Tensions rise among allies in Kosovo

U.S., Europeans at odds over troop deployments

March 05, 2000|By Tom Bowman and Jay Hancock | Tom Bowman and Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Amid the abiding violence and tension of Kosovo, the real chaos appears to be among Western allies who are supposed to be in charge.

The Americans complain that the Europeans aren't providing enough troops and police to carry out the mission in the Serbian province, which has been occupied by NATO allies since the end of the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia last June.

European leaders and editorial writers claim that U.S. leaders are overly afraid of troop casualties. And U.S. generals are sniping at each other over the handling of the recent rioting in the northern city of Mitrovica.

At the least, the squabbling has damaged the alliance's credibility as a unified force against Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic. But it also underscores serious operational problems, including ground commanders who feel hamstrung by politicians and a shortage of troops, Balkans analysts said.

"We're encouraging extremism, and we're giving Milosevic and his allies on the ground new hope that a partition of Kosovo is possible," said Eric Witte, associate Washington director of the International Crisis Group, a humanitarian organization.

Mitrovica aid and conflict

Long-simmering disputes among NATO members have boiled into the open over Mitrovica, where Serbian and ethnic Albanian residents have been locked in bitter fighting in recent weeks over the future of the divided city.

In an effort to aid French peacekeepers in Mitrovica last month, NATO commander Gen. Wesley K. Clark dispatched 350 U.S. troops into the heart of the trouble. They were pelted with rocks and bottles as they searched house to house for weapons.

The street battles prompted a stern letter from Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He reminded Clark that the priority for U.S. troops is to patrol their own sector. American forces would be spread too thin if they were frequently putting out fires in other areas, Shelton said, although he noted that Clark is authorized to order U.S. troops elsewhere in case of "extraordinary emergencies."

"He didn't want to draw troops out of the American sector and create vacuums there," said Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon's spokesman.

But U.S. allies and independent analysts -- even some American military officers -- had another theory about Shelton's motives. His letter, they said, betrayed an overly protective concern by the Clinton administration for the safety of U.S. soldiers -- what some in the military term as being "casualty averse." Such caution is hurting the allies' ability to keep the Balkans peace, they argue.

"We would prefer that all contingents could be used with maximum flexibility in Kosovo," said one diplomat from a European ally. "Certainly this type of geographic restriction is something that can strain the ability to maneuver."

The Times of London wrote last week that Shelton's letter "is the latest indication that America, particularly in an election year, is not willing to suffer casualties in remote conflicts, even if it means losing face before its allies."

The Unites States is not the only ally to have restricted the use of its Kosovo troops under NATO. Of 19 NATO allies, only Britain, France and Italy have allowed unrestricted assignments for their people. However, the United States is seen as being especially worried about bloodshed.

"It is all to do with casualties," said Ivo Daalder, a Balkans specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Inadequate troops

While Europeans complain about restrictions on American troops, U.S. officials and independent analysts say the Europeans themselves are not keeping their promises to supply adequate troops.

Among the allies, the United States has the largest single contingent of troops, some 5,300 people. Pentagon officials and members of Congress said the European allies are failing to carry their weight.

"We're doing more than our part," said a Pentagon official.

The official said that last year's allied strategy against Milosevic's forces seemed clear: "We'd get the job done in the air war; you do the heavy lifting on the ground."

Sen. John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, has complained about an open-ended U.S. role in the Balkans and the failure of the allies to provide the necessary troops and police.

"It is primarily a European situation, and they have to live up to their commitments," said Warner.

This week, said a Warner aide, the senator will unveil a measure to withhold up to half the $2 billion U.S. peacekeeping budget for Bosnia and Kosovo until the allies beef up their forces.

Difficult head count

It's hard to tell precisely how much Europe may have fallen short of troop commitments. NATO tells member forces what jobs need to be done, but not how many troops it takes to do them. What is clear is that the number of troops in Kosovo has fallen sharply in recent months, and analysts believe the peacekeeping mission is threatened as a result.

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