Should NATO Launch a Ground Offensive ... or ...
How Tough do the Serbs Have To Be?

May 10, 1999

Comment: #270

Discussion Thread:  #s 252, 255


[1] Lawrence F. Kaplan, Balkan Myth, New Republic, May 17, 1999.

[2] Mark F. Cancian (Col USMCR), "THE WEHRMACHT IN YUGOSLAVIA: LESSONS OF THE PAST?" Parameters, August 1993.

[3] R. Jeffrey Smith and Dana Priest, "Yugoslavia Near Goals in Kosovo: Analysts Say Serbian Troops Are Digging In for Extended Stay," Washington Post, May 11, 1999, Pg. 1

While the option of a ground attack into Serbia was eliminated at the recently completed NATO summit, it continues to spark debate because, as Reference 3 shows, the Serbs are achieving their war aims in Kosovo.

Kosovo is now a smoldering ruin. Over 700,000 Kosovars have been pushed into Albania and Macedonia, another 600,000 have been expelled from their homes but remain inside Kosovo. Serb forces remain largely intact and are digging in for a strategic defense aimed at creating a long-term stalemate.

No doubt, the Serbs are counting on at least five strategic factors to help them achieve their ambition:

(1) The onset of summer heat in the overcrowded refugee camps could create a health crisis and divert NATO's attention to preventing epidemics, particularly cholera.

(2) The Balkan winter looming in October means that NATO must begin diverting scarce logistics capacity into building winter quarters for over 700,000 refugees sometime in the Summer, perhaps in the middle of a health crisis.

(3) Construction of semi-permanent quarters will likely be resisted by the Slavic majority in Macedonia, thereby necessitating additional transfers to Albania a state whose absorptive capacity is already limited by the facts it is (a) overloaded with refugees, (b) dominated by tribal divisions between north and south (Gegs and Tosks), (c) permeated by rampant crime, drugs, and corruption, and (d) limited by the worst road, port, and water infrastructure in Europe.

(4) NATO cannot deploy quickly, should it commit to a ground offensive, but it must achieve major operational-level goals by October, before the harsh Balkan winter shuts down large scale offensive operations. The month-long deployment of the small Task Force Hawk into Albania illustrates the problem deployment of 3,000+ men, 24 Boeing AH-64A Apache attack helicopters, a battalion of Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) artillery batteries, and the support infrastructure required over 200 C-17 missions.

(5) Kosovo is a natural fortress that favors the defender who has had TIME to prepare a defense. Kosovo is surrounded by a "moat" (infrastructure limitations in Albania and Macedonia), an exterior "wall" (only access is through narrow passes in mountains on its borders), and made up of self-defending internal compartments (basins separated by hills and limited road networks). The only other alternative routes for a ground attack -- Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, Montenegro, and Bosnia are political time bombs.

Nevertheless, to win, NATO must now avoid a stalemate and ROLLBACK back Serb gains. One rollback strategy is to break the Serb will by escalating the bombing campaign by aiming it more at Serbian citizens. But the bombing has failed to achieve the initial war aims and, as the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy illustrates, bombing is now becoming increasingly unstable in terms of its grand strategic effects. The only other rollback strategy is to reverse the situation with a substantial ground offensive into the fortress. But assembling the requisite ground forces and supply areas will take TIME.

The debate over a ground offensive usually falls between advocates of two extreme positions -- those who think such an attack into the Kosovo fortress would be folly because the Serbs are 10 feet tall when it comes to partisan warfare and those who think invading Kosovo and/or Serbia would be a pushover.

Both arguments usually begin with superficial analogies to the German experience in WW II as evidence to support their agenda. In Reference 3 to Comment #252, for example, Joel Ruth made the case that the Serbs are 10 feet tall by describing his analysis of the experience of German Army Group E. In Reference 1, Lawrence Kaplan dismisses arguments like Ruth's, saying they are the inventions of Tito's self-glorifying propaganda machine.

Where does the truth lie?

No doubt both analogies have elements of truth in them, but each is colored clearly by the author's polemical intent.

Analogies are perhaps the most powerful way of thinking because they help our minds to create new ideas by connecting previously unrelated ideas. Einstein's connected the speed of light with the idea of time by using the analogy of riding a train at the speed of light away from a clock on a bell tower. But analogies are also the most dangerous form of reasoning. Analogies can capture the imagination, restrict our vision, and seduce us into seeing something that does not exist and not seeing things that do exist the foreign policy elite's obsessive invocations of Munich and Containment to justify any action in almost every crisis being two cases in point.

The only way to reduce the danger posed by analogical reasoning is to continually examine the assumptions underpinning each analogy for its internal consistency as well as its matchup with external reality. What is known? Unknown? Presumed? How is the current situation like the analogized situation? How is it different? What changing conditions might make a valid analogy invalid?

In 1953, the Army published a report describing the German experience in Yugoslavia by examining German captured records with the aid of former German officers who participated in these operations. Comment #255 contains this report in its entirety. It provides a good baseline for beginning the analysis of the German analogy.

Forty years later, in a little noticed article in Parameters (August 1993), Mark Cancian (Col USMCR) attempted to answer the questions posed by the German analogy in the context of the post-Cold War Balkan meltdown. His analysis is Reference 2. It is well worth reading, because he shows why the debate over a ground offensive has not yet even been joined.

Yet a decision has been forced by the time line of events that seem to fit the Serb's strategy like a hand fits a glove. Had American planners in the Pentagon and the State Department shown some of Cancian's prescience, perhaps the United States would not have led NATO into an air war that put it on the horns of a dilemma of whether or not to launch a ground war in a PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION YEAR (2000).

Chuck Spinney

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