An unanticipated flood

Mistake: NATO expected a U-shaped sweep through Kosovo by Serbian forces, not the military onslaught that produced a tidal wave of refugees.

April 11, 1999|By Tom Bowman and Jonathan Weisman | Tom Bowman and Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Operation Horseshoe didn't turn out the way NATO expected.

NATO intelligence calculated that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's mission against Kosovo would cut a horseshoe-shaped swath through the province, drawing in all the historical and cultural sites prized by the Serbs, according to congressional and administration officials.

Both the U.S. military and the intelligence communities believed the ethnic Albanians would be forcibly removed, cast from this prime territory into other parts of the province, the officials said.

But Milosevic's troops weren't settling for a mere horseshoe. They raged through much of Kosovo, pushing more than 500,000 ethnic Albanians out of the province and into surrounding countries, doubling the number of anticipated homeless. The result -- the worst European refugee crisis since World War II -- quickly overwhelmed relief efforts and even impeded NATO's military operations.

Relief workers, lawmakers and officials from the State Department and NATO agree: The West failed to anticipate the vast scale and the sheer speed of the refugee disaster and did not move quickly enough with needed assistance.

At NATO, it wasn't until last weekend that the decision was made to use military forces to handle the complicated and far-flung logistics required by the refugee crisis. Before that, "it was anticipated that NGOs [nongovernmental organizations, private relief groups] would be able to handle the outflow," a NATO diplomat said.

"It doubled the effort. It meant NATO has had to organize a humanitarian operation at the same time we're conducting an air campaign," the diplomat added.

Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican and one of 11 lawmakers who accompanied Defense Secretary William S. Cohen on a trip to the region last week, was disturbed by what he found.

"They were not prepared for the humanitarian disaster," he said. Once the bombing started, Buyer said, "they never thought [Milosevic] would continue ethnic cleansing."

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican, who made his own trip to Albania last week, called the flood of refugees "a catastrophe that should have been anticipated."

"Ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo are now paying a heavy price for [NATO's] not anticipating that," said Wolf. "The overall relief effort was late in getting started, is slow in coming up to speed and, thus far, is overwhelmed by the vast number of refugees."

Catherine Robinson, a relief worker in Albania with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, said late last week that there has been little coordination between the military and relief organizations. "I can't say any military assistance has really been [offered] to the relief agencies," she said, adding, "We could use it."

Relief agencies appear to have been lulled into the same flawed optimism that policy makers were.

"We expected Milosevic to back down, and if there was an influx, we thought it wouldn't happen this fast," Robinson said. "The scale of the crisis has caught everyone off guard."

A year ago, during Milosevic's last offensive in Kosovo, relief agencies steeled themselves for more than 100,000 refugees moving out of Kosovo. Instead, only 20,000 actually fled Kosovo.

Last Thursday, more than two weeks into the war, at least 40 agencies -- from giant Catholic Relief Services of Baltimore to tiny European church groups -- finally held a coordination meeting to organize efforts in Albania.

A top State Department official acknowledged that the Clinton administration was caught off guard by the volume of refugees.

"We didn't know there would be a conscious effort to drive out one-third of the population in such quick order," said Julia Taft, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. In such crises, "the very first few days are always chaotic. There are always people on the ground who don't know how to organize."

But some relief workers complained that it took 10 days after the bombing began before the Pentagon announced humanitarian goods would be shipped to the region. That day, April 3, a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane with a shipment of daily food rations lifted off from Dover, Del. It was the first of about 500,000 requested rations, a request that has now increased to 1.1 million.

A former State Department official who follows Balkan affairs faulted the administration for failure to have a humanitarian relief plan ready, with prepositioned supplies, when its whole Balkan policy was based on the fear that war could spill over from Yugoslavia and destabilize the region.

He complained that more than 10,000 NATO peacekeepers in Macedonia were kept idle while a huge humanitarian catastrophe developed in the country.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon insisted that the administration had anticipated the possibility of a humanitarian problem.

But, he acknowledged: "That's not to say that we knew exactly how it would unfold or the speed with which it would unfold."

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