‘On This Day’ 1999: NATO’s War Against Serbia Begins
This story begins, believe it or not, in the howling wilderness of Afghanistan in 1989 as the Soviet invaders withdrew in defeat. The US abandoned its support for the mujahedeen fighters who had so bravely resisted the Soviet occupation, and the country soon descended into civil war. The official narrative says Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, Washington’s former mujahedeen allies, turned on the West after the U.S. stationed infidel troops on Islam’s holiest ground during Operation Desert Shield in 1990. Since then, the story goes, the relationship between the United States and Islamic jihadists has been one of enmity, characterized by terror attacks and fierce American retribution. The real story is something altogether different.
The United States transported thousands of al-Qaeda and other mujahedeen, fresh off their smashing success in Afghanistan, to the Balkans to fight the Serbs as Yugoslavia disintegrated into civil war in the early 1990s. These Islamic warriors were accompanied by U.S. Special Forces. The Clinton administration armed and trained these fighters, in direct violation of U.N. accords, and arms purchased by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran were secretly shipped to the Islamists via Croatia, which netted a hefty profit from each transaction. A Dutch intelligence report found that the United States was “very closely involved” in these weapons transfers.
Once the Bosnian war ended the U.S. found itself faced with the problem of thousands of Islamic warriors in Bosnia. There would, as we all now know, be severe repercussions just a few years down the road. But before 9/11 there was Kosovo.
The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was formed in the 1990s by ethnic Albanian Kosovars from southwestern Yugoslavia. Emboldened by the success of other nationalities that were winning their independence from Belgrade as Yugoslavia crumbled, the KLA began to violently expel as many non-Albanians from Kosovo as they possibly could. Gypsies, Jews, Turks and, above all, Serbs were all victims of KLA ethnic cleansing. The American special envoy to Bosnia called the KLA “without any question, a terrorist group” and the U.S. State Department accordingly added the group to its list of terrorist organizations. KLA backers included Osama bin Laden and other Islamic radicals; the group funded its terror via the international heroin trade as well as by human trafficking, sex slavery and prostitution.
Despite this nastiness the KLA endeared itself to Washington by fighting against the despised and defiant Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic. By this time Yugoslavia, once composed of eight nominally autonomous republics, had been reduced to a rump of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo by years of bloody civil war and secession. To Serbs, the dominant ethnic group in what remained of Yugoslavia, Kosovo is regarded as the very birthplace of their nation. Belgrade wasn’t about to let Kosovo go without a fight and everyone knew it, including the Clinton administration.
Although NATO called the KLA “the main initiator of the violence” in Kosovo and top U.S. diplomat William Walker admitted to a “deliberate campaign of [KLA] provocation,” the Clinton administration was determined to attack the Milosevic regime in Belgrade. American intelligence informed top Clinton officials that the KLA was deliberately provoking harsh retaliatory strikes by the Serbians in order to draw the United States and NATO into the conflict. But Bill Clinton wasn’t listening. NATO powers, led by the United States, issued Milosevic an ultimatum they knew he could never accept: allow NATO to occupy all of Kosovo and have free reign in Serbia as well. Said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin: “Publicly we had to make clear we were seeking an agreement, but privately we knew the chances of the Serbs agreeing were quite small.” It was a real-life Wag the Dog scenario, complete with exaggerated or fabricated tales of Serb atrocities against the Albanians of Kosovo. The United States and NATO powers tried to sell the impending attack against Yugoslavia as a humanitarian intervention to stave off Serb ethnic cleansing of Albanians. But there were two big problems.
First, there was no Serb ethic cleansing of Albanian Kosovars until after NATO began mercilessly bombing Yugoslavia in late March of 1999. The German government issued several reports confirming this. This one from October 1998 reads, in part:
The violent actions of the Yugoslav military and police since February 1998 were aimed at separatist activities and are no proof of a persecution of the whole Albanian ethnic group in Kosovo or a part of it. What was involved in the Yugoslav violent actions and excesses since February 1998 was a selective forcible action against the military underground movement (especially the KLA)… A state program or persecution aimed at the whole ethnic group of Albanians exists neither now nor earlier.
While Serbs certainly did commit atrocities (especially after the ferocious NATO bombing campaign began), these were often greatly exaggerated by the Clinton administration and most of the U.S. mainstream media. President Clinton claimed that 600,000 ethnic Albanians were “trapped within Kosovo… lacking shelter, short of food, afraid to go home or buried in mass graves dug by their executioners.” This was completely false. American diplomat David Scheffer said that “225,000 ethnic Albanian men… are missing, presumed dead.” Again, a total fabrication. The FBI, the International War Crimes Tribunal and other global forensics experts flocked to Kosovo in droves after the NATO bombs stopped falling. The total number of victims they found was around 1% of the figure claimed by the United States. But once NATO attacked, the Serb response was predictably furious. Shockingly, NATO commander General Wesley Clark said that the ensuing Serbian atrocities against the Albanian Kosovar population had been “fully anticipated” and were of no concern to Washington. Not only did the NATO and the KLA provoke a war with Yugoslavia, they did so knowing that many innocent civilians would be killed, maimed and displaced in the certain and harsh reprisal attacks carried out by enraged Serb forces. Michael McGwire, a former top NATO planner, admitted that “to describe the [NATO] bombing as ‘humanitarian intervention [is] really grotesque.”
The other big problem with America claiming it was attacking Yugoslavia on humanitarian grounds was that Washington had recently allowed– and was currently allowing– far worse humanitarian catastrophes to unfold before the world’s very eyes without batting an eyelash. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda claimed over 800,000 lives while the Bill Clinton and the United States (along with the rest of the world) stood idly by. Clinton also had no qualms about the brutality of the Taliban regime America was backing in the name of “stability” in Afghanistan, nor did he do anything to stop the Russians from viciously crushing the nationalist uprisings in the Caucuses where Chechen rebels were fighting for their independence– much the same as Albanian Kosovars were fighting the Serbs. Colombia, the number one recipient of American military and economic aid in the Western Hemisphere, was waging a fiercely brutal decades-long campaign of terror against leftist insurgents, indigenous peoples and anyone who opposed the government. Clinton’s response? Increasing American aid to Bogota year after year. In Anatolia, not only did the U.S. do nothing to prevent Turkey from committing atrocities against Kurdish separatists, the Clinton administration positively encouraged its NATO ally with billions of dollars of loans and arms sales to Ankara. It was illegal to even utter a word in the Kurdish language in Turkey until 1991 and the ethnic identity of Kurds was not recognized, yet in 1990 the U.S. gave the country over $400 million in grants and sold it nearly a billion dollars in weapons that Ankara would use to try and destroy any notion of Kurdish nationhood.
Much closer to the conflict at hand, the United States tacitly approved of the single largest crime of ethnic cleansing in European history since the Holocaust when up to 200,000 Serbs were expelled from the Krajina region of Croatia by that nation’s American-trained military in August 1995 in “Operation Storm.” Krajina Serbs had purged the region of its Croat minority four years earlier in their own ethnic cleansing campaign; now it was the Serbs‘ turn to be on the receiving end of the horror. The Croatian government sought American military aid for “Operation Storm” but Deputy Defense Secretary (and soon to be CIA director) John Deutsch was prevented by an arms embargo. Deutsch suggested the Croatians look to the private sector. They hired Virginia-based Military Professional Resources, Inc, staffed full of top retired American military officers including a former Army Chief of Staff. With their unofficial American training– and Washington’s blessing– the Croatian forces stormed through Krajina, shelling towns and slaughtering innocent Serb civilians. The sick and the elderly who were unable to flee were executed or burned alive in their homes. Croatian soldiers machine-gunned convoys of fleeing refugees.
So much for President Clinton’s rationale that the U.S. and NATO were attacking Yugoslavia out of humanitarian benefaction. I don’t blame you if you’ve never heard of “Operation Storm.” Most of the American media was focused solely on the crimes of Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs; whether real, imagined or grossly exaggerated. Yes, Milosevic could be a cruel son of a bitch. But his crimes were no better or worse than those committed by all sides during the hellish 1990s in fragmenting Yugoslavia. America’s hypocrisy in how it dealt with the complex cauldron of Balkan affairs did not help one bit.
Washington’s selective indignation at Serb “atrocities” is utterly inexcusable when held up to the horrific, seemingly indiscriminate atrocities witnessed during the NATO air assault against the people of Yugoslavia. Says noted Australian journalist John Pilger: “In the attack on Serbia, 2 percent of NATO’s missiles hit military targets; the rest hit hospitals, schools, factories, churches and broadcast studios.”
There is no doubt that the U.S. was targeting the people of Serbia as much– if not more– than the military. As many civilians died in the attacks as did military and police personnel. NATO knocked out electricity in 70 percent of Yugoslavia, endangering the lives of hospital patients, at the insistence of the Americans. The alliance also disrupted Serbs’ water supplies.
NATO warplanes also deliberately bombed the headquarters of Serbian state television and radio in the middle of heavily populated downtown Belgrade. The attack occurred without warning while 200 staff were working in the building; the dead included a make-up artist, a cameraman, a program director, an editor, three security guards and many others. There is no doubt that this attack was meant to demoralize the people of Serbia. There is also no doubt that those who ordered the bombing knew exactly what outcome to expect: a NATO planning document seen by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac forecast up to 350 deaths in the event of such an attack, as many as 250 of the victims would be innocent civilians living in nearby apartments.
NATO wanted to fight a “zero casualty war.” For themselves, that is, not for the people of Yugoslavia. “This will be painful for the Serbs,” Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon sadistically predicted. Boy, was it ever. NATO warplanes flew missions at 15,000 feet, a safe height for the pilots. But this increased civilian casualties on the ground. An attack on central Belgrade mistakenly hit Dragisa Misovic hospital with a laser-guided bomb, destroying a children’s ward and wounding several women who had the unfortunate luck of being in labor at the precise moment of attack. Dragana Kristic, age 23, was recovering from cancer surgery– she just had a ten-pound tumor removed from her stomach– when the bombs blew shards of glass into her neck. “I don’t know which hurts more,” she lamented, “my stomach, my shoulder or my heart.” Victims of NATO’s ferocious onslaught lay dead and dying in the hospital around her.
That wasn’t the only hospital NATO bombed. Cluster bombs struck a hospital and a market in the city of Nis, killing 15 and wounding 60. An emergency center and a medical dispensary were hit in the mining town of Aleksinac resulting in at least five deaths and dozens of injuries.
Bridges were a favorite target of NATO bombardment. An international passenger train traveling from Belgrade to Thessaloniki, Greece was blown apart by two missiles as it crossed a bridge over Grdelica Gorge. The dead included children and a pregnant woman. At least 23 civilians were killed when a bus they were traveling on was blown in half as it crossed the Luzane bridge; an ambulance rushing to the scene of the atrocity was struck by a second NATO attack. Eleven more innocent civilians died when four missiles blasted a bridge in Varvarin. Here, too, rescuers were hit by a second NATO strike.
Two separate accidental attacks on the very Albanians NATO was claiming to help killed more than a hundred refugees, many of them women and children. No one was safe from NATO’s fury. Civilian houses and apartment blocks were frequently destroyed. In tiny Surdulica, sixteen people died when two missiles slammed into a residential neighborhood. Eleven of the dead were children. A month later the unlucky town reeled again after 20 helpless old men and women were blown to pieces when NATO bombs hit a sanatorium and old people’s home. The Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed due to outdated American maps, sparking large demonstrations in China. An errant missile even struck a house 30 miles from the Yugoslav border in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. Precision-guided weapons, indeed.
The air war against Yugoslavia was the very first time that NATO had ever attacked a sovereign state. It did so unilaterally, absent any threat to any member nation, and without the approval of the U.N. Security Council. “If NATO can go for military action without international blessing, [it is] less than helpful in understanding the reliability of NATO as a security partner,” Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States and the former Russian permanent representative to NATO told me at a reception in San Francisco last year. But apparently Bill Clinton was unconcerned about the legacy of bitterness and distrust that this unprecedented war would leave in its rubble.
As the people of Yugoslavia were being terrorized by NATO’s air war, the terrorists of the Kosovo Liberation Army stepped up their atrocities against Serbs and Gypsies in Kosovo. Shockingly, the NATO troops deployed there to keep the peace often failed to intervene to protect these ethnic minorities from the KLA’s brutal campaign of beating, kidnapping and murder. More than 164,000 Serbs were driven from the Albanian-dominated province. By the summer of 2001 KLA ethnic cleansing had rendered Kosovo almost entirely Albanian with just a few die-hard Serb holdouts living in fear and surrounded by barbed wire.
The KLA soon expanded its war into neighboring Macedonia. NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson called the KLA “murderous thugs” but the United States– now with George W. Bush in charge– continued to provide invaluable support to the terrorists. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice personally intervened to force Ukraine to halt arms sales to the Macedonian army, the KLA’s new nemesis. And when a group of 400 KLA fighters found themselves surrounded at Aracinovo in June 2001, NATO ordered Macedonian forces to hold off their attack while a convoy of U.S. Army buses rescued the besieged terrorists. It was later revealed that 17 American military advisers were embedded with the KLA fighters at Aracinovo. Remember, now, that the KLA counted among its backers Osama bin Laden and other sworn enemies of the United States. Did the United States really hate Yugoslavia and Macedonia so much that it would back the terrorist KLA in its fight against two countries that had committed absolutely no hostile acts towards either the U.S. or its NATO allies?
Of course not.
The bombing of Yugoslavia was really all about preserving the credibility of the United States and NATO. Washington’s saber-rattling towards Belgrade had painted the alliance into a corner from which the only way out was with guns blazing. Failure to follow through threats with action, said President Clinton, “would discredit NATO.” “Our mission is clear,” the President declared, “to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO’s purpose.” Never mind that the purpose of NATO is to defend member states from outside attack. British Prime Minister Tony Blair concurred with Clinton: “To walk away now would… destroy NATO’s credibility.” Gary Dempsey, a foreign policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote that the Clinton administration “transformed a conflict that posed no threat to the territorial integrity, national sovereignty or general welfare of the United States into a major test of American resolve.”
Going to war or prolonging a conflict for credibility’s sake is always a dangerous proposition that has repeatedly yielded disastrous results. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops and many times that number of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian civilians died while Richard Nixon sought an “honorable” way out of the Vietnam War. Ronald Reagan’s dogged defense of American credibility cost the lives of 299 American and French servicemen killed in the 1983 Hezbollah truck bombing of the multinational occupation force in Lebanon.
This time ensuring American credibility meant supporting the vicious Kosovo Liberation Army– some of whose soldiers had trained at Osama bin Laden’s terror camps in Afghanistan. This, despite the fact that bin Laden’s al Qaeda was responsible for multiple deadly attacks against the United States, including the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000.
Less than one year later, the proverbial chickens came home to roost in the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC. But rather than take a long, hard look at the historical record of American support for terrorism when it suited her needs, our (mis)leaders and their war-wishing followers spouted utter nonsense about the terrorists’ hatred of our freedoms. Meanwhile, the people of Serbia were literally picking up the pieces of their country, which had also been a victim of a terrorist attack– a US-led NATO terror attack that began on this date in 1999.
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