How Albright manoeuvred Nato into war

Sunday Telegraph 27th February 2000 p29

How Albright manoeuvred Nato into war

Political manipulation of a massacre in Kosovo early last year brought the might of Nato into battle on the side of the separatist rebels, says Allan Little, who has interviewed the key players

When news of a massacre in the Kosovan village of Racak reached Washington early last year, Madeleine Albright’s reaction was immediate. “Spring has come early,” the US Secretary of State told Sandy Berger, the National Security Adviser, after hearing that the corpses of 45 ethnic Albanians had been found following an attack by Serb forces.

Ms Albright, one of the West’s leading anti-Serb hawks, was quick to grasp how the slaughter could be used with great effect to stiffen international resolve against President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.

But she also knew that she would have to move quickly to take advantage of the Racak effect. “It was the kind of event we wanted to avoid,” she told me. “But the fact that it had happened meant that it had to be a galvanising event and we had to move the Allies as rapidly as we could.”

Ms Albright was not alone in turning the Serb atrocity into a tactical advantage. Hashim Thaci, the young guerrilla who emerged as the leader of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, had begun to think of international opinion as potentially the strongest weapon in his otherwise ineffective armoury.

The KLA had already sought to encourage Serbian retaliation, targeting police and military patrols in hit-and-run ambushes, then melting back into the civilian population. At Racak, the week before the massacre, the rebels had killed four Serb policemen. The response was predictable.

“We knew full well that any armed action we undertook would trigger a ruthless retaliation by Serbs against our people,” said Mr Thaci. “We knew we were endangering civilian lives, too, a great number of lives.”

Ms Albright and Mr Thaci made their candid admissions to me as I compiled a BBC documentary to mark the first anniversary of a war which the West presented as a moral crusade against ethnic cleansing but which, in reality, was rather more complex.  KLA commanders and their political backers in Washington understood how effectively civilian casualties would stoke international outrage – particularly among Western allies whose thinking was driven by the guilt of having hesitated over neighbouring Bosnia.

In late 1998, Milosevic had signed up to a ceasefire that curtailed the number of Serb police in Kosovo and required the withdrawal of Yugoslavian troops to barracks. Milosevic faced Nato bombing if he failed to comply. He did comply.

But the KLA had not been asked to undertake anything. Because it threatened force against Milosevic only, the agreement enabled the rebels to perpetuate the cycle of violence while recruiting, rearming and regrouping.  They even filled the trenches vacated by the Serbs.

The ceasefire monitors had no stick to wield against the KLA. “This became a problem with the Serbs,” recalls one British monitor. “They said to us, ‘Hang on, the deal was that we withdrew from these places, so can you please get these KLA out of the trenches we were in a month ago?”

Even on the North Atlantic Council, Nato’s governing body, there was profound scepticism about rebel intentions. Confidential minutes taken by one member nation on November 13, 1998, speak of the KLA as “the main initiator of the violence which is threatening the ceasefire arrangements”.

But following the fiascos of Bosnia, the Americans were taking a firm diplomatic line.

Three days after Racak Ms Albright persuaded President Clinton to promise that US troops would be part of a peacekeeping force in the event of a political agreement.

She then began to work on the European allies. They wanted another round of diplomacy. She declared bluntly that she had had enough of meetings that did not lead anywhere.” I remember telling the Europeans that I was not going to come to any more meetings where nothing happened until you give me your word that we will have a Nato activation order authorising the threat of the use of force.”

The British sought a middle track between Washington’s hawks and the French and Germans who were still opposed to force. The compromise was a final round of negotiations – backed by the explicit threat of force should no deal be reached.

Talks were convened at Rambouillet, near Paris, last February. For the Europeans, they ended in failure because the Serbs would not accept a Nato peacekeeping force. But for the Americans they ended in success, 

Precisely because they were so managed that they paved the way for war. “Obviously, publicly, we had to make clear that we were seeking an agreement, but privately we knew the chances of the Serbs agreeing were quite small,” the State Department spokesman James Rubin now concedes.

“The other acceptable out-come,” he says of Washington’s fallback position, “was to create clarity where previously there had been ambiguity… That meant the Kosovar Albanians agreeing to the package and the Serbs not agreeing to the package.”

For Ms Albright, Rambouillet was a triumph.

She had used the impetus created by the Racak massacre to persuade the Allies to agree to force. When Hashim Thaci signed the document the Serbs had rejected, the interests of a small guerrilla band finally converged with those of the world’s biggest military power. Two months later, both were at war against a common enemy.

Allan Little is a BBC foreign correspondent. He presents Moral 

Combat-Nato at War on BBC2 on March 12 2000.