NATO protects a fragile unity

As leaders convenue Washington summit, solidarity precarious

Consensus just on airstrikes

War In Yugoslavia

April 23, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The NATO leaders who will sit down at their summit here today have confounded critics who thought the 50-year-old alliance would fracture before fighting its first major war. But a month into NATO's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, no one can say it's been easy to preserve the unity.

And yesterday, it got tougher.

On the eve of today's opening of the NATO summit, Russia and Yugoslavia chipped away at the alliance's solidarity with a peace overture calling for a United Nations-led "international presence" in Kosovo. The offer drew a hesitant half-welcome from President Clinton, but the White House became increasingly skeptical as the day wore on.

Clinton has demanded that President Slobodan Milosevic accept an armed force in Kosovo that would guarantee the return of the refugees.

The effort to keep 19 diverse NATO countries unified has added cumbersome delays to an air campaign complicated by bad weather, a vast and unforeseen refugee crisis and NATO's determination to avoid allied and civilian casualties.

And a move to commit ground troops to the war would likely expose deep political splits in every nation called upon to send soldiers, including the United States, increasing pressure on the alliance to accept a peace overture from Belgrade.

"I don't see a major break in NATO unity for now," said Hans Binnendijk of the National Defense University, a research and training institution. "If there's a decision required for ground forces, there will clearly be a major debate."

With U.S. approval, NATO officials say they are beginning to lay the groundwork for eventually sending tens of thousands of troops into the province to wipe out pockets of Serbian resistance remaining after more weeks, and possibly months, of punishing airstrikes.

"I think it's important not to rule anything out," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said yesterday when asked about NATO planning for ground troops.

NATO has streamlined its military decision-making, giving its secretary general, Javier Solana, leeway to seek consensus among members without a formal meeting of 19 ambassadors at the Brussels headquarters.

Key decisions, however, still require such a meeting and what is known as the "silence procedure." In this, Solana prepares a summary of a decision. NATO ambassadors are given time to consult with their capitals and to "break silence" if they have an objection.

This procedure was followed when NATO needed Albania to serve as a base for U.S. Apache attack helicopters.

Right now, the silence procedure has been compressed to 3 1/2 hours. Yet in such a sprawling and diverse alliance, just about every decision is difficult.

The targets for the airstrikes were selected last summer and fall, before Milosevic agreed to a short-lived autonomy deal for Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians. NATO planners designed a four-phased campaign that would begin by knocking out Yugoslavia's air defenses.

But even as NATO bombers pound targets ever closer to Milosevic, they are not yet fully into the third phase of the campaign, which calls for hitting command and control targets throughout Yugoslavia.

Moving to a full third phase of bombing would require a formal meeting of the alliance. The final, or fourth phase, calls for heavy bombing of a range of targets everywhere in the country.

As of yesterday morning, NATO had flown "more than 2,750 attack sorties under some of the most difficult weather and terrain conditions that can be encountered in modern warfare," according to an independent assessment by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Overall, NATO has flown more than 9,000 sorties since the beginning of the war, including the attack sorties.

The small number of accidents and civilian deaths "is an amazing tactical and technical achievement," Cordesman concluded.

But this safety -- for the pilots and potential civilian victims -- has come at a price. Each mistake has required painstaking investigation and explanation. This was particularly true of the strikes on two convoys last week that may have hit civilian vehicles and caused numerous deaths.

"The convoy [attack] threw us off for the better part of five days," says a NATO diplomat.

Cordesman says that based on the results made available so far, the air war has failed to show steady progress.

"Further, the air campaign clearly has had little operational impact on Serbian operations in Kosovo. `Ethnic cleansing' now affects at least 90 percent of the Muslim population in Kosovo, and even NATO admits that its airstrikes may have made some aspects of `ethnic cleansing' worse -- at least in the near term."

Part of the reason for lack of success so far was the underlying purpose of the air campaign, says Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution: "The administration felt this was a war about psychology, not about battlefield effect."

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