war in europe

general klaus naumann

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

photo of general klaus naumann
Until early May 1999, Germany's Gen. Klaus Naumann served as NATO's Military Committee chairman, and answered directly to NATO's political representatives. Prior to NATO's going to war against Serbia, Naumann was part of the negotiating team which tried to get Milosevic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo.
General, could I ask you first of all when did Kosovo appear on your agenda? When do you first remember?

I think it really popped up in January, February 1998.

And did you then think that Kosovo was something worth fighting a war over?

In terms of interests of NATO or the NATO nations it definitely was not a reason to fight a war, but it was not a war which was fought for an interest. It was a war which was fought for a principle, and the principle was that human rights have to be protected, and from that point of view I think the Kosovo war is perhaps the first war in the European history which was fought for this principle and by that we denied the continuing validity of the principle of territorial integrity which dominated and still dominates international law, since the Westphalian peace of 1648.

A huge change.

It has not changed, but I think the process is now under way and perhaps at the end of the day international law will think through what one could do to justify a humanitarian intervention.

Do you think such humanitarian interventions are justified?

In theory, yes, in political practice I have my doubts since we saw the hesitation of the international community in the East Timor issue, and we see right now, if I may say so, the looking aside when the Russians are violating human rights in Chechnya.

When the Ministers gathered in June 1998 when the various plans were authorized, what was the mood? What were people saying to each other as they turned up? Bring it alive for me.

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, we have to be prepared to go in with ground forces... 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 war?

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 campaign?

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 consuming.

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 on?

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 terrorists."

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 action?

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 began?

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 feet.

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 longer?

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 killed."

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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