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Kosovo Matters Because Europe Matters, Cohen and Shelton Say

By Linda D. Kozaryn
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, March 29, 1999 – Why is Kosovo, a small Serb province thousands of miles away, important to America?

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and U.S. Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed this and other questions on the U.S. role in NATO Operation Allied Force during March 28 appearances on NBC's Meet the Press and CNN's Late Edition.

More than 2,000 people have died in Kosovo since fighting began there a year ago between Serb authorities and ethnic Albanians seeking independence. Nearly half a million people have been displaced, and since NATO Operation Allied Force began March 24, thousands more refugees have fled to neighboring nations as Serb forces attack and burn their villages.

The United States and its 18 NATO allies are trying to halt this humanitarian disaster, Cohen said on NBC. "We can't help every country in every situation," he said. "We try to help where we can and where it's advisable for us to try to help militarily."

The Kosovo crisis is creating instability throughout a region that, historically, has been a source of great instability, Cohen said. World War I began in the Balkans, and World War II battles were also fought there.

"To the extent that this wheel of conflict is allowed to spin on its axis of violence, eventually the wheel will grow larger and draw us into its orbit," the secretary said. "We are a European power, we're part of NATO and we've made it very clear that NATO security and stability really is in our interest. And so, because of its proximity, because of our history, because of our alliance, [Kosovo] is important to us."

Restoring peace in Kosovo is not going to be quick or easy, Cohen noted on CNN. "It's a very tough environment," he said, with poor weather conditions and mountainous terrain. Nonetheless, NATO is going to conduct a "serious, sustained air campaign."

"To the extent that Milosevic does not see the wisdom of arriving at a peaceful agreement, he's going to continue to witness his military capability being degraded," Cohen said.

Shelton told NBC the mission has well-defined, clear military objectives. The goal is to reduce Milosevic's army and special police forces' ability to "slaughter" the ethnic Albanian Kosovars, he said.

The chairman displayed bomb damage photos from some of the NATO air strikes. One showed the crater where a Serb army garrison headquarters once stood in Pristina, Kosovo. Another showed what remained of an airfield where Serb forces kept attack helicopters.

Cohen told CNN U.S. officials have not yet learned what caused a U.S. stealth fighter-bomber to crash in Yugoslavia March 27. "We are unable to determine whether it was due to anti-aircraft fire, a surface-to-air missile or a malfunction," he said. He expressed gratitude the pilot was safe and hailed the competence, professionalism and courage of the search and rescue team.

Shelton said on CNN the two Yugoslav MiG-29 fighters shot down March 26 when they entered Bosnian air space apparently did not intend to attack SFOR troops. "[They] were carrying air-to-air munitions," he said. "There's no indication that they were in fact bound to attack our troops. That's not the type of ordnance that you'd carry for a mission like that."

Both defense leaders said there are no plans to commit U.S. ground troops to Kosovo. "The president has made it very clear he has not only no plans, but no intent to put ground troops into a hostile environment," Cohen said on NBC. "If there's a peace settlement, then he has indicated we'd be prepared to contribute a small amount of a peacekeeping force … , but absent that, we're going to continue with the air campaign."

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