictment for war crimes in the midst of the fighting. William Arkin in the Bacevich and Cohen collection, for example, credits NATO solidarity, writing that Milo sevic threw in the towel only after his gambit to split NATO politically failed.
Lambeth and Stephen Hosmer each credit a range of factors but consider air power the most important. Both authors, however, and especially Hosmer, distinguish between the successful infrastructure bombing and the largely fruitless countermilitary strikes favored by NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark. Whereas Serbia's military survived nearly intact, its power grid and transportation network took heavy damage and could easily have been finished off by continued bombing. It was the threat to this crucial economic foundation that changed minds in Belgrade, they argue.
For Lambeth, the bombing produced a series of changes in opinion -- reduced public resistance to compromise, elite pressure for settlement, Serb perception of NATO solidarity -- that ultimately persuaded Milosevic. The threat of invasion and finally Russian abandonment mattered, too, but the key was that NATO could continue to bomb indefinitely and with impunity. With no way to prevail, further costs became pointless and Milosevic gave up.
Hosmer, although agreeing in the details, sees somewhat different dynamics: the crucial factor, he argues, was Milosevic's expectation that NATO's bombing would soon escalate. And he musters some intriguing evidence to support this view, most notably a series of postwar press interviews with senior Serb leaders. Milosevic, for example, explained that if he had held out, "without doubt, even more massive bombing would have followed in retaliation, with the loss of a great number of lives." General Nebojsa Pavkovic, Serbia's Third Army commander, told army reservists, "If we refused [the NATO offer], every city in Serbia would be razed to the ground. The bridges in Belgrade would be destroyed. The crops would all be burned. Everyone would die." And a senior confidant of Milosevic reports, "We knew that the carpet bombing of Belgrade would start the next day after we refused, so what was the choice?" Of course, with the war already lost, these officials had an interest in demonizing NATO; Milosevic, for example, now uses accusations of NATO genocide to defend himself against war crimes charges at the Hague. Nevertheless, these interviews, the most direct available evidence of the motivations behind Serb decision-making, suggest that fears of a bombing escalation played a major role in the surrender.
Yet Lambeth's and Hosmer's analyses raise as many questions as they answer. After all, the Serbs had absorbed substantial pain prior to 1999 without turning against Milosevic. The UN sanctions imposed in 1992 essentially destroyed the Serbian economy. In 1993, Serbia's industrial output and retail sales fell by 40 and 70 percent, respectively; inflation reached a staggering 116 trillion percent; and about 60 percent of the industrial labor force had been laid off. By the end of that year 80 percent of the population had fallen below the poverty level and the Serbian GDP had dropped to about half its 1991 value -- a steeper decline than the U.S. economy suffered during the Great Depression. Yet Milosevic defied the UN's edicts and the Serb population backed him in doing so.
Moreover, air power has historically inflicted far greater pain than that imposed in 1999 without producing political concessions. As political scientist Robert Pape and historian Conrad Crane have pointed out, the Allies repeatedly firebombed German and Japanese civilians en masse in World War II without generating any meaningful domestic pressure on Hitler or Tojo to end the war. Between 1950 and 1953, strategic bombing laid waste more than half the total urban area in 18 of North Korea's 22 largest cities, to no avail. Indeed, the historical pattern for civilians under heavy bombing is resignation and ultimately apathy: the sheer burden of providing life's necessities drives out political activism.
One could argue that precision changed this pattern and allowed NATO warplanes to touch a nerve that Serbian penury in the mid-1990s or firebombing in Germany, Japan, and North Korea had not. NATO's 1999 attacks killed few civilians and focused on key infrastructure rather than flattening neighborhoods. So with their survival assured, maybe Serb civilians could invest energy in opposing the regime rather than searching for food or fuel among fields of rubble.
Yet this is not the story the interviews in Hosmer's book tell. Indeed, most striking in the Serbs' accounts is their expectation of a coming holocaust along the lines of what the Germans, Japanese, and North Koreans had suffered before them. They use terms such as "annihilation" and "genocide." They talk of "carpet bombing" and razing whole cities to the ground. If these officials are telling the truth, they gave in because they believed NATO was about to destroy urban Serbia and slaughter the civilian population.
Where did they get this idea? Western air forces have not fought this way for at least 30 years. Such tactics are precisely the opposite of Western military doctrine, which stresses precision as the key to avoiding civilian deaths. Deliberate mass killing of civilians would have sent shock waves through the NATO alliance, and it could not be further from the collateral-damage prohibitions of the "new American way of war." Hosmer speculates that NATO may actually have encouraged Serbia's leaders to misinterpret its intentions, offering some particularly bloodcurdling prewar comments from the NATO air commander, General Michael Short, that were presumably meant to make Milosevic think twice before defying the alliance. Yet if so, this was a dangerous bluff that could have destroyed NATO's credibility.
If, on the other hand, Milosevic, Pavkovic, and company were lying, the case for coercive bombing loses its most powerful support. Indeed, the other evidence Hosmer provides is far less compelling. He argues, for example, that Milosevic had realized that NATO could not be split, but he provides no evidence for this assertion. It hardly seemed crazy at the time to expect the alliance to falter (hence the great relief when he gave in). After all, NATO would soon have faced the need for a land invasion, a dangerously divisive issue. Hosmer details the economic damage NATO wrought, but relative to the destruction wreaked by relentless firebombing, it was hardly overwhelming. He highlights a handful of small demonstrations in south-central Serbia but concludes that Milosevic's regime faced no immediate threat. Indeed, given the abuse Serbs had tolerated on Milosevic's behalf ever since 1992, what is most striking is how limited such protests were. Finally, as for Milosevic's indictment as a war criminal in May 1999, one could as easily see this development as increasing his will to resist, since concession could mean imprisonment.
Aside from the interviews, the most persuasive evidence presented in Hosmer's account concerns Russia's eleventh-hour abandonment of Serbia. On June 2, Russian envoy Victor Chernomyrdin made it clear to Milosevic that Russia, previously the Serbs' chief ally, now supported NATO's position. Within hours Milosevic caved. This diplomatic reversal seems to have provided at least the proximate cause of Serbia's defeat. But much remains unclear. Why would diplomatic isolation have been more unpleasant for Serbia than the previous two months of bombing and seven years of sanctions? Perhaps Russian diplomacy was not quite the sellout it seemed: some have speculated that Chernomyrdin secretly offered the Serbs a Russian peacekeeping zone in culturally sensitive northern Kosovo if Milosevic signed NATO's terms. The otherwise bizarre episode of 200 Russian troops rushing to the Pristina airport as the Serbs withdrew (apparently in a preemptive move to claim a peacekeeping sector for Russia) would make more sense if seen as Moscow's effort to make good on a secret quid pro quo with Milosevic.
Regardless of what happened afterward, though, why did Moscow change its position? By all accounts, the pivotal factor appears to have been Russia's conviction that NATO had decided on a land invasion, which would have put Russian President Boris Yeltsin in an intolerable bind. If he stood aside and allowed NATO to overrun a historically close ally, he would advertise Russia's impotence to the world. Yet intervention on Serbia's behalf could cause a major war that Russia had no hope of winning.
The argument that Russian influence tilted the scales would therefore give the invasion threat greater influence than either Lambeth or Hosmer allow. Here too, though, puzzles remain. Nato had not in fact agreed on a land invasion by the time the Russians switched sides. To the extent that Moscow switched out of fear of a NATO invasion, where did it get this perception? Did U.S. envoy Strobe Talbott bluff Chernomyrdin? Was Washington writing checks that NATO could not cash?
DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN
The key historical question of why Milosevic gave in thus remains elusive. Each of these volumes adds an important perspective, but with each new insight new paradoxes emerge. With or without resolution, however, policy lessons have been and will continue to be drawn from this history. The Lambeth volume offers a particularly impressive overview of operational and strategic implications for future warfare, in some of which the author disagrees with his Rand colleague. (Whereas Lambeth sharply criticizes NATO's gradual escalation policy, for example, Hosmer sees it as crucial to coercive success.)
The most important implication, however, may be one that none of these authors could have anticipated: the new role played by the American way of war in the post-September 11 world. Some parts of the Kosovo model have clearly been cast aside. Kosovo showed the difficulties of coalition warfare, and such extensive deference to allied views seems unlikely in the future. Infrastructure targeting serves little use in places such as Afghanistan that have no factories or power grids to destroy. And the United States will now tolerate small numbers of elite soldiers on the ground to direct air strikes.
Yet far more noticeable are the similarities between now and then. In Afghanistan, as in Kosovo, the war began with a high-tech air campaign doing the heavy lifting with minimal U.S. ground presence. Among the Afghan campaign's most salient features has been the effort to limit U.S. casualties -- even at the cost of effectiveness. The central war aims in Afghanistan were to deny the country to al Qaeda and to destroy the al Qaeda elements based there. Ousting the Taliban was a means, not an end. Yet once the Taliban fell and it came time to realize the payoff by rounding up bin Laden and his operatives, the U.S. military drew back from the dirty work of cave-to-cave fighting in Tora Bora and elsewhere, relying on local proxies instead -- much as it delegated the ground fighting against Serbia in 1999 to the Kosovo Liberation Army. With their own interests at heart, not America's, these Afghan and Pakistani proxies allowed the quarry to escape. Washington now hopes that Hamid Karzai's interim government, backed by a handful of international peacekeepers, can stabilize Afghanistan and prevent al Qaeda's return, but so far it has insisted that this be done without any major U.S. ground forces to help. So U.S. policymakers have implemented the new way of war even more completely than in Kosovo; the Clinton administration at least agreed to a major U.S. postwar peacekeeping contingent.
Whether the new way of war will persist in the face of experience remains to be seen. As this review goes to press, the ground fighting in Operation Anaconda suggests that Tora Bora may have triggered a debate within the administration over the importance of casualty minimization at the cost of mission effectiveness. To date, however, the similarity between U.S. casualty aversion in Afghanistan and Kosovo -- and the contrast between either one and, say, World War II on this score -- has been striking.
So far at least, the new American way of war is alive and well, but in a world where its premises are no longer valid. When legitimate but remote interests limited the public's willingness to sustain costs, a strategy of warfare on the cheap arguably made sense. After 19 hijackers killed thousands of Americans on U.S. soil, however, the public has become willing to shoulder real costs -- including real casualties -- to defeat a clear and present danger. Yet in important respects, Washington has continued to behave as though the strategic context were March 1999 rather than October 2001. The twin specters of Vietnam and the Soviets' defeat by Afghan mujahideen still clearly loom large, making the administration wary of ensnarement in a guerrilla quagmire. Yet there may be times when only major commitments can counter major threats, and occasions where real costs are worth bearing. Rooting fanatical Japanese from caves on Iwo Jima and Okinawa cost thousands of American lives, but the country shouldered the sacrifice for the sake of a transcendent cause.
Today President Bush casts a new war in similar terms yet draws back from asking Americans to make any major sacrifices to wage it. If U.S. aims prove achievable without pain, then the Bush administration will deserve the highest praise from a grateful nation and will be able to justly claim mastery of a new way of war that all should acclaim. If not, however, then one can be forgiven for wondering whether the style of warfare waged in Kosovo has not outlived its usefulness.