I think people when they gathered for this ministerial meeting in Luxembourg
first and later on the Defense Ministers in Brussels, were really deeply
worried and concerned about the situation, the aggravation of the situation in
Kosovo and they were thinking what one could do to stop Milosevic, and really,
I think rather suddenly they started to debate military steps to stop these
type of uncivilized behavior to put it mildly.
Were you surprised?
I was not really surprised, since we all had learned in the past years since
1991 that Milosevic, who had by the way at this point in time already started
three wars in Europe, apparently did not understand the language of diplomacy,
there was no stick behind it and so I wasn't surprised that politicians really
very quickly said we have to consider military action.
Were these war plans?
No, no. Even when the Defense Ministers then eventually tasked us to develop
some options, they did not task us to develop war plans, they tasked us to
develop operational concepts and as a matter of fact they really ruined our
summer of 1998 since we were developing one operational concept following the
other one, I think all in all we had some eight or nine different options on
the table, so we had a full quiver of arrows ready for the use of the Council,
but the Council was very reluctant to task us to develop these operational
concepts further into an operations plan.
So what was the point of this planning?
I think NATO had started to rattle the saber in June, and against military
advice, they had launched this demonstrative air exercise so I think it was a
logical consequence to underpin this--to task the military to think through
different options, what one could do if Milosevic did not react to any of the
saber rattling, which as a matter of fact he did not do. . . .
Why weren't you asked to plan an intense war? A downtown Baghdad style air
The aim was to bring him back to the negotiation table. The aim was not to
enforce our will on him, and I think this is the difference. Our politicians
wanted to use the military instrument to more or less to convince him that it's
better to continue to negotiate and to seek a peaceful solution. They did not
want to destroy Serbia and then bring it back as a defeated country to the
negotiation table, and so this principle of taking utmost care of the potential
opponent was one of the factors which we had to take into account. If you look
at what we did later on we had more or less three guiding principles: we had
first of all to avoid if possible any of our own casualties and fatalities,
secondly we were told avoid collateral damage to the extent possible, and
thirdly bring it to a quick end. If you take these three ingredients, it's very
very difficult to find a proper solution to make this equation fly. So I think
we need to conclude from that if we want to take care of the opponent's people
then such an air war will be a long protracted campaign, you can't bring it to
a short end.
What did you say to the [NATO] Council about the plans for the air
We told them I think repeatedly first of all be cautious, an air war alone will
presumably not do the trick. You should consider ground forces . . . . I told
the Council very clearly that I am full of doubts that one could win such a
thing without ground forces and that in military history it has never happened
before. . . I think that I said an air war will have the risk in it that the
people of Serbia will rally behind Milosevic, as we have seen it by the way in
World War II, and secondly I told them, General Clark told our politicians that
an air war is always a race between destruction and reconstruction--you destroy
something in your opponent's capabilities and he tries to repair it, to
reconfigure it, reconstruct it-- so an air war by definition is time
And what did they say?
With hindsight, I as the top military of the Alliance presumably did not press
hard enough for ground forces. I think I made the point very clearly but we all
realized that the issue of ground forces was very divisive in the Alliance.
Some nations without any necessity to do so ruled it out long before we started
the bombing campaign. We knew that we would not get consensus on ground forces,
so we backed off in order to maintain consensus, which was the most important
thing in this entire exercise. . . . That was the real key to success, and this
was presumably Milosevic's biggest mistake and miscalculation: he had hoped
that this consensus would break and the cohesion would wither away.
But was the price too much?
We have to accept these compromises, otherwise we wouldn't have simply wouldn't
have got [consensus], and think for a moment what it would have meant if we had
not acted. I still believe we were right in accepting this compromise flawed as
it may be with hindsight. It was much better to act and to stop at the end of
the day the atrocities in Kosovo than to quarrel and to debate endlessly
without doing anything. . . .
Were you surprised when you heard that Holbrooke was going to negotiate
while military planning was underway?
No, I was not surprised. We all had learned that Dick Holbrooke was something
like the secret weapon of the State Department at the time. He was a trouble
shooter, if I may say so. . . .The NATO Ministers as such were still of the
opinion that there is time for diplomacy, room for diplomacy, but they wanted
to underpin the diplomatic efforts with a more tangible, more credible threat.
For that reason we moved in the direction of the activation order and we
started to refine and work out in detail our operation plans.
Did you think the Holbrooke deal was a good one?
I didn't like the Holbrooke deal at all. On the night on which Dick Holbrooke
came and reported to the Council, I said to the Secretary General, "I don't see
a big advantage in this, the only advantage which I see is that now Milosevic
has apparently accepted that the Kosovo conflict is no longer an internal
matter of Yugoslavia but it is now an international conflict, since the OSCE
came into the game."
And the downside, the danger of having unarmed OSCE monitors and so
I think both Clark and I told the Council there's a potential for a hostage-
taking situation like we had seen in 1995 in Sarajevo when the Serbs took some
more or less unarmed United Nations people as a hostage, so we warned of that
situation and that led later on to the extraction force.
Tell me about your meeting with Milosevic.
We were sent to Belgrade on the 25th of October, very much to our surprise
since before that time some nations in the Council, the European nations had
always said that the military should stay out of political things. Now we were
suddenly tasked to do some political negotiations; also, we were not allowed to
call it "negotiations" we just called it "talks." We saw Milosevic I think at
four o'clock in the afternoon in the White Palace, after a short briefing by
the American Ambassador and then we delivered I think in a nutshell a very
clear message by telling him Mr. President we came to deliver a straightforward
message, the hammer is cocked and you have forty-eight hours to delivery,
otherwise we will bomb. And then we explained to Milosevic why he had to
withdraw his police and his military and we tried to persuade him in these
talks with the idea that he should turn the table so that the KLA is seen as
the bad guys, as he portrayed them, and we told him again and again, "You can't
win the support and the understanding of the international community if you
continue to shell villages. That's not the attitude of European nations, so you
if want to be a respected country then you have to turn the table and you have
to accept the normal attitude of all of our countries in dealing with
What did he say to you?
He reacted initially very harshly and said, "These Kosovars . . . they are
murderers and they are killers and rapers." He really got a little bit
emotional on this. . . .
Was he angry?
Milosevic is a man who changes from an attitude of extreme friendliness, he can
be so nice that you feel like you should not cuddle into the arms of a big bear
and feel happy, and suddenly he is shifting gears and he can get very angry, so
this permanent shifting of gears dominated to some extent our discussions.
There were occasions when he spoke a little louder than normally . . . we never
responded in the same ways; both Clark and I have learned in our military life
that the one who starts to shout is never the one who is at the end the
winner. . . .
Clark and I were acting more or less as the two fists of a boxer. When I think
Clark had lashed out and Milosevic was recovering, I tried to do the second one
or the other way round. Anyway I think we did quite a nice teamwork and I think
we succeeded in persuading Milosevic that he was about to lose everything. We
used very straightforward language, I remember that I told him on one occasion,
Mr. President you will go down in history as the man who destroyed Serbia . . .
. We used this type of language, and Milosevic got increasingly angry but also
gave us indication that he felt some impact of our arguments. He then said - I
think at 10:30 or so - we need time out and I need to discuss with my
collaborators. Went to another room and came after half an hour back and said,
"OK, you two guys are too tough for me, we will negotiate . . . We had to do
some bickering on tiny things, but more or less we got [an] agreement and at
three o'clock we flew back with a good conscience that we had used the stick
successfully, and that we had prevented a war. . . .
The autumn that follows those talks, there were lots of violations of the
agreement. What were you saying to the Council, and why weren't they taking
We reported first of all our result and I think everyone was relieved and was
quite happy and satisfied with the result which really was, I think, the one
element Dick Holbrooke had not negotiated, we had achieved the withdrawal of
the police and the military. But then the KLA took advantage of the situation
and more or less filled the vacuum, which the strong Serb police and military
forces had left, and Milosevic responded to that again with force, and I should
say with disproportionate force, so we saw an increasing number of violations
of the agreements in the November-December timeframe on both sides, the KLA as
well as the Serbs.
We reported this to the Council, week after week but there was not yet a
preparedness to act. . . . NATO I think still had not had its act together with
regard to the legal questions of a military action without the United Nations'
mandate. NATO nations, particularly European NATO nations, still hoped that
another diplomatic effort would be possible, and so no reaction took place and
the escalation went on and on.
What signal did that send to Milosevic?
I think Milosevic felt reinforced in his assessment that he can ride it out and
the cohesion in NATO is not sufficient to act so he can continue to do what he
wanted to do. He may have concluded from that that NATO is bluffing, the paper
tiger syndrome which became the hallmark of NATO in January and February, when
your colleagues from the press were making all these wonderful cartoons of NATO
as a paper tiger.
Did the massacre at Racak matter?
Racak mattered a lot. Racak was the reason why Clark and I were sent down [to
talk with Milosevic] a second time . . . .
What was his reaction to you?
He was very very angry with us and he told us that we were turning things
around and Racak was no massacre--the people in Racak had been killed in action
and that Walker had behaved outrageously by calling this entire thing a
massacre and a crime. We had we tried to persuade him not to expel Walker which
he had really in mind, and he said to us this is a decision of the Serb
Parliament and you're living in a democracy and I have to act if Parliament
demands, and of course we said, "What a wonderful democracy you are."
We also discussed with him the possibility of inviting the International
Criminal Tribunal into the country and to investigate at Racak. He flatly
denied this, and so we ended up with no result, I think the only result which
we really got from this seven hours of rather intense and controversial
discussions was that he agreed that two people could have side arms when they
accompanied Ambassador Walker.
Did Kosovo matter to Milosevic?
As soon as you mentioned Kosovo in a way which may have triggered the thought
in his mind that he may lose Kosovo one day, he got very emotional. He told us,
I don't know how often, that Kosovo is really the cradle of the Serb culture
and religion. He also mentioned that he was fully aware that the greater
fertility of the Albanians had changed the demographic balance over the time,
and that for that reason he had to find a solution that the Albanians could not
outnumber the Serbs once again. This I think was an indication at the time--we
presumably didn't think of it--but I think it was an indication that in order
to avoid that the Serb people in Kosovo would be outnumbered once again . . .
that he had taken a decision to expel them. We didn't catch it since something
like an expulsion of an entire people is something which is so alien to our
thinking that we didn't get the hint.
Was it a mistake to try to negotiate with him?
I wouldn't say that was a mistake, it was a last attempt to achieve a peaceful
solution and as such it can't be a mistake. What I regard as a mistake is that
NATO eventually accepted that a contact group should take the lead in the
negotiations, and why I'm so critical about the contact group, the main reason
for that is that Russia was in it. I'm not opposed to Russian participation in
seeking a peaceful solution, but Russia did not share NATO's objectives with
regard to Kosovo, and for that reason I think it was a strange sort of
negotiation. NATO was not sitting at the table, but the contact group used NATO
and the NATO threat as a stick to persuade both Albanians and the Serbs. The
other reason why I'm so critical about the contact group is five NATO nations
were negotiating, but all the others were supposed to carry the risk of
executing the threat if necessary, but at the same time they had no say. So we
introduced if I may say so a first and a second league of NATO nations, and
this weakened cohesion in the Alliance.
I should mention, we in the military, Clark and I, had really argued that one
should start the negotiations with the military annex first . . . . This was
the way we had succeeded in Dayton and now for reasons which only some foreign
ministries may know, we changed the pattern and negotiated all the other things
first. . . . In the very last moment the military annex was introduced, so the
most difficult part was negotiated at the end when it already was obvious that
the other things which were not as difficult to take for Serbia did really not
fly with Serbia. I think this tactical mistake to start with the least
difficult things first and to save the most difficult one for the end, made it
very very difficult right from the outset to achieve a success.
When did you think in your mind that there would be war?
When I actually - when I saw the first Serb reaction to the non-military part
of the proposals, I think I said it to the Secretary General now we have played
our last cards, there is no way out, we have to do it otherwise we will lose
all credibility . . . .
How long did you think the air war would last?
I was asked in the Council repeatedly how long will it take us, and I think I
am not saying anything which cannot be proved by records, I always refused to
give an answer to that, I said the only thing which I can tell you is it will
take us at the minimum seven days to neutralize the Serb air defense system and
seven days only under favorable conditions. . . . I did not
believe that this would come to an end after two or three days, I had hoped for
it, yes, but I saw no indications for that. But I should also say I had not
expected it would take us seventy eight days.
A lot of politicians seemed to think it would take three days.
Yes, I know that. I do not know on whose judgement they built this expectation.
Perhaps some of them made the mistake to believe that Kosovo was Bosnia, in
Bosnia it was a relatively short air campaign, but Bosnia was very different,
first of all Bosnia doesn't matter as much as Kosovo for the Serbs, it's not
part of the heartland. Secondly, when we attacked targets in Bosnia the Serb
armed forces had been defeated beforehand . . . by the Croatian counter attack
and they were not in a good position. . . .
One of the purposes of the air war had been to hinder and to stop ethnic
cleansing. When this vast wave of ethnic cleansing came, that part of the air
war was lost, wasn't it?
I think we learned at this phase once again that you cannot stop something like
this by an air campaign alone, you need ground forces for that. There is no way
to stop ethnic cleansing operations from the air. I said it I think on two or
three occasions in the Council that they are asking for the impossible, they
want us to stop the individual murderer going with his knife from village to
village and carving up some Kosovars; that you cannot do from the air, and I
think that is one of the one of the lessons we should learn for the next time.
If we are confronted with someone who is prepared to go for ethnic cleansing,
then we have to be prepared to go in with ground forces . . . .
But did the bombing cause the ethnic cleansing?
I doubt it very much. First of all intelligence reports of the time we had seen
reports of killings of Kosovars and attempts to move them out of their villages
before we had dropped the first bomb. I recall that Milosevic told us in
January that he was highly concerned that the Kosovars had taken over quite a
lot of villages in the northern part of Kosovo and had more or less shifted the
ethnic balance in this part of Kosovo and that he was not prepared to accept
this. He again told us, "I will not tolerate that Serb villages, Serb dominated
villages are now Albanian villages, this has to be this has to be corrected
once again," so I think the ethnic cleansing and the expulsion was not
triggered by NATO. It may have been accelerated by NATO. Definitely some of the
atrocities which happened I think were caused by NATO bombs since this was
simply this vendetta feeling which is pervading in the Balkans anyway; they saw
that their compatriots were bombed . . . so they took revenge with those people
who could not who could not defend themselves.
How did you feel at the time, at first when the ethnic cleansing
Angry, deeply angry and to some extent frustrated that we could not stop it.
So what did you do?
We had no choice, we had no ground forces available, we couldn't get them in
time, our capability to deploy them rapidly is not as impressive as it should
be, so we said the only way is to increase the tempo of our operations . . . we
continued more or less to destroy his command and control system, his air
defense system, his logistics, we put in addition more or less a ring of fire
around Kosovo so that he cannot reinforce his forces there and we tried to hit
as many forces as we can in Kosovo.
Did it matter, hitting the forces in Kosovo? Michael Short says that that
was a waste of time.
Militarily I tend to agree with Michael Short, for two very simple reasons, you
can hit ground forces in this type of terrain under these weather conditions
only if you have proper target designation, by forward air controllers, by
laser target designators that we didn't have. Secondly the [Serbian] ground
forces were not concentrated . . . so they didn't constitute the targets which
the airforce likes to have, and to hunt in this terrain for individual tanks,
APCs or howitzers, that's a hell of a job if you're flying at fifteen thousand
So why did it happen?
We hoped to achieve a little bit, we knew that this was not the type of
operation which would impress Milosevic, but on the other hand I think we
simply had to do something in order also to give the Kosovars an indication,
"you're not lost." We also instigated the KLA to launch they offensive which
eventually they successfully did. . . .
Did the early announcements from politicians, President Clinton in
particular, that ground troops wouldn't be used, did that make the war last
In my view yes. I do not hesitate to say all those politicians who ruled out in
public the use of ground forces made it easier for Milosevic to calculate his
risk and this may have encouraged him to make the attempt to ride it out and by
this we prolonged the war. . . .
Could I ask you, in terms of the authorization of air strikes, what was the
most difficult target or set of targets you had to authorize? What's the thing
that sticks in your mind?
I think that the most difficult thing was to really go for the first target in
downtown Belgrade. We had, General Clark asked us, the Secretary General and
myself, to authorize a strike against the police headquarters and the Minister
of the Interior in downtown Belgrade, and of course he was absolutely right in
his rationale that this was the center where most of these evil things were
planned so to say it bluntly, if you wanted to kill the snake we had to chop
off the head and not to carve the snake up from the tail.
We wanted to be sure that there was no collateral damage, so we asked General
Clark not only to give us the overhead imagery of these two targets but also to
provide us with a wider picture and for instance when we saw that some five
hundred or six hundred meters away from the [target] there's the hospital in
Belgrade, and when we saw this I said to Solana, "If we hit by sheer accident
this hospital, then the war is over, so we have to be absolutely sure and the
targeteers have to look into their photos once again. If you as Secretary
General authorize this target you have to have the guarantee that no glass will
be broken in this hospital, at least you have to be sure that no-one will be
If you were talking to someone who was facing a similar situation again in
NATO, what advice would you give? What are the lessons?
I would say first of all, never start to threaten the use of military force if
you are not ready to execute it the next day. And secondly, if you do crisis
management, never again change horses mid-stream, so leave one in the lead, be
it NATO, be it someone else, but one should have the responsibility and see it
through. On the air operation, I would say the first point we should really
try to focus on joint operations in the future, whether we use current forces
or not, that's a different issue, but at least we should have the capability
deployed so that we have the flexibility to use them, should the need arise.
Secondly, we have, we really have to be prepared, if we go for the military
option, we have to be prepared to use it as efficiently as we can, right from
the outset. We have to go after those targets which really hit the opponent and
force him to accept our will.
This wasn't done this time.
No, it was initially not done. We focussed initially too much on the idea to
bring them back to the negotiation table and for that reason we started perhaps
off too moderately, taking too much care of collateral damage, taking too much
care of their opponents people. . . . We made plans for an operation,
not for a war and perhaps we should think through what the difference between
these two is and next time start to make plans for a war, which would allow us
to tailor the application of these plans in accordance with the political
situation at the time.
Was this a war worth fighting? When I look at Kosovo now, it's a mess. Are
the people better off?
I still think it was worth to do it. The alternative would have been to
tolerate ethnic cleansing in Europe. And I think that's no alternative you all
can accept. For that reason I think it was the right thing to do it.
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