Autor: Ondřej Šamonil (Institut politologických studií FSV UK)


NATO’s decision not to intervene with ground units during crisis in Kosovo was a critical setback, which created a new dangerous pattern for Alliance action in future. It was also (albeit indirectly) instrumental for the opponents of action in deframing Operation Allied Force as humanitarian intervention and giving negative connotation to every other Western-led operation after that. In this paper, I would like to present arguments which support the prospect of intervention with ground units during war in Kosovo in 1999, with emphasis on impact upon NATO’s future actions and its role as an actor in world affairs.

The significance of such style of thinking is important for deeper intrusion into overarching topic of general military interventions undertaken by NATO in post Cold War world. The academic debates on topics of human security and Responsibility to protect (R2P) norm seem to be directly formed by NATO’s experience in every new operation. Reviewing the Operation Allied Force, disputed legitimacy (and legality) of action from 1999 presents some serious arguments which pose serious challenge to these norms. The general feeling of NATO doing “another half-hearted” intervention is true, when watching how the situation in Balkans developed after end of combat operations. Particularly, seeing the cases of Macedonian insurgency in 2001 and Kosovo’s difficult quest for independence only strengthen these feelings.

Besides, normative aspects of operation should be pursued under critical scrutiny of broader “strategic culture” questions – theoretical excursion into Martin Shaw’s argument against “risk-transfer warfare” (so popular among NATO’s members), can be very helpful in emphasizing the formatting/normative power of ground intervention in post-modern world of 21st Century. Of course, that question of “air versus ground” operations is indeed deeper, but Kosovo war is a brilliant example of how can it be done better and why ground operations are more successful than only air ones.

In the end, fully understanding why it is crucial to commit ground troops in next military interventions led by NATO (and why such action was possible in Kosovo), Western leaders can at least partially silence the criticism of legitimacy and in longer prospect develop substantial normative power connected to successful Western interventions. In other words, West can finally show, that its commitment to human rights and democracy (used as pretext in many interventions) is not just another tool of its foreign policy and excuse for indiscriminate bombing.


Context and Background of the Mission

The problem of NATO’s action in Kosovo is that (despite all criticism) it wasn’t a catastrophe or evident failure. Some even think of Allied Force as a “model” operation for NATO’s other out-of-area operations (f.E. by contemplating copying undertaken activities for currently besieged Syria).[1] Issue therefore rests with the fact, that some have labeled invasion success while criticism has been sometimes too harsh. Reality is, that invasion was a perfect mixture of failure and success, where both argumentative sides are equally presented.

Ivo Daalder and Michael O’Hanlon, who wrote brilliant book on this topic (whose review would sustain paper of its own) are precisely aware of this, when they conclude (in essence), that NATO’s intervention was not inherently bad or blundered. But unnecessary risk (of butchery comparable with Bosnia) and further bloodshed could have been easily stopped by sending ground units. Furthermore, the unstable status of Kosovo (and embarrassment of Western officials when Kosovo declared independence, contrary to their proclaimed goals) and legitimization of KLA[2] could have been avoided (Daalder – O’Hanlon, 2000: 192).


Public Perceptions and Discursive Setting

As a first thing, we should say that the prospect and option of ground invasion was not as difficult and impossible as it is sometimes portrayed. Rather the circulating myth, that if West enters the war, the actual ground fighting will take form of protracted conflict, as had in past in same region. Such myth was widely popular in the United States. This corresponds nicely with Buzan’s discourse distinction – the option of “quagmire discourse” (or “Balkans as ancient fight”), which was portraying Balkans as an “arena of ethnics” where “nothing is forget and nothing learned”. It is only natural that such discourse was strongly anti-interventionist (Buzan – Waever, 2002: 388-389).

If we direct our attention towards public opinion, we get however a different figures or at least a mixture of reactions among NATO members. For example the United Kingdom was quite keen and ready to participate in invasion (sending up to fifty thousand soldiers). Tony Blair was one of the staunchest proponents of using ground option – right from October 1998 after Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement. In April 1999 (when it became increasingly evident, that ground action will be necessary), Blair began to persuade Clinton in using soldiers. Possibility of combat loses was not frightening the British – after campaign in Bosnia (where 18 British soldiers died), nothing seemed impossible. Also France put some effort to let know it could intervene and is willing to accept risking lives of soldiers (its commitment would make around 10 % of all soldiers). Public opinion in both countries was strongly supportive of ground intervention (Auserwald, 2004: 640, Daalder – O’Hanlon, 2000: 162). Buzan and Waever accept this as effects of different discursive setting. Unlike “quagmire”, most European countries (and their populations) were expressing general feelings of fear from spillover (refugees etc.). The ground invasion was therefore supported more in European countries. (Buzan – Waever, 2002: 389).

Italy’s government, despite being pressured by anti-war public opinion and anti-interventionist politicians in its leftist government, decided it would participate in military action. The reason for this was seen in escalation – war had to be solved sooner or later (when it became clear that air war did not work as intended) and prolonging of air campaign, launched primarily from Italian airbases was not deemed as in Italy’s interest (Daalder – O’Hanlon, 2000: 163).

Germany’s cabinet (and the public as well) strongly opposed any form of ground intervention, however there is very important but to this. Everyone was surprised by Germany’s large and substantial role in already conducted air campaign, which was “combative” enough – despite popular polls being against it (and sometimes supporting it). Considering that Joschka Fischer, then minister of foreign affairs, was able to persuade and “keep in line” Cabinet-level Green Party was almost a miracle. It is, therefore, if not reasonable than at least open to discussion whether Germany would have supported NATO with ground forces (if not with ground forces, Germany could take over and expand its role in air force operation). Analysis of public opinion polls shows, that although around 60 -70 % of participants were against ground intervention by Bundeswehr, regularly around 55 to 60 % were in support of Germany’s participation in ground mission if NATO decides to intervene. (University of Leiden: 106, 109 and Daalder – O’Hanlon, 2000: 163.).


USA – Myth of Impossibility and the Legend of Airpower

Of course the most important – and in the end neck-breaking, was position of the Clinton administration in the US, as the strongest actor in NATO. Clinton had ruled out the possibility of ground invasion right from the start of troubles (first around Rambouillet, second around NATO summit in March). The reason cited was supposed logistical difficulty; ground operation would be difficult to pursue due to mountainous environment and no reasonable invasion plans prepared. Most agree, that other, perhaps stronger reason (although unvoiced) was “Mogadishu syndrome”. Mogadishu was basically a different name for Vietnam fatigue[3] or just a general fear of American public of US combat casualties in light of the UN mission in Somalia in 1992 known as Black Hawk down incident. Clinton’s advisors explained that air power was vastly superior in the Kosovo theatre, so why should be lives of American soldiers risked if air force could achieve same goal? (Daalder – O’Hanlon, 2000: 130) Including these officials was Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Albright was reacting on shift in discursive setting of US Army after the end of the Cold War. The concept of overwhelming superiority was deemed obsolete and air force was seen as ultimate tool for “imperial wars” and wars with limited political objectives (Buley, 2010: 80). Argument that air force would be used anyway in case of ground invasion (and would be even more effective in coordination with ground troops) came unnoticed.

While assessing the effectiveness of air strikes is somehow limiting, most of the commentators agree that the main goal – quick back down and surrender of Milosevic was completely missed, contrary to expectations (MccGwire, 2000: 18 and Manhken, 2008: 182-183). Shimko for example is very skeptical towards utility of air force mission in Kosovo. Not just in terms of politics but also military He cites three points in his argumentation; first, political constrains (with rules of engagement) strained number of flights (more below), second, Serbians continued to be sufficient deterrent through war (with concealed web of SAM sites) and finally third, Serb forces in Kosovo were impossible to target and bomb due to their superior concealment in terrain and blending with civilian population. To use other terminology, Kosovo was a nice remainder of limits in RMA[4] approach to war (Shimko, 2010: 118-119). Martin Shaw based his critique of conduct of Kosovo war on different notion. While he does not want to put himself in position of “moral judge” and assess whether the number of dead is “good” or “bad” in comparison with other conflicts, he stresses that when one analyzes the reason (stopping of human suffering before it actually starts) and timeframe of operation (airstrikes started as precaution of ethnic cleansing, not as reaction as in Bosnia) he must inevitably come to conclusion that operation was failure. Even the smallest number of victims of atrocities is defeat for NATO when arguing like West did (Shaw, 2005: 21-23).

Due to restrictive rules of engagements and fear of loss of allied life, operating altitude of planes was set above fifteen thousand feet to outrun Serbia’s anti-air missile network. The fact that only seven thousand out of twenty eight thousand of ordnance dropped in the theatre of operations could be classified as “precision guided” also does not help the argument for air power (Manhken, 2008: 183). Combination of high altitude and imprecise bombs (with occasional human error and bad weather conditions) then helped to rule out any “precise punishment” of Serbian units in Kosovo (+ plus the conditions as noted by Shimko), who were the actual enforcers. Awkward moments of attack on train full of passengers or infamous bombing of Chinese embassy were poised to happen in such environment. As the conflict grew in intensity, so was the number of embarrassing moments. These situations did not have only symbolical impact, but also sometimes affected operation in operational/tactical ways (f.E. discontinuation of air strikes over Belgrade for two weeks after bombing of embassy) (Manhken, 2008: 185).

Generally, various reasons are cited, as having the main impact on persuading Milosevic to back down from his campaign. These reasons range from diplomatic pressure by Moscow or threat of ground invasion by NATO to slow dissolution of popular support in Serbia. Getting back to air force advocacy and resentment of ground invasion, this is clearly not well-argued case by the Clinton administration. The United States also do not have such a bad record when participating in ground operations. Except for Mogadishu, the US interventions in Granada, Panama, Gulf or Haiti could hardly be deemed as failed. Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti is especially attractive as a template for the Kosovo operation.

With regard to this, next piece of puzzle is popular support in the US during war. It should be noted that quite on the contrary of all expectations, the US public was supportive of ground commitment to Kosovo cause. With lengthening of war, attitude gradually changed more towards abstention of ground units (Daalder – O’Hanlon, 2000: 160). The polls show that a window of opportunity and public support were present in the time of decision making (around February Rambouillet discussions). Excuses raised by perceived low support in Congress are also problematic, because the Clinton, and every other US administration, did not usually seek Congressional approval (as it was, for example, in case of Somalia or Haiti).

We can therefore move on to the last part, the accusations of impossibility to mount ground invasion due to conditions of operational environment. The problem of logistics is, somehow, overblown. Most of the experts concluded, that depending on proposed strategy (either operation to force Serbian units out of province or forcible establishment of “safe havens” in Kosovo) 175.000 to 200.000[5] units would be needed (Daalder – O’Hanlon, 2001: 133-134). Logistics issue was difficult to overcome in the light of warnings by military officials. Due to geography and disastrous state of ground communications, a three-month buildup of forces in Albania and Macedonia would be needed. There would have to be an access to deepwater ports in Greece. Greek public was probably more anti-NATO than the Serbian, with 97 % being against any support of Kosovar Albanians, but Daalder again asserts that country has long history of pragmatism, so it would eventually relent.

As a reminder, there was also a second plan, which would see extensive use of helicopter corps and other air assets to circumvent roads to Kosovo. Helicopters could fly from Bulgaria and Romania to Macedonia, from which soldiers would be lifted towards predestined places inside Kosovo. Plus heavy reinforcements (tanks, APCs) could be moved-in after seizing airport in Prishtina. Battle loses would be admittedly higher but it would take only six to eight weeks to complete such operation (Daalder – O’Hanlon, 2001: 135).

In the end, it is very plausible to think, that some of the statements about advantageous air campaign and fear of loss of ground troops were, at least, dubious. While discursive setting and public opinion gradually shifted towards non-intervention in the United States, there was a timeframe for such an action via ground way. Not to mention that European allies were also supportive (or at least the most important elements). The overstated reliance on air power was mistake that unnecessarily prolonged the war, while there was simultaneous option of ground invasion. The claims that ground invasion could not be undertaken due to tactical environment are shaky, since there was at least one extra plan which would circumvent the objections raised.


Risk-Transfer Warfare in Relation to Kosovo

To continue for advocacy of ground war, we should take a closer look on problems with air war in the Western conception of war. While we already discussed the facts about Kosovo operation, there is an interesting piece of theory that also fits in our argumentation. Martin Shaw wrote a book about new Western way of warfare, where he uses critical methodology to assess new wars (and among them Kosovo). His observation was based on several points. First of them would be the term “global surveillance” which effectively shows difficulties with which the West has to cope when waging war, no matter the reasons. “Global surveillance” is “mode of warfare” (a condition) applying to every conflict. Due to global media network in international environment, states have become increasingly scrutinized in their conduct of war. Both Western electorates and other countries in the world are using worldwide media (and non-profit organizations) to create a constant surveillance of wars. Western electorates are more developed not only in terms of economics, but in civil society as well. Therefore, Western politicians who are accountable to their electorates for conducting war have to construct their policy extra carefully. This is further empowered by position of the West in global institutions; i.e. the West is seen as central to these institutions, therefore it should abide by these rules more rigorously then others (Shaw, 2005: 75-76).

Hence the extra scrutiny given by press to the West in its interventions. Also according to “global surveillance”, Shaw presents a typology of four ways of warfare, undoubtedly influenced by “global surveillance”. There is a Western way, Nationalist/traditional, Ethnic/regional, and Terrorist. Needles to say, they all have certain criteria and definitional marks. However, we should focus on the Western way (Shaw, 2005: 59-64).

The “global surveillance” creates immense pressure on Western politicians, amending the rules by which wars are conducted. Shaw describes the term “new wars” in cultural sense and in contrast to the past. While in the past, the state of war was something that penetrated every aspect of society (economics, media, justice etc.), today, most of the action is given to putting out this influence of those fields. In other words, when a new war in the West starts, politicians try to contain war in its own domain; if a war starts to influence other aspects of society, it can quickly turn into another Vietnam – the main goal is to contain war in its own theatre.

Here then comes the second point of his argument, that the most useful tool for containing the wars is minimizing risks for its soldiers. This means not that casualties are lower in absolute numbers but destruction is “transferred” (along with the risks), usually to enemy combatants and, more importantly, civilian population in the theatre of operations. Analysis of interventions shows, how effectively the wars were fought on side of allied casualties, but disastrous in terms for local population (Shaw, 2005: 94).

As the last remark, Shaw observes that Western politicians, due to homegrown need of minimizing casualties are usually employing some sort of local allies in interested conflict. Be it Kurdish in Gulf, Croats in Bosnia, or Kosovo Albanians in Kosovo, they share relatively same definitional standards; their arms are usually low-tech, force is more on guerilla/militia basis and they do not hesitate to use “dirty” techniques in their fight. Usage of this “dirty” techniques is the main problem for the West (as the case of Croats in Bosnia showed) (Shaw, 2005: 81-82).

For us, this is immensely important in case of KLA and its relationship with NATO.[6] The idea, which was embraced for instance by. Michael MccGwire (2000), shows that NATO’s operation and handling of crisis was disastrous, due to its inability to see exactly these “dirty” maneuvers by KLA. He also criticizes, that NATO was unable to discern, that KLA’s interest in war was different from that of NATO’s – namely the objective of independence. This inability to disassociate itself from unpopular party in conflict, led to perception of injustice and hypocrisy in conflict. MccGwire assumes that such behavior was motivated (at least partly) by a power of symbolism and 50th birthday of Alliance. The drive for managing the war properly, led to simplification of facts and indirectly ended up with effective political lockdown of situation.



In the end, the decision of not invading Kosovo with ground units proved to be crucial. Most of the research mentioned emphasizes, that it was after the threat of possible ground invasion and slow buildup of soldiers in neighboring countries, which persuaded Milosevic. There were of course other (discussed) factors which weight in, but threat of ground invasion played its role. The over-reliance on airpower was also a major setback to NATO’s road of solving the conflict. Botched myth of air operation comes as enlightening especially in case of wider discussions on phenomenon of “revolution in military affairs” and its off topic debate on utility of air power in limited political wars.

This paper tried to present set of arguments and to debunk main myths surrounding the Kosovo war. Starting by an analysis of public opinion and mentioning discourse setting, we could see that public opinion in countries of main actors was, from one point of view divided, but generally inclining towards favorable position in question of ground invasion. Exceptionally, Britain and France stand out as spearheading possible effort.

The question of the United States and their position was mainly caused by two misconceptions; first, that the air war “was enough” in its enforcement and could achieve same success as a ground invasion. Second, was the perceived time and logistical difficulties of possible invasion. I have tried to debunk these myths in this paper, showing that logistics was not the issue due to multiple operation planning. The question of airpower seems also overstated in the light of some data (number of precision-guided munitions etc.)

Last but not least, we should reflect on political context of the conflict. Shaw’s categorization and critical theory of Western warfare as a “risk-transfer war” can prove helpful and is brilliant tool for any future study of topic. This is important in assessing disputed legitimacy of invasion. While the KLA (which was effectively boosted by air force mission) was also partially a culprit in atrocities (and years later gave evidence of its nature in Macedonia), it undermined the legitimacy of campaign.

Ultimately, the name of Daalder’s and O’Hanlon’s book on Kosovo, Winning Ugly, suggests the very nature of the conflict. It was done with the intention to save lives. And it did. But it could have been done much better. To use a metaphor, if two bystanders get in fistfight, you do not come, pick a side to help one to finish the other. Rather you want to pull them apart and talk some sense into them.




Auserwald, P. David. Explaining Wars of Choice: An Integrated Decision Model of NATO Policy in Kosovo. International Studies Quarterly. Vol. 48, No. 3. (Sep. 2004), pp. 631-662.

Buley, Benjamin. The New American Way of War. (New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 201.

Buzan, Barry – Waever, Ole. Regions and Powers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003..

Daalder, Ivo H. – O’Hanlon, Michael E. Winning Ugly: NATO’s War to Save Kosovo. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000..

Mahnken, Thomas G. Technology and the American Way of War. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), pp. 244.

MccGwire, Micheal. Why did we bomb Belgrade? International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs). Vol. 76, No. 1. (Jan. 2000), pp. 1-23.

Shaw, Martin. The New Western Way of War. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), 183p.

Shimko, Keith L. The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

University of Leiden. The Kosovo Conflict in the Polls. pp. 185. Available at: (accessed on the 15th of January, 2014).



[1]Groll, Elias: Is Syria anything like Kosovo? Available at:, 23rd of January, 2014.

[2] Kosovo Liberation Army

[3]It is sometimes called „Vietnamishu“ (Vietnam + Mogadishu)

[4]RMA stands for „revolution in military affairs“. A stand-alone topic for itself, RMA describes increasingly computerized fighting in wars after end of Cold War. For our case, it should be noted that Kosovo was seen as “model of future RMA-led wars”.

[5]Manhken specifies that 100.000 would be American (Manhken, 2008: 134).

[6] While formally, the NATO was on side of Kosovo Albanians, disputes ran through various people in senior positions at NATO. This was mainly due to difference in conception of solution to Kosovo – While KLA wanted independence, NATO opted for autonomy status in Serbia.