Glitches and goofs -- a reality of modern war

May 19, 1999|By Milt Bearden

THE accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade shattered the cozy notion that the war in the Balkans is some kind of video game of exploding cross hairs. The sight of a grieving Chinese father bidding farewell to his daughter, one of three killed in the embassy, somberly reminded us of that.

Within hours of the bombing, the public was besieged with expert opinions on the deadly error. The usual CIA-bashers found new energy for their theme that the intelligence agency is a bloated collection of incompetents and misfits so out of touch with the real world that they cannot even pull the correct address of the Chinese Embassy off the Internet. Five clicks of the mouse will do it, they claim.

The other side waded in with a tepid defense of the beleaguered intelligence community, thoughtfully claiming that such mistakes are the profound and predictable result of the Clinton administration's deep slashes in military and intelligence budgets.

So who is right? They both are right -- and wrong.

The sequence of errors leading up to the mistaken bombing is impossible to rationalize, producing the understandable response that there must be accountable negligence somewhere.

At the same time, satellite-imagery resources are, indeed, stretched so thin -- with priority demands for overhead surveillance of not only the Balkans, but also Iraq, North Korea, Russia, India and Pakistan -- that it is no surprise to anyone who uses them that the maps of Belgrade are as old as they are. That sorry situation will not improve until new satellites start reaching orbit again, instead of blowing up on the launch pads, as has been the case in recent months.

So who is to blame? Everybody. Or nobody. Take your choice.

For art's sake

Yes, maps used by targeting analysts were too old. Yes, NATO appears to have been more deliberative in exempting a building containing a single Rembrandt, President Slobodan Milosevic's palace, from the target list than a building containing Chinese diplomats.

Yes, in the three years since the Chinese moved their embassy a couple of football fields away from the intended military target, hundreds of NATO diplomats -- ambassadors, military attaches and intelligence officers from nearly all 19 member states -- had attended the Chinese National Day celebrations at Beijing's new Belgrade embassy each Oct. 1. That not one of these diplomats and spies was apparently in a position to catch the targeting error suggests a failure as systemic as it was catastrophic.

So it seems everyone involved in the target package, except the air crew that launched the munitions, is guilty of a grave error, or at least a missed cue. The sad truth is, not much can be done to ensure that it doesn't happen again, short of ending the bombing of urban targets.

The problem with high-tech intelligence wizardry is that expectations always outpace reality. During the Afghan war, we were able to link low-tech mortars with state-of-the-art satellites and obliterate Soviet Spetznaz units with total surprise. But no one ever came up with a more reliable solution to clearing mines than the bayonet probe or driving goats into minefields.

Similarly, during the height of the Cold War, the CIA took extreme measures in Moscow to protect and insulate its operations. But disaster struck when the keeper of the keys, a man driven by simple greed, handed them over to the KGB.

The ways of warfare

Thus, what we saw in Belgrade is the way things work in a war, hot or cold. Those who support intensifying the bombing will just have to get used to it.

This does not mean Washington should not intelligently examine what went wrong and where. But in the process, the administration should suppress its instinct to zero in on some bleary-eyed imagery analyst strapped to a light table for 16 hours a day to deliver yet more targets to NATO planners.

The responsibility begins at the top. Within days of the Chinese Embassy bombing, a resurrected group of experts, the Sinologists, rushed back to the talk shows and editorial pages to interpret the oracle bones of the Chinese reaction. Quotations from the Chinese militarist Sun Tzu began to circulate.

This one from the military sage is worth a thought: "The highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemy's plans; next to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities."

Sun Tzu said that almost 2,500 years ago, but it applies today in the Balkans. Milosevic apparently follows Sun Tzu's advice to the letter, as he takes on the alliance.

But there it is. If you attack your enemy's cities, you are in for the long haul, and hopes for a quick victory, the only kind of victory Sun Tzu thought a good outcome in a war, inevitably slips from your grasp.

The war in the Balkans has created national paroxysms, both here and in China. We in America almost had a collective nervous breakdown over three POWs, now freed, and the Chinese have cynically elevated their response to the Belgrade bombing to a level dangerous for all of us. Enough.

We are in the middle of a war; it is not the NATO alliance against one man. This war is against what is left of Serbia, and it will probably get messier. But it must be finished. Then there will be time to examine what went wrong, and why. In this, Sun Tzu may have some more wisdom: "The ruler cannot mobilize the army out of personal anger. The general cannot engage in battle because of personal frustration."

Milt Bearden was in the CIA's clandestine service for 30 years, and was in charge of the CIA's covert war in Afghanistan from 1986-89. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 5/19/99

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