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The American Army in the Balkans: Strategic Alternatives and Implications

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | January 2001

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When President Clinton committed U.S. ground forces to peace support operations in the Balkans, the U.S. Army was irrevocably changed. As part of the NATO-led Implementation Force (I FOR), the Army played a vital role in helping to end the Bosnian civil war. For the Army, this was a seminal step in the transition from a tight focus on conventional warfighting to more wide-ranging support of U.S. National Security Strategy. The importance of this cannot be overestimated: the Army?s successes in the Balkans have been as impressive as its combat victories in the Gulf War.

Today, though, the Army?s role in the Balkans continues to evolve, driven both by conditions in that region and by shifts in American strategy. 2001 is likely to be a watershed year. With the change of presidents, the reshuffling of Congress, and the ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review, U.S. strategy in the Balkans may undergo significant change. In August 2000, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney said that it was time to consider recalling American ground troops from Kosovo and Bosnia.1 Condolezza Rice, one of President-elect Bush?s primary national security advisers, amplified this in October, calling for a ?new division of labor? in which European nations alone provide the troops for peacekeeping in their region.2 And, Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell indicated that,

Our plan is to undertake a review right after the President is inaugurated, and take a look not only at our deployments in Bosnia, but in Kosovo and many other places around the world, and make sure those deployments are proper.3

It remains to be seen whether or how soon this will happen, but one thing is clear: the time is ripe for a rigorous assessment of the role of the U.S. Army in the Balkans, and of the effect the Balkans have had on the U.S. Army.4 As the new president refines his national security strategy and approach to the Balkans, the Army, which has the highest stake of all the Services in this process, should do four things. First, it should make the case for continued engagement in the Balkans, explaining to national political leaders that the American objectives remain valid and engagement of the U.S. military is the best way to assure that these are attained. Second, it should explore ways to be even more effective and efficient in the Balkans should the new administration opt for continued engagement. Third, should the new administration decide to disengage from the Balkans, the Army should begin to analyze ways that this can be done with minimum risk to U.S. national interests in Europe. And fourth, should national political leaders decide to make involvement in protracted peace operations an enduring mission for the U.S. military, the Army should continue to assess the wider strategic lessons drawn from its experience in the Balkans. This study is intended to provide analysis and recommendations to Army leaders on these four topics.


The basic U.S. political goals in the Balkans are worth attaining. Stabilizing the region would both help preserve European security and help preserve NATO?s leading role. Sustaining the U.S. military presence in the Balkans but focusing on high security and military-to-military engagement would stand the best chance of attaining these goals while assuring that the U.S. military remains able to implement the National Military Strategy.

The Army can take important steps to be more effective in the Balkans. The recent program to clarify and stabilize the deployment cycle and improve personnel policies are examples. Still, many of the things the Army most needs to be more effective in the Balkans are beyond its control. Greater clarity of strategy and policy is one of these. U.S. objectives in Southeast Europe in general and the Balkans in particular are reasonably clear, but what is needed is a concrete statement concerning the long-term involvement and role of the American military. Does the United States intend to leave its military in the Balkans until Washington?s ultimate goals are met, even if this takes years or decades? If the role of the U.S. military is to diminish, how and how soon is this to be done? Will the U.S. military stay involved in civil affairs and nation assistance, or will it become purely a provider of security? What are the indicators of success?

Public opinion data, congressional activity, and the rhetoric of the 2000 presidential campaign all show that support for long-term engagement in the Balkans?for seeing through what has been started?is fragile. Sustaining this support will require persistent leadership from the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. It will also require that Army leaders be vigilant in force protection. Taking significant casualties in the Balkans would not automatically lead to American disengagement, but it would certainly complicate the task of retaining public and congressional support for the operations.

The Balkan conflict also shows that NATO needs to find more effective means of deterring, preempting, or responding to politically ambiguous challenges. If the United States stays the course in the Balkans and sees the operations through to ultimate success, NATO is likely to emerge stronger. If the United States loses patience and foregoes its Balkans commitments, this is likely to spark the greatest challenge to NATO since the cruise missile and medium range ballistic missile (Pershing II) controversy of the 1980s, perhaps even a greater one than that. Put bluntly, if the United States abandons the Balkans, NATO will probably begin a slow slide into strategic irrelevance.

Finally, the Balkans operations have shown both the strengths and weaknesses of the United States and its Army. They have shown the immense strides that the Army had made in adapting to the post-Cold War security environment. They have shown that the United States still has an unparalleled ability to organize and lead complexpolitico-economic-military activities. They have shown that today?s Army, if given sufficient time, can respond to an extensive range of challenges. But they have also shown that sometimes the current Army has difficulty creating the appropriate organizations, doctrine, and methods for new complex challenges. In the Balkans, the Army had to adapt on the fly. This worked, but has not led to optimal effectiveness and efficiency. General Shinseki?s transformation of the Army may help remedy the problems that come from using units in ways other than what they were designed and trained for, but there is much to do. If President Bush decides that the U.S. military will not become involved in protracted peace operations or that approaching them as a secondary function is acceptable, then the current configuration of the Army is appropriate. But if the trend toward greater U.S. involvement in protracted peace operations continues, the Army and the Department of Defense probably will be forced to relook the way the Army approaches them and consider refocusing units on peace support or forming new organizations.


1. Michael Cooper, ?Cheney Urges Rethinking Use of U.S. Ground Forces in Bosnia and Kosovo,? New York Times, September 1, 2000.

2. Michael R. Gordon, ?Bush Would Stop U.S. Peacekeeping in Balkan Fights,? New York Times, October 21, 2000.

3. Quoted in James Kitfield, ?Peacekeepers? Progress,? National Journal, December 23, 2000.

4. For instance, George Robertson, the NATO Secretary General, said that Bush?s campaign team assured him that the United States would not unilaterally withdraw from the Balkans but would work out a disengagement plan with NATO. (Michael R. Gordon, ?NATO Chief Says Bush Aide Reassured Him on Balkan Stance,? New York Times, November 1, 2000).