Learning from Kosovo?

by Joshua Foust on 12/21/2008 · 4 comments

Tim Russo paints an interesting picture of Kosovo while drawing an analogy to Afghanistan:

the same approach used in Kosovo must be used for a different goal in Afghanistan.

The goal of the Kosovo campaign was enormous. Stop a genocide, in the thicket of an ethnic quagmire in the heart of Europe, get a sovereign country’s army out, get that country’s president to a negotiation, and do it all without ground troops. On a difficulty scale of 1-10, this was about a 9. Comparatively, the goal in Afghanistan and the neighboring areas of Pakistan, i.e. get Bin Laden and destroy Al Qaeda, is quite a bit lower on this scale.

The reason the Kosovo campaign succeeded, and why I point to it as an example, was the approach. Time, effort, and diplomatic capital was spent to create a consensus for action, a military alliance beyond NATO, a plan for post-conflict Kosovo, a massive military commitment, and a strategy to make it all happen. Another reason it worked – Once the first sortie was launched, there may have been doubt that this approach would work, but there was no doubt at all that the plan was going to be followed through to its conclusion.

The only variable was Milosevic. And when he blinked, that was that.

From my understanding of the Kosovo war, which is in part informed by Gen. Wesley Clarke’s memoir of the conflict, Tim is mischaracterizing the conflict. For one, the only variable was most certainly not Milosevic, but also Russia, whose own troops almost spoiled the event. It was chance as much as keen diplomacy that avoided an nasty escalation there.

And let’s not pretend Kosovo is a success worth repeating. When they declared independence earlier this year, the American embassy in Serbia was sacked by an angry mob; Russia later used it, however unjustifiably, as an excuse for invading Georgia in support of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

It’s also not clear that the goal in Afghanistan is an easier one. Creating a reasonably unviolent, stable central government in Kabul is certainly one of the more difficult tasks I can imagine, and I would actually give that a lower likelihood of success than a stable solution in the Balkans. Similarly, it’s not a given that simply “more diplomacy”—as argued by guys like Tom Barnett—would mean much, since diplomacy is not something that is easily quantified. Keen diplomacy, and keen regional policy, requires a deep understanding of local power dynamics, and regional politics—neither of which has been on good display in Kosovo or Afghanistan.

The thing is, nearly ten years on, there is an enormous number of foreign troops guaranteeing the nascent Kosovar government’s existence, and just this year it was the site of major protests and riots. While that might be the best we can hope for, I’m still not sold that this is a model (ESPECIALLY the airpower side of the argument) we need to follow.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Tim Russo December 21, 2008 at 11:47 am

Regarding Russia, that variable was certainly taken into account by the planning and the diplomacy. True, Russia threw a wrench in, as they always do, but that was predictable. Milosevic blinking was the variable – Russian support of Milosevic, in the face of almost unanimous opposition, was never really in the cards, and thus it was up to Milosevic to decide when and how the situation would end.

Kosovo may remain a source of tension with Russia, but so what? Since when does that stop the US from pursuing its objective?

Regarding the success of the operation, no foreign policy objective as enormous as Kosovo would ever be without a couple hiccups here and there. However many of these hiccups occurred or continue to occur, they pale in comparison to the achieved objectives.

I haven’t gotten to the air power side of the argument yet, or what manifestation such an approach will or should take on the ground, but the approach itself is my argument.

Joshua Foust December 22, 2008 at 12:31 am

I’m not sure you could argue the Russian breach of Pristina was predictable, at least in the way Clarke describes it. But I don’t think the objective is as enormous as you made it out to be. Kosovo is a tiny country with a tiny population surrounded by other countries with dominant ethnicities serving as enclaves. The politics of the Balkans are complex and difficult, but so are the politics of anywhere.

Aside from the “more planning & diplomacy pls” side of things, I don’t see where there are all these lessons for us.

Wim Roffel December 22, 2008 at 5:17 am

Russia didn’t have its act together in 1999. Their stunt with the Pristina Airport was just an incidental piece of bravoure. Russia was part of the agreement that ended the war and as such they had the right to send troops. That some Americans didn’t like it and one American general brought the world close to World War III says more about those Americans than about the Russians.

I doubt whether Russia would be a passive as it was in 1999 if we had a Kosovo War now. They could easily send in some modern air defense or so.

Ron December 28, 2008 at 6:04 pm

Illegal Kosovo independence is a big mistake. Every minority that wants to split off will point to Kosovo as an example.

South Ossetia, Abkhazia… why Kosovo and not them? Double standards perhaps?

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