Berger: Invasion Order Loomed
Yugoslavia: After 71 days of air war, White House had in place a memo to send in 175,000 NATO troops.
On the night of June 2, 1999, President Clinton's national security advisor, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, sat glumly in his corner office in the White House's West Wing. His task: drafting a memo advising President Clinton (news | audio | video | directory) to prepare for a ground invasion of Yugoslavia.
NATO's air war against Serbia had been underway for 71 days, but Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic hadn't buckled. Almost a million refugees from Kosovo had fled into exile, and thousands more were homeless inside the province. For weeks, Berger had argued that an air war would be enough, that a land war was unnecessary. But now he was no longer sure, and time was running out. If the United States and its allies wanted to launch ground operations before the Balkan winter set in, they would have to start preparing now.
"It was the longest night of my time in this job," Berger said later.
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About 2 a.m., scribbling on a yellow pad, he finished his memo. To be sure of winning in Kosovo, Berger wrote, the United States had only one option left: a massive ground invasion using 175,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops, about 100,000 of them from the U.S.
The "go/no-go" memo, freshly typed by a secretary, went to the Oval Office that same morning. Clinton was ready to approve it, Berger said. But before he could, unexpected news arrived from Belgrade: Milosevic had agreed to NATO's terms.
The American public didn't know it, but Clinton had been within days of launching full preparations for an invasion. Berger's account, in an interview with The Times, marks the first time a highly placed U.S. official has publicly described how close the United States and its allies came to deciding to fight their way into Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.
In the end, of course, the invasion didn't happen. It might not have occurred even if Clinton had ordered preparations to go forward. NATO commanders wanted three months to assemble their invasion force; Clinton aides planned at least one more "last-ditch" peace mission.
But the episode is a reminder of how uncertain the outcome of the conflict appeared a year ago, even on the eve of victory; how fragile NATO's consensus was as the alliance waged the first war of its 50-year history; and how limited the choices were, even for the world's only superpower.
NATO enjoyed huge advantage in the air
NATO's war against Yugoslavia wasn't supposed to be that hard. All along, Berger said, "we believed that the air campaign would work."
Moreover, he argued, a ground invasion could have mired the alliance in bloody, inconclusive and politically divisive combat. "In the air, we had a thousand-to-one advantage. Once we got on the ground, we still would have had an advantage, but what was it, three to one? ... Milosevic would have been happy to see a force come in on the ground, because it would have allowed him to wage a war of attrition."
Betting on a low-casualty victory from the air, Clinton publicly ruled out the riskier option of ground combat on the first day of the war.
Critics charged that Clinton was unwittingly encouraging Milosevic to dig in and wait out the bombs.
But Berger insists that taking ground forces off the table was the right thing to do at that point — because the alternative was a public debate, within the United States and among NATO members, that would have divided the alliance and potentially crippled the war effort.
Even with a thousand-to-one advantage, NATO's air campaign took longer than most of the alliance's leaders anticipated when the war began March 24, 1999. Some hoped that Milosevic would back down after only a few days; he didn't. Bad weather made air operations difficult; dozens of bombing runs were canceled.
At the same time, the allies argued about which targets to hit, with French President Jacques Chirac insisting on caution in striking politically sensitive facilities.
Some officials, including Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, have contended that the allies' qualms hampered the air war, delayed victory and endangered allied pilots. But in "Winning Ugly," a book about the war released Thursday, foreign policy scholars Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O'Hanlon conclude that poor preparation, not allied squabbling, was the main reason for the slow progress.
Daalder and O'Hanlon quote Adm. James O. Ellis, NATO's commander for southern Europe, as saying the alliance fell victim to "short-war syndrome." NATO assumed the war wouldn't last long and failed to plan for a long campaign. "We called this one absolutely wrong," Ellis said, according to the book.
"NATO was clearly losing the war through late April ... and could have lost the war entirely," said Daalder, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Instead, at a summit meeting in Washington at the end of April, NATO's leaders, in Berger's words, agreed: "We will not lose. We will not lose. Whatever it takes, we will not lose."
Two escalations followed. One was visible: more airplanes, more airstrikes, and the first attacks against Belgrade's electrical power system, which was a "dual-use" (civilian and military) target that had been off limits.
The other was invisible: a stepped-up debate inside government councils concerning preparations for a ground war.
Laying Groundwork for Possible Invasion
Gen. Wesley K. Clark, then NATO's supreme commander, had drawn up contingency plans for invading Yugoslavia a year earlier. Prodded by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, NATO's leading hawk, the alliance authorized Clark to update the plans, but Cohen and the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were skeptical.
In May, Clinton decided to put the option of ground troops back on the table — if only to threaten Milosevic and build public support in case an invasion was necessary. The issue would have divided NATO in March, but after almost two months of an indecisive air war, it could no longer be ducked.
On May 20, 1999, Clark briefed Clinton and his advisors. The general presented several options, officials said. The largest was for a force of about 175,000 troops to take all of Kosovo by land, mostly from Albania. Other options required smaller forces: the allies could take only part of Kosovo, establish "safe areas" for refugees and open land corridors for fleeing civilians. But Clark recommended the "heavy option."
Clinton agreed to Clark's request to increase the NATO ground force on Kosovo's borders from about 25,000 troops to almost 50,000. In public, the troops were described as advance units of a possible peacekeeping force, which was technically true. But the troops also were intended to start preparing for combat — and to let Milosevic see that an invasion force was building. As part of the psychological warfare, one official said, Britain leaked word that it was sending a heavy tank unit to the region.
Then, on May 31, NATO authorized Clark to begin strengthening Albania's roads to support heavy tanks. Among other problems, Berger recalled, "the tunnels in the mountains were smaller than the tanks that had to go through them." In public, NATO spokesmen claimed that the road improvements were to help get supplies to Kosovo refugees, but in fact they were an essential part of Clark's war plan.
At about the same time, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott warned Russia's special envoy, former Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, that Clinton was seriously considering ground troops — deliberately prompting Chernomyrdin to carry the warning to Milosevic.
The warnings were "very explicit," a senior U.S. official said. The State Department even arranged for two U.S. generals to brief Chernomyrdin.
Chernomyrdin wasn't just alarmed. He was "apocalyptic," the U.S. official recalled. He warned that an invasion would cause a terrible crisis between NATO and Russia, and predicted that the Serbs would prove tough fighters in the defense of their homeland.
"Chernomyrdin kept using one phrase over and over," the official recalled. "He said if there were a ground invasion, it would lead to a wave of blood — a sea of blood. ... And you know what? That was fine. We wanted him to think it was (a) likely to happen and (b) going to be awful, because he worked all the harder in getting it fixed."
As Chernomyrdin and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari flew to Belgrade bearing NATO's threats, Berger was wrestling with what the alliance would need to do to carry them out — and how much time it had. To launch an invasion across Albania's mountains before the onset of winter in October, Clark had asked for a decision by mid-June.
Berger listed three options in his June 2 memorandum to Clinton.
The first, he said, was to "arm the Kosovars; but that would cause a chain of events that would produce a war that would last for years."
The second option was to wait until spring — but that would require NATO to supply and protect thousands of refugees inside Kosovo through the winter.
The third option was a major ground invasion.
Not all NATO members on board
"It was a pretty depressing memo," Berger said. "I said we basically should go ahead with what Clark had proposed if this [the Chernomyrdin mission] failed."
Berger also recommended that the president go public with his decision; dispatching 100,000 or more troops to Albania could not be done without open debate. "We had about a week to do some very heavy lifting with [Capitol Hill] and the American people and the allies," he said.
Would Clinton have agreed? "Yes. The president, I think, had made clear to me in principle that we could not lose."
Would NATO have gone along? "We would not have had a consensus," Berger said, meaning some of the alliance's 19 countries would have refused to participate. Officials said they were confident that Britain, France and Germany would have joined, but Greece was almost sure to refuse and Italy was a question mark. The United States would have pressed forward nonetheless, they said — a decision that could have meant ending NATO's formal sponsorship of the war and forming a new coalition on the spot.
In Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, Chernomyrdin and Ahtisaari presented NATO's terms to Milosevic: a full withdrawal from Kosovo, deployment of a NATO-led peacekeeping force, the return of all refugees. Milosevic agreed.
"I was positively surprised," Ahtisaari said. "I was prepared to have negotiations that would have lasted longer."
U.S. officials were amazed as well. They had expected Milosevic to turn down the mediators. Clinton aides already were planning to send one more diplomatic mission to Belgrade, direct from the United States, to give Milosevic his final chance.
Officials initially were skeptical that Milosevic had really agreed. Not until June 10, after Yugoslav military officers signed a detailed agreement to allow NATO troops to enter Kosovo, did the U.N. Security Council officially declare the war over and NATO halt its bombing.
U.S. still unsure why Milosevic gave in
Why did Milosevic give in? U.S. officials still don't know for sure, and offer a mix of possible answers.
Perhaps it was the damage inflicted by the air war, although the actual impact of the bombing has been debated even within the Pentagon. Or perhaps it was the growing threat of a ground invasion.
Diplomacy helped; most officials believe Milosevic's recognition that he had failed to divide NATO enough to stop the air war and that Russia wouldn't stop the air war for him were key factors. And in the Chernomyrdin-Ahtisaari talks, NATO offered Milosevic enough leeway to allow him to tell his countrymen that he was not capitulating. The peacekeeping force in Kosovo was formally placed under the United Nations' authority, not NATO's, and the force was confined to Kosovo as opposed to Serbia proper.
There was another factor, U.S. officials contend: The CIA and other allied intelligence services were tracking down the bank accounts and business interests of Milosevic and his closest supporters, seeking to freeze their assets and disrupt their financial dealings.
Berger refused to comment about those reports, but acknowledged: "His own cronies were beginning to pressure him. We saw the noose tightening."
"Milosevic, in the final analysis, is a survivor," one senior official said. "He made a very hardheaded calculation about his chances of survival physically and politically and concluded that he could turn this into a Pyrrhic victory for NATO — that he could survive the loss of Kosovo for a period of time, then whittle away at allied resolve, whittle away at the situation on the ground, whittle away at his own opposition, and come back and fight another day.
"And guess what?" the official said, smiling, for that is largely what Milosevic has done.
Times staff writer Tyler Marshall contributed to this report.
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