NATO's Time Squeeze

May 31, 1999

Comment: #279

Discussion Thread:  #s 199, 252, 278


[1] Daniel McGrory, "Doctors fear panic among refugees: Camp diseases incubate in sun," The Times (UK), May 31 1999.

[2] Steve Coll and Philip Bennett, "For Refugees, No Easy Road Home: Timing, Logistics, Politics Complicate Plans for Return, "Washington Post, May 31, 1999, Page A01.

[3] Ben Fenton and Jon Hibbs, "Talk of invasion played down as air raids continue," Telegraph (UK), ISSUE 1466, 31 May 1999.

Newspaper reports in the last several days have described leaks about plans for 150,000 man NATO ground invasion of Kosovo, with Britain committing up to 50,000, and the U.S. committing up to 90,000 troops. But Ben Fulton and Jon Hibbs say in Reference #3 that talk of a ground invasion is now being downplayed by civilian and military authorities who say they are continuing to place their faith in the air campaign. This delay is based on the assumption that ministers can wait until the middle of June before making a final decision about a ground offensive (which would have to be mounted and essentially concluded successfully before the onset of the Balkan winter in October).

References #1 & 2 show why the assumption about time slack in NATO's decision cycle could be optimistic, to put it charitably. Taken together, they illustrate another part of the time-driven dilemma NATO is in [recall Comment #252 (4 April) which hypothesized how the Serbs may have thought this through before the fact].

The report by Steve Coll and Phillip Bennet in Reference #2 suggests that some of the existing camps in Macedonia and Albania should be winterized because it may already too late to return all refugees to safe, winterized quarters inside Kosovo, even if a peace agreement was reached today. But construction of winter quarters takes time and leads to the appearance, if not the reality, of a semi-permanent, Gaza-like enclave. This could cause unrest among Kosovars wanting anxiously to go home and political instabilities among the Macedonians, who fear the influx of Albanians into their country. Note also that the history of ethnic cleansing suggests many, if not most, refugees never return to their homeland unless there are ironclad guarantees of their safety.

At the same time NATO and refugee relief authorities are working to resolve the problem of winter quarters, Daniel McGrory raises a subject in Reference #1 that has been curiously absent from most news reports about the refugee crisis. He describes how NATO and refugee relief workers must ensure the refugees survive the hot summer in overcrowded unsanitary camps, where there the frightening albeit entirely foreseeable specter of epidemics and panic in the short-term is now looming like a storm cloud moving rapidly toward the camps.

The common denominator of the summer-winter dilemma is that resolving its tensions will divert the attention, resources, and logistics capacity of NATO just when it needs to devote it energies, resources, and time to planning and deploying for a ground offensive.

In fact, this war has been about TIME from Day 1. On March 29, for example, Roy Gutman reported in Long Island Newsday that U.S. and NATO officials acknowledged that NATO and Milosevic were in a race, with NATO intent on destroying Milosevic's war machine and Milosevic intent on depopulating Kosovo province. He quoted NATO's spokesman Air Commodore David Wilby as saying: "Can we catch up? We will have to catch up. We are moving heaven and earth to try to get up to speed and to get into there and to address the problem as quickly as we can [Reference #1 to Comment #252]."

The importance of TIME and WHY it shapes the strength and vulnerability of competing decision cycles in war was the centerpiece of and has been explained in detail by the theories of late American strategist Col. John Boyd [See Comment # 199 and <> for an introduction to his important work.]

Politicians may want to keep their options open by delaying decisions, but war is about making decisions QUICKER than your adversary.

That is why Napoleon said, 'I may lose a battle, but I will never lose a minute.' That is also why anyone who thinks the wily Slobo is not aware of NATO's squeeze ought to be confined in the Pollyanna ward of St. Elizabeth's.

Chuck Spinney

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