Second of three articles
Before U.S. warplanes fired missiles into Belgrade's 23-story Socialist Party headquarters in late April, NATO planners bluntly spelled out the risks in a document circulated to President Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and French President Jacques Chirac.
Next to a photograph of the party headquarters, the document said: "Collateral damage: Tier 3 -- High. Casualty Estimate: 50-100 Government/Party employees. Unintended Civ Casualty Est: 250 -- Apts in expected blast radius."
In short, NATO anticipated that the attack could, in the worst case, kill up to 350 people, including 250 civilians living in nearby apartment buildings.
Officials in Washington and London approved the target, but the French were reluctant, noting that the party headquarters also housed Yugoslav television and radio studios. "In some societies, the idea of killing journalists -- well, we were very nervous about that," said a French diplomat.
One of the myths of the war is that the leaders of NATO's 19 member countries ran the air campaign by committee. But that is not the way the decision-making looked to the alliance's generals and political leaders. Inside the alliance, it was clear that the important choices -- such as whether to bomb targets that had a largely civilian character -- were made by the leaders of three countries: the United States, Britain and France.
And only one of them, France, regularly played the skeptic.
France's veto power was one of the unwritten codicils to Operation Plan 10601, the military blueprint for Operation Allied Force. When bombs accidentally hit Albanian refugees or Serbian civilians, the international outcry was swift, and popular support for the war waned. So political leaders became deeply involved in the nitty-gritty of targeting decisions, and NATO planners routinely gave them casualty estimates.
In many of these decisions, there was an underlying tension. NATO commanders were never sure exactly what it would take to break the will of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Over time, they became convinced that it was necessary to target not just military bunkers, barracks and ammunition depots but also factories, bridges, TV stations and power plants. While avoiding civilian deaths, they were trying to inflict a certain amount of pain on the Serbian people. NATO wanted, in the words of White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, to "turn out the lights on Belgrade." But carefully.
How to accomplish this was one of the overarching moral, political and military questions of the war -- and a source of dissension among the allies.
The French Connection
The first time President Chirac of France realized how fast and far the air campaign had moved from its original, modest size was when he watched the Yugoslav Interior Ministry erupt into a fireball on April 3, day 11 of the war.
"Paris was pretty shocked," a French diplomat recalled. Chirac requested an urgent telephone call with Clinton to discuss the strategy being pursued by Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the supreme allied commander in Europe.
It was Easter weekend, and Chirac was at his government's medieval castle in Bregancon on the French Riviera, which did not have a secure line to Washington. White House officials immediately dispatched a communications team from the U.S. European Command in Germany to put in a "Stu 3" phone, the most secure equipment.
To NATO officers, the phone's installation was a sign that the presidents were going to interject themselves into the minutiae of the war, which the alliance had hoped would be over in two or three days. "We were just discovering," said a French military official, "that maybe the war would last a long time and we'd have to have discussions about it."
That day, Chirac told Clinton he wanted a say, along with the American president and the British prime minister, in all crucial decisions about the war. Clinton told Chirac the target approval process was already too slow. He agreed to include the Frenchman but proposed that they agree in advance on the kinds of airstrikes over which each leader would reserve a veto.
Chirac asked to review any targets in Montenegro, a small republic of Yugoslavia that had remained democratic and was trying to stay out of the war. Blair wanted a veto over all targets to be struck by B-52 bombers taking off from British soil. And all three leaders wanted to review targets that might cause high casualties or affect a large number of civilians, such as the electrical grid, telephone system and buildings in downtown Belgrade.
All agreed on the new guidelines.
Still, Clark continued to be peppered with calls from the French chief of staff and other European officials.
"We need to help Wes Clark, who has to spend half of his time schmoozing with the allies," Clinton told Blair in a phone call, according to White House notes of the conversation.
To help out, Washington created "a management committee," as one senior administration official called it, to smooth over disagreements about the military campaign. The core of the committee was the so-called quints: Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy. They held a five-way conference call almost every day.
The calls helped maintain unity. If Italy's Lamberto Dini was apprehensive about accelerating the bombing, as he often was, Albright would call first to the German and British foreign ministers and arrange for them all to reassure the Italian.
Occasionally even the British wavered, as when Foreign Secretary Robin Cook questioned strikes on power lines affecting a large hospital in Belgrade. But the group brought him around.
During the May 26 call, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer let out a loud shriek. "Are you all right?" Albright asked, worried. In a sheepish voice, Fischer admitted that he was watching a championship soccer game between Manchester United and Bayern Munich. The Brits won the game, 2-1, with two goals in the final 30 seconds.
At times, political leaders in Italy and Greece publicly voiced strong misgivings about the bombing campaign. But all 19 delegates to the North Atlantic Council (NAC), the alliance's defense committee, agreed in the first week of the war to give their proxy on sensitive targeting decisions to the alliance's secretary general, Javier Solana.
Solana, in turn, took his cues from the United States, Britain and France -- though he also made sure that none of the 19 countries turned their sometimes bold public pronouncements into actual roadblocks at NAC meetings in Brussels. None did.
The Devil's Advocate
In the second week of April, the Yugoslav military began hiding helicopters and fighter jets in bunkers at an air base near Podgorica, Montenegro's capital. For the first time, radar there and on Yugoslav ships at the Montenegrin port of Bar also began tracking NATO warplanes.
Arguing that Milosevic was trying to use Montenegro's neutrality as a shield, NATO commanders wanted to destroy the Podgorica air base. But first, they had to get past France's opposition to bombing Montenegro.
At a morning intelligence briefing, Clark was informed that Yugoslav artillery in Montenegro was shelling northern Albania.
Forget the French! Clark thundered, according to participants. "No, no, no, wait! Hold off on that," he said. "I'll get French permission. I'll get it."
Within hours, Clark and three of the Clinton administration's top players -- Albright, national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen -- dialed their counterparts in Paris. By the next morning, Clark had political approval for the strike.
France also reluctantly agreed in mid-April to airstrikes on Belgrade's two main TV towers, one of which was atop the Socialist Party headquarters. The Pentagon warned Western reporters to stay out of those buildings. But as warplanes streaked toward the kill on April 12, the Pentagon got word that some journalists were inside. Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, acting as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because Gen. Henry H. Shelton was traveling, ordered the jets to turn around.
By April 18, Clark was pushing to reschedule the strike, and Western journalists were warned again.
Two days later, French officials declared that the decision needed "more study." Washington went into a full-court press, arguing that the Socialist Party headquarters was really an alternative headquarters for the Milosevic regime and providing videotapes to show that Serbian TV was broadcasting nationalist propaganda.
"It was tough," said Shelton of the negotiations with the French. "We kept after it. Persistence wore them down, and I think they eventually saw exactly what we were talking about."
Still, Chirac floated the possibility that he might show up for only part of NATO's 50th anniversary summit in Washington. Clinton got on the phone again. "Glad you can stay," he told the French president, according to administration notes of the call. "Your early departure would have been perceived as disunity and would encourage Milosevic."
As NATO dignitaries rolled into Washington's red-carpet hotels on April 21, rescue workers were digging through the rubble of the Socialist Party headquarters, struck by four cruise missiles at 3:15 a.m. Two days later, NATO bombed the Yugoslav state TV and radio building, collapsing the top two floors. While no authoritative casualty figure exists, Yugoslav reports indicate that 10 people died in the twin attacks, far fewer than NATO's worst-case estimate.
France had quit NATO's integrated military command in 1966 and acted aloof toward the alliance ever since. But with 60 planes involved at the start, and 100 by the end, France had the second largest air force in Operation Allied Force. Despite frictions, both Paris and Washington considered the joint effort a quantum leap in their political-military relations. And the alliance's cohesiveness was strengthened at the summit by the prospect that it might lose its first war.
With Clinton at the helm, NATO leaders quashed British moves to press for a ground invasion. But they agreed at the summit to take two other big steps: training NATO's might on the personal property and businesses of Milosevic and his cronies, and striking targets that affected large numbers of civilians by disrupting not just TV broadcasts but also transportation, water and electricity.
U.S. commanders and political leaders had wanted to strike Yugoslavia's electrical system in the first week of the war, but the French were opposed. To try to break the stalemate, French and American military officials exchanged ideas on how to bring down the grid. The United States proposed a strike on transmission lines that would take days or even weeks to repair. The French called that unacceptable.
So the Americans offered up a top-secret weapon, the CBU-94, which would turn the electricity off for just a few hours. Shelton showed his French counterparts how it would work. He even described what kind of backup electricity would be available to hospitals.
When the French still balked, the discussions became heated. "Okay, what's your alternative?" Ralston asked, according to a participant. "You want to back away?"
Finally, Paris agreed. And in the post-midnight darkness of Sunday, May 3, dispensers the size of a can of tennis balls dropped from the sky, each with its own parachute. As they reached Yugoslav power grids and transformer yards, spools of specially treated carbon-graphite thread unraveled into a web, causing instant short circuits.
The "rubber duckies," as the military dubbed the weapon, knocked out power to 70 percent of Yugoslavia. Most of it was back on within a day. But the strike pushed NATO over a threshold it had avoided for 40 days: bringing the war to the Serbian people.
Three weeks later the French agreed to more severe strikes on the power system, disabling it for days and disrupting water supplies.
The only target the French refused to allow NATO to strike was the so-called Rock 'n' Roll bridge over the Sava River in Belgrade, where scores of Serbian volunteers stood as human shields. "That was the one that was obvious. Don't waste your time trying to get approval to do this one," recalled Shelton.
The Death of Innocents
Not only in France, but throughout the alliance, a portion of the public criticized NATO for keeping its pilots safe at 15,000 feet while causing civilian casualties on the ground.
The Geneva Conventions prohibit the bombing of civilian buildings or even dual civilian/military sites if the "incidental loss of civilian life . . . would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage" of the attack. Citing those rules, human rights groups questioned the legality of attacking party buildings, TV studios and power stations.
"Our concern is that the NATO campaign crossed what should be a very clear line between military targets and civilian structures," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch in New York.
While there are no reliable, official statistics on the number of civilian and military deaths, it is likely that NATO killed about as many civilians as military personnel. Yugoslav officials report that approximately 600 soldiers and special police were killed, though the Pentagon suspects the number may be higher. International organizations and journalists in Yugoslavia during the war estimate that 500 to 1,000 civilians died from errant NATO bombs or the fallout of accurate ones.
For a month, beginning in mid-April, mistakes seemed to be an almost daily occurrence. Seventeen civilians were killed in the mining town of Aleksinac; a passenger train was blown apart on a railroad bridge; dozens of refugees were annihilated in a convoy headed for the Macedonian border; more than 20 people were killed by a laser-guided bomb in Surdulica; 47 died in a bus incinerated on a bridge.
And, finally, came the fateful day of May 7. First, cluster bombs and a missile struck a marketplace and hospital in Nis, killing at least 15 people. Then, U.S. B-2 bombers hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese citizens and injuring more than 20 others.
The CIA, which does not usually develop targets in the midst of a war, had been asked to help out. Agency employees meant to target the Yugoslav Directorate of Supply and Procurement, an arms agency. But they picked the wrong building on a map, and the mistake was not caught because U.S. computer databases still showed the Chinese Embassy at the location that it left in another part of the city three years ago.
"Is it really the Chinese Embassy?" Clark asked the next morning in the video conference. "I want to make sure that the building we targeted was, in fact, the Chinese Embassy."
"Sir," said the chief of intelligence, "I take personal responsibility for the error . . . and we're working to re-scrub each of the remaining targets."
Stacks of taunting faxes came into Clark's office that day. "Dear Gen. Clark," many of them began. "We've moved. Our new address is . . ."
While NATO planners double-checked other targets, it appeared that the alliance had imposed a moratorium on bombing Belgrade. In fact, after the May 7 strikes, there was hardly any important target left in the capital to hit.
On May 11, Clark went to Brussels to brief the North Atlantic Council, NATO's standing political body, on the embassy disaster and to listen to complaints.
"There was contradictory guidance," he told commanders at the video conference the next morning. "They don't like collateral damage. Some don't like attacking Belgrade. I want them to get in the boat on targeting. I told them, `Give us targets and no-strike areas.' "
But, he concluded optimistically, "The Chinese Embassy problem is behind us."
It was not behind NATO's pilots. Many had become demoralized by the accidents and nonstop demands for detailed information about each mishap. Colonels who were supposed to be directing daily missions found themselves reconstructing cockpit video and audio tapes, looking for errors in judgment.
The mood got to Brig. Gen. Randall C. Gelwix, director of the operations center in Vicenza. On May 13, he wrote a new battle cry on a white easel in his office: "We Are the Good Guys." It remains there to this day.
"At one point you got the sense NATO would quit" because of the run of civilian deaths, he said. "We were over here feeling, `We're going to lose the will to beat this bad guy.' "
NEXT: The battle inside headquarters
ABOUT THE WAR
NATO launched its first war as an alliance on March 24 after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refused to restore autonomy to Kosovo, a province the size of Connecticut. About 90 percent of its 2 million people were ethnic Albanians, and they chafed under the control of Serbs, Yugoslavia's dominant ethnic group. As NATO began airstrikes, Yugoslav soldiers and paramilitaries accelerated a brutal campaign to crush ethnic Albanian rebels, driving more than a million civilians from their homes. After 78 days of bombing, Milosevic capitulated on June 9, agreeing to withdraw forces from Kosovo. There are now nearly 50,000 NATO peacekeeping troops in the province, which is under U.N. administration but still legally part of Yugoslavia.