Select Committee on Defence Second Special Report


1. The Government notes the report by the Defence Committee on lessons from Kosovo which contributes to overall reflection on this issue. It notes with satisfaction that a considerable number of the Committee's findings closely reflect those in the Ministry of Defence's report "Kosovo: Lessons from the Crisis" (Cm 4724), which was presented to Parliament in June 2000.

2. Overall, however, the Government believes the report is unduly critical, particularly of the role played by NATO. Although the experience underlined the importance of the continuing adaptation of NATO, the sustained unity of the Alliance and its determination to achieve its objectives were fundamental to the success of the operation. In a number of places, the Committee acknowledges that what might have been in theory an appropriate response to a certain situation was not possible due to the realities of the international situation, and in particular the views of Allies and other partners. The Government welcomes this recognition of the international realities. But it regrets it is not reflected uniformly throughout the text.

3. The Government disagrees with the Committee on the question of objectives, which is raised at a number of points in the report. At all times, including well in advance of the NATO air campaign, the international community's central objective (and that of the military operation, which was a part of this wider effort) was clear: that Milosevic's regime should bring an end to its campaign of violence in Kosovo, averting the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe. This was set out clearly in United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution 1199 (September 1998). Other objectives were developed in support of this overarching aim, and were detailed in a number of public statements, but the overall purpose of the operation was clear, and it was successfully achieved.

4. The Government regrets that the Committee's report does not make due acknowledgement of the progress which has been made in a significant number of areas since the conflict, matters which have been reported to the Committee.

5. The Government's response to the report's main conclusions is as follows:


The military have a clear duty to point to, and a responsibility to plan for, the worst, especially if they detect a drift towards military intervention which they suspect is based on unrealistic expectations. Similarly, politicians, notwithstanding their hopes for the best, must be much more ready than they appeared during the early stages of the Kosovo crisis to accept the need for and to sanction such planning." (Para 23).

6. The Government agrees that planning for military operations should cover as many military options as necessary, taking into account diplomatic, legal and political factors, so as to provide the best possible basis for decision-making. In advance of and during the Kosovo operation, UK and NATO planners were tasked to provide advice on a wide range of options. Such options were therefore available to decision-makers, although in a number of cases it was decided not to develop certain options further in the light of the circumstances at the time.

There was never any question that any military response to the growing crisis in Kosovo would be other than multinational. That fact of life coloured and shaped all that followed. (Para 25),

7. Agreed.

We conclude that the failure of the North Atlantic Council to reach an early consensus on its policy on recourse to military means, and the inhibitions within NATO on military contingency planning which might have assisted the process of reaching that consensus, undoubtedly hobbled the Alliance during its early attempts to develop a strategy for addressing the crisis in Kosovo. (Para 26)

8. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) tasked the NATO military authorities to provide timely military advice and was successful in taking decisions when required on key issues throughout the preparation and conduct of the operation. The focus of international efforts up to the start of the operation was on seeking political and diplomatic solutions; NATO's efforts were designed to assist this strategy.

It is evident that until mid-1998, the little military planning about options for intervention in Kosovo which did take place within NATO was conducted in the context of a policy of containing the crisis within Kosovo, not one of resolving it. (Para 27)

9. In the early stages of the international community's approach to the Kosovo crisis, priority was given to the search for a diplomatic solution. The military measures given priority by NATO at the outset were able to draw on earlier planning by nations (including UK) and were designed to support this approach, rather than being aimed at delivering an enforced military solution to the crisis.

Over the summer of 1998, there was a decisive shift within NATO towards preparing for direct military involvement by NATO in the Kosovo crisis. But the lack of readiness on the part of individual Allies in 1998 to commit themselves to preferred options critically impeded the development of a full range of clear, agreed and detailed plans for a strategy of graduated coercive pressure by NATO against Milosevic. (Para 30).

10. During the summer of 1998, President Milosevic was not taking seriously efforts to find diplomatic or political solutions, and repression was accelerating. NATO preparations for potential military operations therefore intensified. NATO Defence Ministers had agreed in June 1998 that military planners should produce a wide range of military options in support of the diplomatic effort, in order to avert a potential humanitarian crisis. The NAC reviewed these options, which included a potential opposed ground entry option, in early August 1998. Following this initial review, the NAC decided to prioritise further planning for the graduated or phased air operation and for a ground operation designed to implement a ceasefire or peace agreement, as these were believed to be the most likely options (which proved to be correct). Following the further worsening of the humanitarian situation in September 1998, Allies began force generation for a graduated air operation. This step was important in applying pressure on Milosevic to agree to the proposals put forward by Ambassador Holbrooke in mid-October.

Once NATO had threatened the use of force to resolve the crisis, so Milosevic's defiance provoked further threats and increasingly it was felt that the Alliance's credibility needed to be defended. In the face of Milosevic's continuing intransigence, the Allies either had to unite and carry through their threat, or have their bluff called. No doubt public differences among the Allies concerning the extent to which they were prepared to engage militarily in Kosovo, particularly without a UN Security Council resolution endorsing the use of force, contributed to Milosevic's assessment that NATO was not serious. Once made, that threat of military action had put NATO's political and military credibility at stake. (Paras 31 & 42).

11. NATO's efforts in support of the international community's objectives were based on the requirement for action to be taken in the circumstances relevant at the time, and on its ability to deliver this threat, not on the need to defend Alliance credibility or as a bluff. That particular options might have been thought inappropriate by individual Allies was a reflection of the prevailing circumstances, and had to be taken into account by the international community and the Alliance in planning their strategy.

We conclude that the Allies did anticipate the likelihood of a KLA counter-offensive in October. In the absence of any agreement from Milosevic to the presence of a properly-equipped peace enforcement force in Kosovo, there was little direct action the Alliance could take to forestall KLA insurgency. (Para 36)

12. The possibility of further violence by both the KLA and Yugoslav/Serbian security forces was recognised, and was the reason for repeated urgings by the international community to persuade both sides to desist from further violence, including those in UN Security Council resolutions 1199 and 1203, repeated Ministerial statements in NATO and elsewhere, and through statements by the NAC and the NATO Secretary General, including on 28 and 30 January 1999. As the Committee is aware, the UK would have preferred the insertion of an armed ground force to implement an agreement, but the air and ground verification missions were the best options negotiable at the time. The Government accepts that the nature of the international presence meant that direct international action could not be taken on the ground in Kosovo to prevent further violence, but the OSCE and NATO verification missions nevertheless provided invaluable means of monitoring developments, including incidents of violence by both sides, and provided information which enabled the international community to apply pressure to both sides.

Had Milosevic sought to put the Extraction Force to the test, even only in its limited role as a rescue mission, its limitations and NATO's credibility might have been rudely exposed. We concur with those who have said that the international community did not display sufficient seriousness of purpose or sense of urgency in supporting either the Kosovo Verification Mission or the Extraction Force. One of the lessons of this phase of the twin track military/diplomatic approach to Kosovo is to remind us that peace support operations require a convincing show of both political intent and military force to be credible and effective. An unarmed verification mission and an under-armed extraction force did not meet these criteria. By the end of 1998 there was no international consensus over willing the means (military and diplomatic) which would be needed to enforce the terms of UNSCR 1199 on Milosevic and about maintaining progress towards a durable political solution to the crisis in Kosovo. The attempt to contain Milosevic's oppression through the Kosovo Verification Mission was insufficiently backed up with resources (both military and diplomatic) by the international community. (Paras 40, 41 & 43).

13. The concept of operations of the Extraction Force was based on the fact that it was designed to be used with the acquiescence of the Yugoslav/Serbian authorities, which had undertaken to protect the verifiers. Had those authorities reneged on this agreement, we would have entered a qualitatively different scenario where more serious action would have been required. NATO announced publicly in October that the Activation Orders for air operations remained in effect, and air operations were an option open to the Alliance if the situation deteriorated significantly. The UK played a leading role in quickly putting assets and personnel into theatre in support of both the air and ground verification missions, and urged our partners to do the same. As outlined in the previous paragraph, the verification option was not the one preferred by the UK, but was the best available at the time, and reaching an agreement in October 1998 undoubtedly saved many lives over the winter. It was possible at the outset that the October agreement could have been the basis for a longer-lasting settlement, but when it became clear through repeated infractions of the agreement that the Milosevic regime intended to pursue other means, the international community summoned the parties to talks at Rambouillet, and NATO reviewed its military options.

None of our witnesses has seriously offered the view, retrospectively, that an air campaign could directly inhibit the activities of Milosevic's ethnic cleansers. But this coercive motive for its actions seems at the time not to have been fully and frankly acknowledged by the Alliance. As the likelihood of recourse to armed force increased, so at the same time the purpose for which it was to be used became more confused. (Para 45).

On 24 March 1999, NATO's political leaders declared their aim in commencing military operations against Serbia to be one of denying the Yugoslav forces the ability to prosecute their campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kosovo Albanians. This was to be achieved, supposedly, by strikes against Yugoslav fielded forces on the ground in Kosovo. By the end of the campaign, and retrospectively, the central purpose of the campaign was said to be that of dissuading Milosevic and his henchmen from directing this brutality and coercing them to negotiate a settlement. This aim required quite different tactics. The confusion of purpose indicated by those preliminary and ex post facto descriptions of its objective, we believe, dogged the campaign. We conclude that NATO did not make manifest at the start of Operation Allied Force the necessary clarity of purpose about the aims of its military intervention in Kosovo. (Para 70).

14. As suggested in paragraph 3 above, the central objective of the international community (and the military operation) was clear at all times, that is to bring an end to the campaign of violence by Yugoslav/Serbian security forces and to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. There was no confusion in the Alliance as to the objectives of the operation, which were clearly and publicly stated on a number of occasions in advance of, and during, the operation. The military operation was pursued on two axes - against both strategic targets and tactical targets. Activities in both areas were designed to contribute to the accomplishment of the Alliance's objectives. But it is incorrect to suggest that the objective was "denying the Yugoslav forces the ability to prosecute their campaign": NATO stated clearly (including on 23 March 1999) that military action would be "directed towards halting violent attacks ¼ and disrupting their ability to conduct future attacks". This is an important distinction; in particular as the difficulties in preventing completely the activities of ground forces (as opposed to limiting their movements) were clear, and acknowledged.


The Rambouillet talks may have exposed the disorganisation of the Kosovo Albanians and the bad faith of Milosevic. But they also exposed the absence of a single focus for the international peace making efforts. The military and diplomatic tracks diverged at this crucial point and the failure to fully include NATO at this stage was a mistake. (Para 51)

15. International diplomatic efforts in the year leading up to the Rambouillet and Kleber talks, and at the talks themselves, were coordinated by the Contact Group, which consisted of a number of nations', including members of NATO. NATO was kept informed of developments at the talks, and was present for part of the proceedings. The military and diplomatic tracks were mutually reinforcing, and at no stage did they diverge.

The evidence points to Milosevic already having decided to put NATO's credibility to the test before the Rambouillet talks began. However, the draft Status of Forces Agreement did give Milosevic a propaganda reason for the failure of the Rambouillet talks before the resumption of negotiations on 15 March. But Belgrade rejected the political part of the draft Accords before the Status of Forces Agreement ever became the subject of detailed discussion. The subsequent justifications seem largely to have been used as part of the Serbian propaganda campaign during Operation Allied Force. (Para 54)

16. The Government welcomes this statement. It agrees that the Milosevic regime did not object to the Status of Forces Agreement during the Rambouillet talks, and was used by them only as a propaganda weapon to deflect responsibility after the talks had failed.

Although in the event, the peace implementation force was not required to enter Kosovo until June 1999, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that NATO should have initiated the formal generation of the forces earlier. The failure to do so narrowed the range of options available to the Alliance to enforce a settlement.

While it would clearly have been a positive result if Milosevic had climbed down in February or March 1999, NATO is perhaps fortunate that the absence of a properly constituted peace implementation force on the ground at the time was not exposed. (Para 56)

NATO forces were not ready from March 1999 to deploy quickly into Kosovo in a potential peacekeeping operation. On the contrary, we consider that NATO was pressed to assemble the forces required for entry into Kosovo in June 1999, and that NATO should have had a much more capable and better prepared peace implementation force in place much earlier. (Para 283).

17. The UK was keen on the earliest possible generation of forces for a peace implementation force, pressed for an early decision on this issue and led the way in pre-positioning forces in the region in anticipation of this. Other UK forces would have been rapidly available, as well as Allied forces from elsewhere, although it is still likely to have taken some time (as it did in June) to fully build up the force. This was regrettable and we have learned a lesson, in particular in the context of the Government's European Defence Initiative. It is worth noting, however, that the requirement for the rapid insertion of a peace implementation force in February or March would not have been as great, as the situation would then have been quite different, not least because the Rambouillet Accords provided for a number of Yugoslav/Serbian security forces personnel to remain in Kosovo. The security gap would thus not have been as serious as it was in June.

Milosevic's determination to pursue his policy of oppression against the Kosovo Albanians at almost any cost was the reef on which the hopes of diplomatic pressure succeeding foundered. Milosevic approached the negotiations at Rambouillet entirely in bad faith - he did not believe NATO would carry out its threats and saw no reason to make any attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. After the failure of the Rambouillet talks, compelling Milosevic's compliance with the agreement made in October 1998 became the default policy of the Alliance. (Paras 44, 50 & 57).

18. The Government agrees it became clear that Milosevic had no intention of agreeing to a negotiated settlement, but this only became a certainty on the eve of the air campaign. In the light of the intensified Yugoslav/Serbian offensive by that stage, the Alliance had no choice but to act in order to pursue the international community's consistent objective to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. It should be remembered that previously Milosevic had yielded to international pressure in October 1998 when military action was imminent.

NATO's planning procedures in the period leading up to March 1999 proved too reactive and too cumbersome to move at the pace demanded by events in Kosovo. Operation Allied Force demonstrated many areas of imperfection and inadequacy in co-ordinating multinational operations requiring considerable further effort and determination to resolve. (Paras 58 and 67)

19. It is clear that aspects of NATO planning and procedures can be improved in the light of the experience of the Kosovo operation. The Government welcomes the action which has been taken to achieve this, details of which have been provided in oral and written evidence. It should be emphasised, however, that NATO was always responsive to requirements placed on it, reacting flexibly, and where necessary adapting its procedures, and key decisions were taken when required.


The expectation amongst many in NATO and in the UK was that Milosevic, when faced with a credible threat or the use of significant and potentially damaging force against him, such as air strikes, would quickly concede to NATO's demands. The hope that the campaign would last only a few days helped to shape a strategy that proved to be flawed. (Para 60).

20. As the Government has stated previously, there was, naturally, widespread hope that

 the air operation would be short and Milosevic would again, as he had before, back down. But we did not take this for granted in our expectations or our planning.

Political, humanitarian, legal and public relations considerations had a profound effect on the nature of the strategy adopted by the Alliance. (Para 61)

21. Agreed.

It is clear, however, that whatever pre-planning was involved, once attacked Milosevic deliberately tried to manipulate the expulsion of Kosovo Albanians into neighbouring countries as part of his counter-coercive strategy to overwhelm the allied forces in place and put pressure on neighbouring governments. It is also evident that the scale and brutality of the expulsions took NATO by surprise - which must be counted a failure of imagination in assessing how effectively an adversary like Milosevic was likely to identify the Alliance's Achilles heel. Insufficient military planning of consequence in 1998/early 1999 was directed towards the provision of humanitarian support. (Paras 63 & 64).

22. The Government agrees that Milosevic prompted the expulsion of Kosovo Albanians in an attempt to apply asymmetric pressure to the Alliance and neighbouring states, while also seeking to change the demographic structure of Kosovo. As the Committee was informed, although the possibility of further atrocities by Yugoslav/Serbian security forces was foreseen, their full extent could not reasonably have been predicted. This was the largest movement of population in Europe since the Second World War, and the scale of the forced displacement was unprecedented. In the event, the brutal tactics of the Yugoslav/Serbian security forces succeeded only in reinforcing the resolve of the Allies to bring the conflict to an end in a way which ensured the safe and unconditional return of all refugees to their homes and unhindered access to the international relief organisations. As the report acknowledges elsewhere, NATO had warned the UNHCR of the possibility of refugees. The Alliance also acted with great speed in co-operation with the UNHCR to provide relief when the scale of the expulsions became apparent. Provision of humanitarian support is not a primary function of UK military forces, but nevertheless they made a very substantial contribution in Kosovo, particularly in the period before UNHCR and other civil agencies were able to take the lead responsibility.

NATO's dependence upon achieving consensus amongst member states for its actions will inevitably require individual nations to accept what are, from their perspective, less than ideal solutions. During the Kosovo crisis these compromises cut both ways - overcoming the reluctance of some Allies to commit themselves to military action while curtailing the willingness of others to use what seemed to them appropriate force. (Para 68).

23. Agreed. This is a key aspect of elective multinational operations of all kinds. To achieve NATO's objectives, the maintenance of Alliance unity was essential.

The compromises forced upon the North Atlantic Council by the need to find consensus meant that the politicians and diplomats directing the NATO military planners did not demonstrate, by 24 March 1999, a clear grasp of the nature of the strategy they had committed themselves to pursuing. (Para 71).

24. Further to paragraph 14 above, the international community, including the Alliance, was clear as to the objectives of NATO action, and the NATO military authorities had clearly presented to NATO's political authorities how the planned military operation would contribute to the achievement of these objectives.

This failure to demonstrate a credible capacity to escalate to Milosevic, or convince him of the Alliance's resolve and preparedness for the campaign to endure more than a few days, was due, at least in part, to the lack of an unambiguous determination in all members of the Alliance to see the job through to the end. (Para 72)

25. It is unlikely that Milosevic would have been under any misconception from his dealings with representatives of the international community in the lead up to the air operation that NATO would act if required, and would continue for as long as necessary in order to achieve its objectives. The fact that the Alliance was considering a broader range of air operations, to provide for intensification of pressure, was public knowledge.

Among the tensions within the Alliance, it is evident that there was initially little enthusiasm in the US to become engaged on the ground in Kosovo. The US Defense Secretary had said in October 1998 that he would not even commit American ground troops to a peacekeeping force. No doubt the US position would have served to encourage other doubting NATO nations to adopt similar positions. To most if not all nations, it would have been inconceivable to engage in forced entry into Kosovo without the participation of US ground forces. US influence undoubtedly played a major part in shaping decision-making during the military planning process (as well as during the military campaign itself). It would have been surprising if it had been otherwise. (Para 78).

Two views of the US within NATO can be taken - that its dominance pushes the Alliance in directions for which there is less than full consensus; or that its willingness to work with NATO acts as an almost self-imposed constraint on US military might in which European views of the world carry more weight than they otherwise would. We favour the latter view. (Para 202).

26. The key role played by the United States in NATO and the international community more widely is undeniable, and its contribution to the resolution of the crisis was vital. The UK will continue to work closely with the US in NATO and elsewhere in the development of international policy on many different subjects.

We conclude that, although they represented the only politically acceptable position within the Alliance, the public pronouncements made throughout 1998 and well into 1999 giving the impression that Alliance leaders, including those in the UK, had discounted a forced entry ground option as part of their military strategy, were in military terms a serious error of judgement. They signalled a lack of resolve on NATO's part; they resulted in serious military planning and preparation for such an option effectively being discontinued between August 1998 and April 1999; they hamstrung the Alliance's diplomatic leverage for securing Milosevic's compliance without recourse to military means; and they removed a critical element of uncertainty and danger from Milosevic's assessment of the Alliance's intentions. Moreover, they are likely to have given comfort to Milosevic and strengthened his hand on the domestic front, and so to have been a significant factor in encouraging the Serbian élite to continue to support him in defying NATO. Finally, they enabled Milosevic to shelter his military equipment underground, rather than leaving it deployed to meet the possibility of a ground attack. This severely weakened the impact of the air attacks against forces in the field. (Para 80).

Maintaining NATO unity carried a high price. The lack of enthusiasm in most allied governments for justifying to their electorates the case for a forced ground entry caused inhibitions to be placed by politicians on NATO's military staff even to plan for a ground option. Given the failure of NATO to plan and prepare earlier, even if the threat of a ground attack had been made publicly before 24 March 1999, it would have taken time to become credible to Milosevic and his generals. (Paras 81 & 82).

27. As suggested above, until Milosevic had rebuffed the last attempt to reach a negotiated settlement on the eve of the air campaign, NATO's role was to act in support of the political and diplomatic tracks. Planning for ground options had been examined in some depth in the summer of 1998, and although it was not seen as a preferred option, this early work provided the basis for later planning. The Government agrees that, whenever possible, operational planning should aim to encompass the widest possible range of options, taking into account all relevant diplomatic, legal and political considerations, as this will help to maintain flexibility of action and the greatest possible uncertainty in the minds of adversaries. The maintenance of Alliance unity was essential to the achievement of NATO's objectives.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 5 February 2001