The afterglow of the Gulf War victory carried the armed forces through the end of the Reagan-Bush years, 1991–1993. The era closed with decreased defense spending and low-risk military interventions. The collapse of the Soviet Union, brought on by its own internal contradictions as well as NATO vigilance, cast an aura of success around the Republicans’ management of national security. The administrations’ fumbles appeared to be small stumbles on the road to Cold War victory. For the public, American defense had three issues. Did we win? How much did it cost? How many people died? The lives lost meant only American military personnel. Even with the surge of defense spending in the first Reagan term, the cost of defense remained in the 6 percent range of Gross Domestic Product. Even with the spike in defense spending for the Gulf War, an additional $50 billion, defense spending declined during George H.W. Bush’s presidency. In the election campaign of 1992, all the presidential candidates promised a “peace dividend” that could be justified by the reduced Soviet nuclear threat. A drawdown of NATO forces became possible because the Red Army had left Eastern Europe. Relative peace prevailed in the Middle East and South Asia, tied to the Russian defeat in Afghanistan, an acceptable Israeli level of security, and the exhaustion of Iraq and Iran. President Bush pledged a 30 percent cut in defense budgets over the next five years if reelected, drawing defense spending down to nearly $250 billion. His rival, Governor William J. Clinton of Arkansas, said he could do even better by squeezing an additional $60 billion out of the defense budget over the same period.
American military relations abroad and industrial health at home put finite limits on slashing defense procurement. By 1990 the United States had replaced the Soviet Union as the principal arms merchant in the world. Measured in dollars, Middle Eastern nations were the best customers. At an all-time peak of $20 billion in 1990, foreign arms sales climbed to $32 billion in 1992. The purchasers were Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Lesser sums might provide greater leverage in poorer countries, at least in theory, but foreign investment in aircraft, ships, electronics, and missiles reduced unit costs for the Pentagon, a real incentive for salesmanship.
Military intervention in the Reagan-Bush years placed American troops in harm’s way throughout the world, but at a limited cost in military deaths. Between 1981 and 1993, including operations in Lebanon, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Panama, American KIAs numbered only 555. To put this number in perspective, the armed forces lost an average of 1,200 lives a year in training accidents and lost an average of around 300 members to suicide a year during this twelve-year period. In addition to military operations that produced combat deaths, American service personnel were at risk in peacekeeping missions in Honduras, Chad, Bolivia, Colombia, the Philippines, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zaire, and Somalia. Despite Reagan’s preference for unilateralism and Bush’s tempered multilateralism, the United States sent money, observers, and logistical support to twelve United Nations peacekeeping missions, between 1988 and 1992, seven of which remained active in 1993. Despite its unhappiness with State Department humanitarianism and the UN’s assessment plan, Congress still paid one-third of the UN’s annual peacekeeping bill of nearly $2.5 billion. The armed services sent humanitarian missions to cope with floods in Bangladesh and volcanic eruptions in the Philippines and Italy. After the Gulf War, the armed forces looked more like an armed Peace Corps mission than the world’s unchallenged military power.
Part of the illusion of a “new world order” envisioned by President Bush depended on treaty negotiations to reduce the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Russian Federation (the core member of the Commonwealth of Independent States) as the heir of the U.S.S.R. The negotiators also sought a reduction of the NATO and Russian-Warsaw Pact forces in central Europe. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (1992) sought levels of delivery vehicles and warheads from 30 to 60 percent lower than the 1980s levels. The ultimate goal was for the U.S. and Russia to maintain an ICBM force of around 500–600 and a submarine force armed with 1,750 missiles. The Russians agreed to cut their ICBM force in half and their SLBM force by a third. Such phased reductions would eventually cut Russian warhead numbers from 9,500 to 3,000–3,500, the same number of American warheads. Both sides agreed to closer control and better survivability in order to foreclose first strikes. The treaty arranged for American technicians to help dismantle and account for Russian missiles; the first on-site inspectors reported appalling security lapses and dangerous design flaws in Russian ICBMs. The treaty disarmed the new states of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, which gave up ICBMs with 3,100 warheads and thus moved off the U.S. target list.
The United States also abrogated the ABM Treaty (1972) that limited antimissile missile development. The treaty had already been modified with imagination to justify “Star Wars” (a hypothetical missile defense system). In June 1992, the State Department announced that the U.S. would no longer deny itself ABM missiles and their acquisition and tracking systems. The projected ABM system would be deployed against rogue nuclear states. The Missile Defense Act of 1991 trumpeted a new mission, to provide “global protection against limited strikes.” The concern for ABM defense actually reflected the failure of the United States and its UN allies to curb nuclear proliferation, a concern heightened by fear of the leakage of Russian expertise and technology to the Muslim world. The advances in ABM technology made a modest system to counter a limited threat appear feasible and affordable.
The Soviet Union’s disintegration allowed the United States and its NATO allies to complete the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (1990), based on the correct assumption that the Warsaw Pact was no more. East German soldiers entered the Bundeswehr or faced the trauma of working. Six Eastern European nations cut their major weapons inventory from 20 to 50 percent. Seven spin-off U.S.S.R. republics made more modest cuts; Georgia radically increased its forces, an omen of civil wars to come. The core Russian republic (Moscow) lost 50,000 aircraft, artillery pieces, and mechanized vehicles to the separatist republics but retained 5,150 aircraft, 13,000 tanks, 13,175 artillery pieces, and 20,000 armored combat vehicles, more than adequate to fight its rebels and neighbors but not a streamlined NATO, which had reduced its inventory of 81,000 major systems to 76,000, not exactly unilateral disarmament.
The faith that the Cold War had ended in victory encouraged the assumption that the nation’s security problems had faded to minor nuisances. President Bush even sent veterans a fancy letter that thanked them for their Cold War service, a nice touch in a reelection campaign. The best concept cautionary planners could argue was that the armed forces should retain the capability to fight another Gulf War with enough force structure for peacekeeping missions and minor counterinsurgency expeditions. General Colin Powell, JCS chairman, and Congressman Les Aspin, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, argued for a base force of 1.6 million but accepted an active duty force of 1.4 million, or 600,000 fewer active duty personnel than the troop strength at the climax of the Gulf War. The Pentagon created programs to force senior officers and NCOs to retire, reduce the million-person civilian defense force by one-third, and inflict job losses of 300,000–400,000 on the defense industry. Congress even relinquished the power (rich in patronage) over military installations to a Base Reduction and Alignment Commission (1988), a sure sign of reduced interest in defense spending.
The services, faced with strength cuts, planned to be smaller, but to be more mobile and armed with precision-guided weapons employed by highly skilled long-term professionals. For example, the average age of military personnel inched up from twenty-six toward thirty, with accompanying changes in rank structure and benefits for scarce technicians and expert field operators. Instead of a future 600-ship Navy, the 1980s plan, the Navy sought 200–230 surface craft and 120 submarines by 2000. The Air Force closed down Strategic Air Command and assigned nuclear capable units to a joint service Strategic Command (1992) that also controlled the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines, reduced to fourteen, with four others converted to launch cruise missiles. The Army would stand down four divisions (sixteen to twelve) and eliminate one corps from its Germany-based NATO force. The Marine Corps by law would field three divisions and three aircraft wings but would reduce each by the equivalent of three infantry regiments (around 10,000) and supporting forces and stabilize at around 175,000 or almost 40,000 below wartime manning levels. All the services hoped that better training, less personnel turnover, and new weapons would offset numbers. One sign of the times was that the joint Transportation Command, a budgeting stepchild, received more money to buy large transport aircraft (the C-5 and C-17) and build squadrons of preloaded and predeployed logistical ships for all the services, not just the Marine Corps.
International statesmen—and not just allies—watched the United States reduce its forces with concern. The secretary-general of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, looked into the future in his Agenda for Peace (1992) and predicted the rise of rogue and failed states that would require UN action, especially if nuclear proliferation increased. The United States was the only UN member with a full-service global military capability. His successor, Kofi Annan, preached preemptive military intervention to resolve the growing number of civil wars, insurgencies, and communal conflicts, like the Tamil-Sinhalese war in Sri Lanka or the drug cartel wars that had ravaged Colombia. The thrust of these arguments raised strategic questions about post–Cold War use of force. What of genocide in the Sudan? Piracy off the Horn of Africa? What could be done about the civil war in Yugoslavia? What of the alliance of Persian fanatics and Arab terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, firmly rooted in Lebanon and Syria? And what was one to make of an expatriate Saudi millionaire engineer who in 1989 declared war on the United States as part of a jihad against Israel? Who was Osama bin Laden?
The Clinton Administration: Avoiding War and Inviting Future Conflict, 1993–2001
The disintegration of the Soviet Union set off a surge of strategic reassessment in Washington as the new Clinton administration and Congress faced a world without a plausible enemy. For planners who needed an enemy to shape contingency planning, the People’s Republic of China became the villain-of-choice. Although it had modernized its armed forces and developed its strategic nuclear force (about 200 missiles, aimed presumably at Russia, Taiwan, and Japan), China never became a convincing threat because of U.S.-PRC economic interdependence. In truth, regional threats like Iran and North Korea fit the strategy of nuclear deterrence and forward, collective defense. This strategy, however, presented many options. Clinton endorsed a DOD report, “A National Security Strategy of Enlargement and Engagement,” in 1996, followed by “A National Security for a New Century” in 1997. Both paid lip service to military leverage in diplomacy with a stress on economic well-being and promoting democracy abroad. In the mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (1997), the strategic gurus in DOD began to stress “post-modern warfare” and “asymmetric warfare,” which encouraged more uncertainty, an invitation to solving strategic dilemmas by reorganization. A study by a congressional panel, the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces (1995–1996), argued that theater and functional field commanders needed more power and resources, allocated directly by Congress or by a stronger JCS. The commission, loaded with experts, identified the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation, information warfare, peace operations, and “operations other than war” as the missions of the future.
The Pentagon struggled to bring more definition to strategic thinking in the post–Cold War era. The JCS offered its analysis in “Joint Vision 2010” (1995) and “Joint Vision 2020” (2000). The JCS conceded that nonstate threats required more attention and that rogue state interest in WMD justified serious concern. The Chiefs urged more investment in missile defense and space-based information acquisition systems accompanied by modest force integration. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen (1997–2001) admitted in his annual report of 1999 that a capabilities-based strategy appealed to him but could cost an additional $112 billion over the next six years. Readiness training and technological exploitation could make the budget unacceptable in Congress, which he knew well as a former U.S. Senator. Congress again tackled the “how much and for what” question with a blue-ribbon U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century. The commission’s reports (1999–2001) identified the force priorities: nuclear offensive and defensive forces for deterrence, better homeland defense against all WMD, conventional forces for major regional wars, and more rapidly deployable expeditionary forces for humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. The basic thrust, however, was that the U.S. should avoid diplomatic commitments that increased the chances of war. Within an administration focused on domestic reform, there were few experts in international security affairs since twelve years of Republican executive branch domination had blocked a new generation of Democratic realpolitik foreign policy activists.
Of all the policy issues for which Bill Clinton could claim real expertise, national defense was not one of them. A child of the rebellious 1960s and a passionate liberal-intellectual who viewed defense spending as a barrier to domestic reform, Clinton surrounded himself with staffers unmoved by the Pentagon’s concerns. Clinton’s agenda focused on economic growth and underclass empowerment. As a student at Georgetown University, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, and a law student at Yale, Clinton fancied the life of classrooms and coffeehouses and shrank from the prospect of military service in the 1960s. To avoid conscription, he joined Army ROTC at Arkansas where he planned to attend law school, gambling that the Vietnam War would end before he was commissioned. Winning this wager with fate, Clinton sought extended educational deferments until the Army did not want him. Since many other college students of his generation had dodged Vietnam service, Clinton’s suspended patriotism did not bar him from Arkansas politics. In 1992 he astounded the experts by upsetting an incumbent president who had just won a war. The election issues, however, were domestic and stressed Republican disdain for economic growth, urban renewal, and social reform.
Like Jack Kennedy, with whom he shared some common instincts, Bill Clinton’s first-year performance as commander in chief impressed no one except his liberal, antimilitary White House staffers. He appointed relative unknowns, Anthony Lake and Samuel “Sandy” Berger, as national security advisers. Moreover, Clinton faced Colin Powell, the charismatic-celebrity JCS chairman, and a Congress full of defense experts like Senators Sam Nunn, John Warner, and William S. Cohen and Congressmen Sonny Montgomery, Ike Skelton, Leon Panetta, and Les Aspin. Clinton thought he could improve his toxic relationship with his admirals and generals by appointing Aspin as secretary of defense. A policy “wonk” like the president and equally talkative, Aspin lasted less than a year. In December 1993, Dr. William J. Perry, an engineer-manager and protégé of the revered Harold Brown, moved up from deputy secretary to replace Aspin. During Clinton’s second term, Perry, suffering from crisis burnout, left office voluntarily. Clinton replaced him with Senator Cohen. In the meantime, Powell retired and became a Republican. No other chairman or service chief ever approached his influence. Clinton’s military detractors came from the Republican Party and from the unified and specified field commanders (the CINCs), especially General Wesley K. Clark, U.S. Army and SACEUR. A master of the quick study, Clinton learned the issues and made himself more sympathetic to the JCS, and he let Perry and Cohen manage the armed forces. In any event, Clinton also felt more comfortable as diplomat in chief, served by a State Department staffed with veterans of the Carter administration, many of them disciples of the noninterventionist former secretary, Cyrus Vance.
Once in office, Secretaries Aspin and Perry favored a capabilities-based strategy that could meet varied contingencies, but they tightened the definition to mean fighting two regional wars simultaneously, presumably with Iraq or Iran in the Middle East or North Korea. Few military planners regarded this view as realistic. The administration, in fact, continued to reduce the size of the armed forces until they reached 1.36 million in 2000. The defense budget declined to $267.2 billion but reversed course to $318 billion as the economy improved and the federal budget actually showed a surplus. Nuclear force modernization, spending on quality personnel, and investment in electronic improvements of weapons systems took priority over maintaining more people and units. “Star Wars” came to earth with the widespread development of night-vision devices, reconnaissance and armed pilotless aircraft, air and artillery ordnance with radar and terminal guidance, satellite communications and ground positioning systems (GPS), and advanced armor for people and vehicles. By 2000 the American infantryman had begun to look like his futuristic comrades in the movie Starship Troopers. Vietnam War GIs looked as anachronistic as their grandfathers in the movie Saving Private Ryan. All the “gee whiz” technology did not translate into strategic aggressiveness. International approval and the fear of public reaction to service deaths had a determinative influence on American interventionism or intervention avoidance.
The Issue of Intervention
In seven cases, Clinton shied from using decisive military force to shape commitments he inherited or initiated. In geographic terms, these examples of the Clinton way-of-nonwar occurred in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Kosovo, Iraq, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. The bounded use of military force seemed like a good idea at the time—at least in public acceptance—but the unhappy consequences in two cases (Iraq and Afghanistan) left much more to be resolved later at greater cost. The Clinton administration certainly avoided military deaths. During Clinton’s eight years as commander in chief, the U.S. armed forces lost only eighty men and women killed by enemy action; thirty-seven of them died in two terrorist attacks on military support bases in “friendly” countries, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. At least the armed forces could report that they had cut accidental training deaths in half and murder-suicides by a third from the averages of the 1980s. Such numbers also suggested a reduction in stressful training and reduced deployments as well as more supervision and counseling. The mission of the day was force protection.
The interventions in Somalia and Haiti demonstrated the limitations of humanitarian action. While it would be comforting to believe that the Clinton administration wanted to save lives regardless of race, creed, and nationality, avoiding American deaths had the highest priority. Clinton inherited George Bush’s commitment of December 1992 to Operation RESTORE HOPE, a UN humanitarian relief effort to feed Somalis displaced by wars with the Ethiopians, Eritreans, and other Somalis as well as a drought. Fifteen Somali clans and factional armies vied with each other to steal UN relief supplies of food and medicine and to intimidate the thousands of unarmed relief workers. As the last vestiges of government disappeared throughout Somalia in November 1991, the United Nations arbitrators left the capital of Mogadishu and tried to organize a humanitarian relief effort that had military protection and could function throughout all of Somalia. Since the United States was already part of the relief effort run by air from Kenya, the Bush administration agreed to lead Operation RESTORE HOPE, authorized by the UN Security Council in December 1992. Somalia would be regarded as a failed state without a legitimate government, so the UN would provide political guidance through Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who accepted Lieutenant General Robert B. Johnson, USMC, as commander of the United Task Force Somalia (UNITAF) organized under the United Nations Somalia Mission (UNOSOM). Answering the UN call for troops, twenty-three nations sent military units to Somalia (seventeen sent ground combat units) for UNOSOM I (December 1992–May 1993) or UNOSOM II (May 1993–March 1994). At peak strength UNITAF numbered 38,000, about one-third American, with thousands more troops afloat or in Middle East support bases and operated under American command. An estimated 50,000 Americans eventually served in Somalia.
Given its bias toward international humanitarianism, Clinton’s State Department embraced Operation RESTORE HOPE, even though the Pentagon had reservations about the mission and troop levels. President Bush had announced that the United States might send as many as 28,000 troops to make Security Council Resolution 794 work and “to establish a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia as soon as possible.” The intervention should not favor any Somali political faction. In fact, the Somali warlords had no stomach to fight the Marine air-ground amphibious brigade that led 23,000 peacekeepers into Somalia in December 1992. The heart of the long-term stabilizing UNITAF would be Special Forces, a U.S. Army brigade, and a UNITAF service support command, totaling only 5,500 officers and men. The 10th Mountain Division brigade would provide the UNITAF with a quick reaction force should the Somalis attack UNOSOM. Although not free of sporadic fighting, the occupation of Somalia went smoothly enough because the two most powerful clan coalitions, the Hawiye/Habar Gidr of Mohamed Farrah Aideed and the Hawiye/Abgal of Ali Mahdi Mohamed, wanted to see how and when to turn UNITAF’s presence to their rival purposes.
With humanitarian relief operations progressing well enough, the United Nations sent negotiators to Somalia to join Ambassador Robert Oakley, the U.S. special representative to UNOSOM, in persuading the warlords to disband their private armies, to stop stealing UN relief supplies, and to form a government. The Somali warlords did not care that the UN International Emergency Children’s Fund was the leading relief agency or that children and the elderly made up most of the 400,000 Somali dead. They took from the poor and gave to themselves or sold to others for guns and drugs. UNITAF had done some modest gun collecting (mostly junk), while the Somalis had brought in AK-47s, light machine guns, heavy machine guns mounted on light trucks, and RPG light missiles, many of the weapons Soviet-surplus from Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Nevertheless, Boutros-Ghali, prodded by the United States, decided to declare victory in May 1993 and to enter a nation-building phase with UNITAF protection, labeled UNOSOM II and UN directed. Many of the humanitarian relief agencies joined the victory parade and turned over their operations to UN agencies, undermanned and unprotected. When General Johnson returned to Washington, Clinton joined the chorus of success, bought at the cost of eighteen dead (ten in accidents) and twenty-four wounded.
In less than a year (June 1993–March 1994), the Somali warlords commanded by Mohamed Farrah Aideed fought the Battle of Mogadishu and drove UNOSOM II out of Somalia. In a sense, it was Beirut all over again. The new UNOSOM II force shrank as its mission expanded to include breaking up the warlord militias. A retired American admiral, Jonathan T. Howe, became the UN political official in Somalia, and a U.S. Army general became the deputy UNITAF commander. The American force, however, shrank to a battalion task force from the 10th Mountain Division and a Special Forces group, which would be the quick reaction force for the polyglot army of light infantry battalions from twenty countries, the largest force 4,000 Pakistanis. Aideed concluded that UNOSOM II might support his enemies and confiscate his weapons caches if he did not turn his restless Mogadishu bands loose in an urban guerrilla campaign against the UN forces. In early June, Aideed’s forces (“the Somali National Army” or SNA) attacked two Pakistani companies and other scattered units, killing twenty-four and wounding fifty-six. On June 6 the UN Security Council declared war on the SNA. With a heavy emphasis on using armed helicopters and AC-130 aircraft gunships, UNOSOM II forces could inflict casualties, but they could not convert deaths to victory. Much of Mogadishu rallied to Aideed to fight the foreigners. Instead of reinforcing UNOSOM II with U.S. Army tanks and Bradley mechanized fighting vehicles, Secretary Aspin persuaded Clinton to send a separate Quick Reaction Force (QRF), Task Force Ranger, to Mogadishu outside of UNITAF control. This elite force included a Ranger battalion, the operators of Delta Force, and helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (“Nightstalkers”). TF Ranger brought with it the most advanced night operations and target acquisition technology the Army had.
Using intelligence information collected by the UNOSOM II forces, including Somali agents, TF Ranger targeted Aideed and his senior commanders, who had already survived one major Quick Reaction Force (QRF) raid in September. The SNA fired RPGs at U.S. helicopters and led Somali mobs into the fray against the UN infantry. On October 3–4, 1993, TF Ranger and a Delta detachment raided a meeting of SNA leaders and completed the captures as planned. Before the raiding force and its rescuers escaped the SNA part of Mogadishu, however, TF Ranger had lost two UH-60 Blackhawks, three of six pilots and crew, two senior Delta sergeants, and eleven Rangers dead and fifty-seven wounded.17 The raiders killed 300–500 Somalis. Covered in bloody detail by foreign TV crews, the battle felt like a defeat and ended the Aideed hunt as the Clinton administration lost heart for Somali nation-building. In part for their role in the operation, Aspin resigned and Admiral Howe came home. A Marine task force covered the UNOSOM II withdrawal, justified by a temporary ceasefire. Watching the action on TV, Osama bin Laden marveled at American timidity.
The Haitian intervention (1994–1995), or Operation RESTORE DEMOCRACY, put an expeditionary force in that impoverished, chaotic African-Caribbean country, a model failed state. Legitimized by the Organization of American States and the UN, the United States chose to place Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the Haitian presidency, an office to which he had been elected under outside supervision. A junta of kleptomaniac army officers and street gangs pretending to be police had kept Aristide from office and attacked the demonstrations by his faithful. The gutters of Port-au-Prince ran with blood. Human rights and civil rights leaders in the United States demanded intervention. Ships of Atlantic Command had been blockading Haiti since October 1993, but without political effect. Almost a year later, after former president Jimmy Carter had convinced the Haitian generals that the U.S. Army would crush them, Clinton committed 20,000 American troops (about half Army, half Marine) to a UN multinational force dedicated to putting and keeping the Aristide government in place. The intervention started on a sour note. A Haitian mob chanting “Somalia! Somalia!” prevented one U.S. Navy ship from landing a military relief and security team. After six months of policing, the UN forces departed. Between September 1995 and March 1996, 2,800 American troops returned to support the UN mission in Haiti that conducted civic aid programs and supervised elections. All the help did not prevent Father Aristide from being a tyrant, but it improved Clinton’s image.
The major interventionist challenge, however, for the Clinton administration became the dissolution of Yugoslavia. A tarpit of communal rivalries since the Turkish expansion into the Balkans in the fifteenth century, modern Yugoslavia had been a patchwork kingdom created after World War I, built on the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. It remained unified as a dreary Communist state after World War II, ruled by Marshal Tito, who was born Josef Broz. When one stripped away the glue of the Tito government and the Yugoslavian Communist Party, united in their hatred of Russia, Yugoslavia was an artificial state. Ethnicity was not an issue, since the Balkan peoples were predominantly southern Slavs. Most of them spoke Serbo-Croatian, a Slavic language. Culture, religion, and history had divided them into warring communities, exacerbated by the civil war that went on during the Italian-German occupation, 1940–1945. In the north, Slovenia and Croatia preserved their Catholic faith and European orientation from their roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Serbia had been a hotbed of anti-Austrian separatism for centuries. Serbs regarded the Muslims and Croats as equal enemies. The Serbs saw themselves as the champions of Slavic culture and the Serbian Orthodox Church, as well as the only true patriots who had fought the Turks and the Germans. The capital of Yugoslavia was Serbian Belgrade, and Serbs dominated the Yugoslavian Communist Party and national armed forces. The dominant political figure after Tito’s death was the Serbian-Yugoslavian president, Slobodan Milosevic, a bitter rival of Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian political boss and former general.
Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History, Bosnia-Herzegovina: The U.S. Army’s Role in Peace Enforcement Operations, 1995–2004
The dark and bloody ground of Yugoslavia was and remained Bosnia-Herzegovina (capital, Sarajevo), where Serbs, Croats, and Muslims had lived in uneasy peace. Bosnia had been an economic gate to Italy and the Muslim world. It had been a patron of the Serbian province of Kosovo, which borders on Muslim Albania. The majority of Kosovars are Albanian Muslims and keenly aware of the history of war and massacre that poisoned their relations with the Serbs. The southeastern corner of Yugoslavia was the Macedonian province (now a republic) and a Greek Orthodox region tied to the Macedonian people of northern Greece and unfriendly to Muslims and Serbs alike. All of the provinces of Yugoslavia had or could find enough weapons to wage war for decades. The Yugoslav national army had inherited German weapons from World War II and Soviet weapons from its brief alliance with the U.S.S.R. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact armies and open borders meant Croatia and Serbia could draw weapons from all of Eastern Europe and Russia. The Muslims could import arms (with Arab money) from the sea and through Albania. Fifty years of conscription provided thousands of officers and men for a bloody civil war.
The Yugoslavian civil war did not start with Slovenia’s secession (1991). Quick recognition of Slovenia’s independence by its European neighbors, however, prompted Tudjman to announce that Croatia would no longer take orders or pay taxes to Belgrade. The Croatian army began to drive the Serbs, 20 percent of Croatia’s population, from their towns and to extend Croatia’s frontiers to the Adriatic. The Croats also resurrected the symbols of the pro-Nazi Croatian militias, known for massacring Serbs in World War II. Although the Croats had no love for Muslims, they had been and would be their allies in a war against Serbia. The earliest campaigns put the Croatian forces on territory claimed by the neighboring semi-autonomous province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Tudjman’s forces armed Croats and Muslims alike. The Croats claimed they were only waging a preventive war against the Serbs since Milosevic had already in 1989 opened a campaign of repression against the Muslim-Albanian majority in Serbia’s rebellious province of Kosovo. Claiming to be victims of Croatian aggression, the Yugoslavian-Serbian army struck back at the Croats and Muslims and forced Tudjman to agree to a ceasefire in January 1992. The Muslim Bosnians, convinced of Croatia’s support, declared Bosnia-Herzegovina an independent nation, which immediately set off a Serbian invasion that occupied 70 percent of Bosnia by year’s end. The Croats proved reluctant allies, guarding their conquests outside of Bosnia. With Milosevic’s full support, the Bosnian Serbs declared themselves a new republic (under President Radovan Karadzic) with its own army, commanded by Ratko Mladic, a career officer-warlord of murderous instincts. By the end of 1992, the center of “the former Yugoslavia” had been plunged into cycles of conventional battles between Bosnian and Serbian armies, which the Serbs won; warfare between sectarian militias spawned urban sieges and massacres of Bosnian male “POWs.” The Serbs raped women and abused children and the elderly. The basic Serbian goal was “ethnic cleansing,” which meant driving Croats and Bosnians from territory that would become Greater Serbia. The Serbs drove 750,000 Bosnians from their homes and into the inept hands of the Bosnian government, led by a Muslim, Alija Izetbegovic. The war in Bosnia became the central front of Yugoslavian state suicide and provided plenty of gruesome coverage for CNN, the BBC, and other international media networks.
Stirred by the international humanitarian outcry about Balkan atrocities, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, led by Great Britain and France, edged toward intervention in 1992. At their annual meeting in June, the NATO foreign ministers called upon the alliance to plan for peacekeeping operations by a UN Protective Force (UNPROFOR). The Bush administration declared the United States a nonplayer in a European problem. Candidate Clinton criticized Bush’s insensitivity to Bosnia’s victims. Bush responded by authorizing relief supplies to be flown into Bosnia. In July 1992, under UN Security Council authority, NATO declared a total arms embargo and economic sanctions on Serbia. The enforcement of the naval blockade tightened, and NATO declared Bosnian air space a “no-fly zone” for all belligerent aircraft. Despite peace plans and limited negotiations, the war went on. In December the NATO foreign ministers agreed that NATO should, under UN authority, place coalition forces on the ground in Bosnia to interpose themselves between the warring armies while UN negotiators tried to make local ceasefires and set up safe refugee camps for the more than 350,000 homeless Bosnians still in the battle zone. In effect, NATO entered the war as allies of the Croats and Bosnian Muslims. In fact, Austria and West Germany had done little to curb the flow of weapons and money from their citizens (and churches) to the Croats, the supporters of the Bosnians from afar.
As the Bosnian Serbs showed no willingness to stop their march of ethnic cleansing, the UN committed a ground UNPROFOR to Bosnia’s beleaguered cities and refugee centers in April 1992, but did so under rules of engagement that posed little threat to Mladic’s army. This peace enforcement operation expanded the UN-NATO observer-support presence in Sarajevo and included infantry battalions from NATO and other European nations. The most demanding mission was protecting relief convoys and refugee camps—and moving Bosnians away from Serbian artillery and thus aiding the ethnic cleansers. UNPROFOR had limited troops (around 10,000 of the required 34,000) and UN-determined rules of engagement that made even self-defense problematic. The Serbs rejected a UN plan for Bosnian partition and a ceasefire because Karadzic and Milosevic smelled victory. The tepid UN-NATO response, affected in part by America’s limited involvement, told them they had time on their side.
The Clinton administration inherited a limited air and naval commitment to UNPROFOR it did not want to expand. American reluctance was linked to an unrealistic desire for Yugoslavia to remain whole and doubts about the political restraints on the ground UNPROFOR. Clinton, however, conceded the State Department’s argument that the U.S. needed more military-based leverage on Balkan peacemaking, so the president ordered the use of USAF transports to fly relief supplies to the Bosnians (February 1993). He then agreed to join the NATO air forces to enforce the no-fly zone more aggressively. As the Bosnian Serbs pressed northward, the Bosnians rallied with reinforcements from the Muslim world, many of them veterans of the war against the Russians in Afghanistan and the civil wars going on between the Russians and Muslim ethnic minorities. Evidence of Bosnian Serb massacres mounted, and NATO authorized air strikes on Serb armor and artillery positions. On April 12, 1994, USAF aircraft launched their first strikes on Serb ground targets. Still the Bosnian Serbs marched north, emptying villages along the way. Frustrated, Clinton actually withdrew American aircraft from UNPROFOR at the end of 1994. The most he would do was send a U.S. Army mechanized infantry battalion to the Republic of Macedonia, a symbolic gesture at best. The UNPROFOR troops at risk came from France, Great Britain, Canada, Turkey, Russia, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia.
The war in Bosnia reached its climax in 1995 and ended in negotiations (the Dayton Peace Accords) that partitioned Bosnia and allowed the Serbs and Croats to hold the territorial gains they had made against each other and the Bosnians. The United States finally played an influential role through Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, a diplomat who could threaten almost anyone credibly. The real catalyst for peace was Bosnian Serb atrocities and the vengeful NATO response. In the summer of 1995, the Serbs had placed the “safe” cities under siege with artillery and marauding infantry. The protected cities of Gorazde, Sarajevo, and Srebrenica shuddered under sporadic bombardment. The Bosnians captured Srebrenica in July 1995, unchallenged by the resident Dutch battalion, which had thirty of its men held as hostages. In the chaos, the Serbs slaughtered 7,000 male Bosnians. As the enormity of this atrocity reached the world, NATO authorized heavy air strikes and limited ground attacks that stopped Mladic’s army at the gates of Sarajevo, Gorazde, Bihac, and Tuzla. The Bosnian Serb aggression sparked new determination to stop the war by force. The UN War Crimes Tribunal indicted Karadzic and Mladic for genocide and crimes against humanity; the North Atlantic Council basically declared war on the Bosnian Serbs; and the U.S. Congress lifted the ban on arming the Bosnians.
The NATO decision to mount a limited offensive against the Bosnian Serbs brought the United States into the war and produced war-ending results. Clinton finally conceded that Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Holbrooke, and General Clark were right in asserting that only American military power could stop the Serbs. With USAF and USN fighter-bombers in the lead, the air forces of UNPROFOR began offensive strikes in Operation DELIBERATE FORCE on August 1, 1995. The air attacks, constrained by weather and intelligence limitations, did not produce much Serbian reaction except the withdrawal and protection of Mladic’s heavy artillery. The Bosnian government, however, agreed to a ceasefire and more negotiations. DELIBERATE FORCE reached a new level of destructiveness in seventeen days (August 29–September 14, 1995) of intense operations. During the period, U.S. aircraft from all the services, including Army helicopters, provided two-thirds of the ground attack sorties (2,470) on Serbian forces. American aircraft flew one-third of the support missions (1,065), which included refueling, comm-electronic support, target acquisition and bomb damage assessment, and search and rescue missions. The U.S. Air Force ran the campaign. By September 14, the air commander reported that DELIBERATE FORCE had destroyed 70 percent of its target list, especially the Serb’s air-defense system. UN ground troops had advanced and ensured that the Bosnian Serbs fell back from their city sieges. The air offensive alone, however, did not turn the war against the Serbs since the retrained Croatian army also launched a counteroffensive that drove the Serbs out of the Krajina region of Croatia, held by the Serbs since 1991, and advanced into Serbian lands in Bosnia. The American-led air campaign, run more efficiently than the Gulf War air offensive, certainly hurt the Bosnian Serb army, but the Croatian ground offensive was at least as important in bringing the Bosnian war to an end. The Croatian army now matched the Serbs, thanks to an American contractor who provided an advisory mission of hundreds of veterans and technical experts.
The Bosnian Serbs and their sponsors in Belgrade needed a truce and recovery time, hoping that a ceasefire would lead to NATO disarray. Economic sanctions had hurt Serbia; support from the Slavic world had plunged with the turmoil in the former U.S.S.R. President Milosevic convinced Karadzic that time was on their side and that a peace now would preserve the Serb conquests in Bosnia. After many false starts, Holbrooke, an imperious negotiator, managed to coerce Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia to sign the Dayton Peace Accords (November 1995), which pledged the signatories to stop fighting; to respect the legitimacy of an independent Bosnia-Herzegovina government that would control 51 percent of Bosnia; to disarm; to prosecute war criminals; to rescue the refugees; and to respect human rights. The UN would pass political responsibility for the settlement to NATO, which would replace the UNPROFOR with a multinational Implementation Force (IFOR) commanded by an American general. In December 1995, President Clinton announced that the U.S. would send 20,000 troops from a reinforced armored division to Bosnia-Herzegovina, 5,000 more to the Balkan war zone (primarily Croatia), and 7,000 more troops to bases in Europe that would support IFOR. The actual U.S. IFOR contribution numbered 17,000 in a 60,000-man international army, with units from all NATO members and eighteen other countries, predominantly Slavic or Arab supporters of the Serbs and Muslims. The dominant local force was now the Croatian army, which in effect made Bosnia-Herzegovina a Croatian protectorate except for the Republika Sprska, the Bosnia Serb “country” attached to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). The peace worked—at least superficially—so that in 1996 the IFOR became a longer term Stabilization Force (SFOR) of 30,000, of whom 10,000 were Americans. In 1998 the U.S. Army still remained in Bosnia because the Balkan wars had not yet ended.
In Belgrade, the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic still insisted that it was the legitimate government of all Yugoslavia. Serbia still included Kosovo province, a hotbed of Muslim separatism encouraged by Albania. By 1999 the Kosovars had mounted a resistance movement that included rallies, protest marches, political organization, passive resistance, and small-scale guerrilla raids by the Kosovar Liberation Army (KLA) on the Yugoslavian (Serbian) security forces. The Serbian army and police responded with a vengeance and opened a new campaign of arrests, reprisals, depopulation, and killing. Kosovar refugees flooded the borders of Albania, Macedonia, and Bosnia. In March 1999, the United States joined its NATO allies in a war designed to stop Serbian counterinsurgency operations in Kosovo and to save the Muslim civilian population from more ethnic cleansing. With political wishful thinking in flower in Washington and European capitals, the NATO strategy, to General Clark’s dismay, centered on bombing the Serbian ground forces in Kosovo, often embedded in the Kosovar cities and towns and thus shielded by the civilians whom NATO was attempting to save. Although the U.S. Army deployed air-defense units, artillery, and helicopters as well as infantry and special forces to the borders of Kosovo, the Clinton administration, including the JCS, shared NATO’s reluctance to confront the Serbian army. The aerial rules of engagement, designed to spare civilians as well as pilots, made it unlikely that the Serbs in Kosovo would feel enough pain to abandon the province. Muslim nations demanded action to save the Kosovars. The UN again turned to a reluctant NATO to handle Serbia, which ignored ceasefire initiatives. In October 1998, NATO had approved an air campaign against “Yugoslavia,” but NATO again stalled when Milosevic agreed to negotiate and ordered token reductions of his forces in Kosovo. The war continued, however, and Milosevic danced toward and away from a peace agreement until NATO (with U.S. concurrence) ordered a new air campaign to begin in March 1999. General Clark as SACEUR would execute the plan, but he did not think it would work and requested U.S. Army units for a ground war. Secretary Cohen and the JCS balked, the White House temporized, and the Senate approved only an air campaign by a vote of 58–41. Russia tried to block action in the UN.
In an air campaign (March 24–June 10, 1999) against targets in Kosovo and Serbia proper, a NATO coalition air force tried to duplicate DELIBERATE FORCE, with limited success. The first phase against Serbian forces in Kosovo did little to stop the killing, as the Serbs and KLA grappled among 800,000 terrified Kosovars who had taken flight. The target set shifted to sites inside the rest of Serbia, including Belgrade. Milosevic talked, but still he did not say he would withdraw all of his troops from Kosovo and accept an international military and relief force in the province. He counted on NATO-U.S. disarray on the issue of a ground intervention, fed by bombing errors. NATO air strikes hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by accident, bombed a truck convoy of Kosovar refugees, and killed twenty civilians on a Serbian passenger train. Facing a hostile House of Representatives, which would endorse neither the air campaign nor the use of helicopters, Clinton rejected a British proposal for a ground offensive. NATO had put 25,000 ground forces in Albania and Macedonia, but the U.S. sent only a helicopter gunship battalion to Albania as a token force. The Europeans, however, with Britain and Germany leading, increased the pressure on Milosevic until the Serbs agreed to terms on June 9. NATO and Russian forces flooded into Kosovo as a 48,000-man Kosovo Force (KFOR) that included 8,500 American soldiers and airmen. The Europeans stopped the wars of Yugoslavian dissolution and sent Milosevic and his henchmen to the International Criminal Tribunal for trial for genocide and other crimes against humanity. Casualty-avoidance had postponed this strategic necessity by a decade at the cost of thousands of European lives, and the United States had been among the appeasers.
Air-power enthusiasts found much comfort in the statistics of the Bosnian and Serbia-Kosovo air campaign combined. In seventy-eight flying days, U.S. military aircraft had flown about 38,000 sorties, or 60 percent of all NATO sorties. More than one-third of the sorties had targeted ground targets, which had been pounded with 31,000 pieces of ordnance, 8,000 of which were precision-guided. American aircraft had dropped 80 percent of the PGMs. In all, the American air forces lost two aircraft, compared to thirty-eight in the Gulf War. The technical means of finding targets on the ground grew at an astounding pace; satellites and the JSTARS aircraft could find ground targets with radar, photography, electronic tracking, and thermal searches and provide floods of data that could be processed only by high-speed computers and experienced targeteers. Techno-rapture affected all the services, and Washington believed that it could create strategic influence with precision-guided nonnuclear missiles fired from twenty thousand feet. Perhaps the New Age assumption of safe “push button” warfare had finally arrived.
The Threat of Islamic Terrorists, 1993–2001
The issue of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq by military force also confronted the Clinton administration and produced an even more limited response than the Balkan interventions. After Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989, the pro-Communist regime of Mohammed Najibullah did not survive a new civil war mounted against it by a coalition of anti-Soviet Afghan warlords and jihadis (holy warriors). Najibullah surrendered his government in 1992 to Burhanuddin Rabbani, who represented a loose warlord grouping known in the West as the Northern Alliance. A rival coalition challenged the new government. Its common feature was its roots in the majority Pashtun peoples who dominated the southern and more populated half of Afghanistan. The Pashtun coalition also enjoyed the support of Pakistan, which had given refuge to 3 million Afghan refugees and supplied the anti-Soviet guerrillas. Pakistani strategic preferences, shaped by its ubiquitous Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), saw the Pashtuns as allies against an encircling India and Iran. ISI backed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leading Pashtun-Sunni warlord, but shifted its support in 1992–1996 to a mystical, Islamic fundamentalist movement among the Pashtuns known as Taliban or “students of Islamic knowledge” in Arabic.
Rallied by a fanatical mullah (religious authority) named Mohammed Omar and reinforced by young men indoctrinated in Pakistani madrassas (Islamic study centers) and trained in ISI paramilitary camps, the Taliban had fought the Soviets, Afghan Communists, and the Northern Alliance with increasing viciousness and success until it captured Kabul in 1996. The Taliban controlled all but the northernmost Afghan provinces and a small part of the Pakistan border. It imposed a ruthless theocratic regime based on the mullah’s interpretation of the social codes and religious practices they found in the Koran and sharia (holy law) drawn from it. In Western eyes the Taliban rejected centuries of hard-earned personal rights, women’s liberation, and humane laws. Its religious policies, however, attracted external financial support from Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf States because the Taliban appeared to be an Arab and Sunni challenger to Shi’a Iran, the Great Enemy.
The Taliban continued to enjoy the hospitable sanctuaries and arms aid permitted by Pakistan, ruled after 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf, who had to manage the ISI and maintain the U.S.-Pakistan alliance. The Taliban did indeed need outside help. Its mindless excesses encouraged resistance and international condemnation. Moreover, its rivals remained in control of the north and rallied on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” at least for now. Some 60 percent of Afghans were not Pashtun. They were Hazaras with Persian roots, Turkomens, Tajiks, and Uzbeks with ties to Iran and the former Soviet Islamic republics of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The Northern Alliance had its own heroes of the war against the Soviets. The best known was a Tajik, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Taliban’s Enemy Number One. Since 25 percent of Afghans were Tajiks and Massoud had proven a skilled, resourceful, and dogged leader of the Northern Alliance, he clearly became the center of the anti-Taliban resistance. His sincere patriotism and sympathy for Western humanitarianism also masked the Northern Alliance warlords’ lust for revenge, personal power, looting, and control of smuggling and the opium trade, for growing opium poppies was the heart of Afghan farming.
Although the State Department and CIA area specialists warned about the Taliban’s potential for mischief, the Clinton administration could see no obvious way to subvert the Taliban except by backing the Northern Alliance, which it chose not to do. That the Taliban could be condemned for human rights violations through the UN was easy enough. The difficulty was that a war on the Taliban required political will General Musharraf did not have. The central concern of U.S.-Pakistani relations remained the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and preventing another war with India. These goals required a stable, cooperative Pakistani government, a position that deterred the United States from direct assault on the Taliban.
Instead of worrying about the Taliban-Pakistani alliance, the administration focused on the consequences of the Gulf War and the central fact that a dangerous Saddam Hussein remained in power. Certainly the Iraqi dictator intended to stay in power until he transferred the family-clan tyranny to his sons, Qusay and Uday, murderous megalomaniacs like their father. The central instruments of control were the Baath Party, the security police, and a private army, the Republican Guard. Having lost a conventional war to the United States, Saddam Hussein formed two population-based regional paramilitary forces for local guerrilla-type resistance, the al Quds army and the Saddam Fedayeen (Saddam’s Faithful Warriors), which cowed any insurgency. Within these sacrificial armed mobs, the Republican Guard would defend Baghdad. The other part of Saddam Hussein’s desperate strategy would be the deterrent value and shocking use of chemical, nuclear, and biological materials mounted on missiles or spread by aircraft and other means. Although Iraq faced serious economic sanctions, including a ban on legal oil exports, Saddam intended to develop the impression that he had or would develop WMD capabilities prohibited by the terms of his 1991 surrender. He gambled that the U.S., the UN, and his regional foes would weaken in their resolve to enforce the arms ban and economic embargo, since they had not stopped him from crushing the Kurdish and Shi’a revolts of 1991.
The anti-Saddam coalition, especially the United States, intended to enforce the WMD ban through two groups of technical inspection teams formed by the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). For nine years these teams struggled to identify, assess, and destroy the WMD and industrial facilities that could make nuclear, chemical, and biological warheads and the missiles and shells that carried them. Iraq cooperated only when threatened by force or when it became convinced that it would get some relief from its economic decline. The inspectors found that Iraq had WMD capabilities and had allowed their destruction, but Iraq had also made real and desperate efforts to obtain new WMD and to conceal others. In order to threaten Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, the Iraqis tried to create the illusion of a vast WMD capability. Within this massive hoax Saddam Hussein never quit looking for ways to avoid the WMD ban and create a new WMD force. Exasperated by Saddam’s duplicity, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced that the U.S. would not accept an Iraqi pledge of disarmament unless Saddam surrendered power and a new regime allowed extended, comprehensive inspections inside Iraq. Congress approved of more pressure to remove Saddam Hussein in 1998. The prospect of regime change threw the UN Security Council into disarray. Saddam Hussein intended to leverage the WMD threat into safety from coercion. His fantasies killed him, his sons, and tens of thousands of others.
Only after the Iraq invasion of 2003 did the true nature of Iraq’s WMD program become clearer. The IAEA inspectors, who specialized in nuclear materials, concluded that Iraq had probably destroyed or converted its ability to make nuclear warheads, but that it had the technicians and latent facilities to go nuclear again, although it would have taken five to ten years to do so. The threat was real but not immediate. The United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), investigators of all WMD programs, found compelling physical evidence, verifying a defector’s report in 1995, that Iraq had retained a limited chemical and biological weapons capability, banned by the 1991 terms. In order to make an agreement to sell oil for medicine and food, the Iraqis became more cooperative about inspections of fixed sites, but they also mounted technical equipment on trucks so that these production assets could be moved away from prying eyes. Iraq was also evasive on the issue of surviving missiles and warheads. When the inspectors left Iraq in late 1998, they believed that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons or the capability to make them soon. The status of chemical and biological weapons remained more uncertain, and 2003 inspections by the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) found evidence of these types of WMD and missiles to carry WMD warheads.
The United States regarded Iraq’s disregard for the WMD ban as serious business. It provided experts to the UNSCOM and IAEA teams. It maintained electronic monitoring systems that recorded events from underground to the ionosphere. It maintained its own intelligence sources within Iraq and exchanged information with British intelligence agencies. It built relations with the Kurds, the Shi’a Arab opposition, and Sunni expatriates like Ahmed Chalabi, who ran an exile movement. Sources within the regime provided Chalabi with information that suggested a robust WMD program. The program had an ardent director: Ali Hasan al-Majid al-Tikriti, or “Chemical Ali,” the mass murderer of Kurds and Iranians with poison gases. Saddam Hussein made Chemical Ali the master magician to mislead the IAEA and UNSCOM inspectors. Saddam enhanced his evil image by allowing his intelligence service to attempt to blow up George H.W. Bush during a victory tour to Kuwait in April 1993. Saddam Hussein calculated that he could provoke the United States into enough reaction that it would split the UN coalition and brand the U.S. as too pro-Israel to make it a firm ally of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.
The Clinton administration did indeed conclude that Saddam Hussein needed a lesson in cooperation, and it ordered up its favorite weapon, limited air strikes. After the Bush assassination attempt in June 1993, Clinton authorized the destruction of the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence and police service; twenty-three Navy cruise missiles fired from warships in the Persian Gulf leveled the building at night to avoid civilian casualties. Under more permissive rules of engagement, a U.S. aircraft returned fire on several Iraqi antiaircraft missile batteries. In regional politics, however, the administration still worried about Iran as a military threat, pointed in that direction by its Arab allies. Plagued by many distractions at home and abroad, the administration fell back in line with the Saddam-containers. By 1998, however, terrorist attacks and Iraqi lack of interest in proving its WMD innocence convinced Clinton to execute another aerial punitive expedition on Baghdad. In December 1998, U.S. and British aircraft conducted Operation DESERT FOX, a four-day campaign that sent 650 sorties and 415 cruise missiles at Iraqi headquarters, the air-defense system, weapons storage sites, suspected WMD installations, and military barracks. Persuaded that Iraq would remain disarmed and Saddam chastised, the administration turned to the Kosovo crisis and another new threat, a terrorist bombing campaign against American targets.
Behind the passing storms of civil wars in the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Somalia, came the rising thunder of international, nonstate terrorism. Unlike the European terrorists of the 1980s, murderous romantics left behind by the popular protests of the 1960s and 1970s, the new Arab terrorists had learned their business in the Palestinian uprising, the intifada, in Israel. Others, most notably the Abu Nidal group and Hezbollah, took the war on tourists and commuters on to aircraft and cruise ships. Other targets included officials, military advisers, and public figures. The rise of Arab terrorism represented the wisdom of the defeats in 1973 and 1982 at the hands of the Israeli armed forces and the American victory in the Gulf War. The most prominent American victims were members of the diplomatic service, armed forces, CIA, and other travelers abroad. Except for shocking TV coverage, this war did not engage the American public.
The Clinton administration understood the menace of international terrorism because the Reagan and Bush governments knew the numbers and had passed on the challenge. Between 1968 and October 1980, terrorists made more than 7,000 attacks, 2,700 of which involved Americans, 173 of whom died and 970 of whom were wounded. In 1981 Congress appropriated $40 million to turn diplomatic centers into fortresses. By 1984 the State Department had created a counterterrorism office led by veteran diplomats like Robert B. Oakley and L. Paul Bremer III. The State Department took the initiative in forming a high-level counterterrorism interdepartmental group to coordinate planning to protect Americans abroad and to watch for incoming terrorists. The first assumption was that terrorists could not function without government support. Incidents in the 1980s did reveal the fine hand of Libya, Syria, and Iran, which supported Hezbollah and other Muslim groups that focused on the destruction of Israel and the forced departure of its partner, the United States, from the Middle East. Pro-American regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia also faced a rise of Islamic radicalism. Among the more shadowy groups that joined the government’s watch-list was something called al-Qaeda, or “the base,” which appeared to be organizing in Egypt, Yemen, the Sudan, and Pakistan.
Like other Arab fundamentalists driven from their conservative homelands, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi exile living in Yemen and probably only twenty years old in 1978, found a home in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Wealthy from a family construction business, university-educated as an engineer, neither an Islamic scholar nor a soldier, Osama bin Laden advanced within the Pakistan-based mujahideen support system as a patron of the training camps and madrassas that indoctrinated young Muslims for the jihad. His politics found ideological focus in the Egyptian reactionary radicalism of the Muslim Brotherhood, foes of Egypt’s military regimes of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, reviled allies of Israel and the United States. Bin Laden’s mentors were a Palestinian intellectual, Abdullah Assam, and an Egyptian doctor turned radical Islamicist, Ayman al-Zawahiri. As a leader of the Afghan Arabs, bin Laden drew volunteers to Pakistan to fight the Soviets and developed contacts with jihadis from the United States to the Philippines and throughout the Arab world. He understood electronic communications and banking. At six feet five inches, he also had presence, enhanced by his aesthetic thinness, proper beard, and accompanying glower. He had brains, a cause, and a store of hatreds that made him a formidable foe. He was delighted to be the cheerleader, planner, and banker for any terrorists who would target the United States, the true Satan. He and Zawahiri called their network al-Qaeda, “the base” for war on the Zionists and Arab reactionary regimes. After Azzam died in a mysterious bombing, bin Laden left Pakistan for the Sudan, where he could create a base separate from the Pakistani-Afghan battleground. Until proscribed by Saudi Arabia in 1994, he had access to Islamicists without much interference. He was especially impressed when an expatriate Muslim mullah and a Saudi financier managed to plan and organize a car-bomb attack on the parking garage of New York City’s World Trade Center towers in February 1993. The explosion killed six and hurt a thousand passersby, but the building did not collapse. The subsequent investigation and trial of the Arab-American cell connected the attack to al-Qaeda. Along with the Gulf War, this event convinced bin Laden to move his jihad to the Sudan, a friendly host and far from American influence.
Terrorist groups could adopt al-Qaeda just as it embraced them. Attacks on Americans in Somalia, Aden, and Saudi Arabia occurred between 1992 and 1995 and drew al-Qaeda’s endorsement. In June 1996, a truck bomb and suicide bomber blew up a wing of the Khobar Towers, a U.S. Air Force billet in Dharan, killing nineteen and wounding 372 service personnel, but the sponsor was a radical Saudi group funded by Iran through Hezbollah. Osama bin Laden endorsed the attacks and planned more with direct al-Qaeda participation, designed by his operational terrorist planner, Mohammed Atef, an Egyptian. Although he had made threats against Americans since 1995, bin Laden and four other “directors” of al-Qaeda issued a fatwa that called for a jihad against “the crusader-Zionist alliance” and its Arab collaborators on February 28, 1998. To accent the commitment, al-Qaeda cells in Kenya and Tanzania attacked the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on August 7, 1998, and killed twelve Americans and 212 Africans while wounding hundreds more. The next dramatic attack came two years later, when boat-bombers blew a hole in the hull of the USS Cole, a USN destroyer docked in the harbor of Aden, Yemen. The attack killed seventeen sailors and wounded forty. Osama bin Laden himself had helped with the detailed planning.
The security agencies of the federal government identified Osama bin Laden as a special threat in 1998 and had targeted terrorists in general as a high-priority security issue in Presidential Decision Directive 39 (June 1995). The enormity of stopping terrorists and their bombs from entering any nation (the worst-case event) confounded the best organized, best informed, most alert nations, which the United States was not. Consider the 4,000-mile border with Canada, a cooperative nation. In 2000 alone, the Canada-to-U.S. crossings numbered 489 million travelers, 127 million cars, 11.7 million maritime containers, 11.5 million truck trips, 2.2 million railroad car-crossings, 829,000 airline trips, and 211,000 maritime voyages. The “system” relied on voluntary, peaceful, rapid, and preregistered notification and inspection for economic efficiency, but not security. The best screening could pick up nuclear material, but not other explosives without inspection. Border protection also required close cooperation among the CIA, FBI, Customs Service, State Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Treasury Department, U.S. Coast Guard, Federal Aviation Administration, and Border Patrol as well as state and local authorities. Effective counterterrorism operations—preventing attacks—also required unusual international cooperation and shared national alarm, which the United States, compared with Great Britain and Germany, did not have. The most shocking event of the 1990s inside the United States was the destruction of the Oklahoma City federal building (April 1995) by deranged Americans. Most of the research and planning until 2001 ended at the point where action by law enforcement had to occur. For example, the U.S. Treasury and State Departments knew how terrorists could move and conceal money transfers by electronic means, and the United Nations had prepared a convention signed by forty-one nations (of 189 members) on combating terrorist financing. Only six nations had ratified the treaty by September 2001.
The Clinton administration in 1998 took one major step by moving the midlevel counterterrorism group under the direct control of the National Security Council, which placed its director, Richard Clarke, in close access to the president and the national security adviser. Counterterrorism programs still faced an organizational divide; terrorism abroad was a State Department, CIA, and military concern, but in the U.S., the FBI and Justice Department had the mission. As early as 1996, the Central Intelligence Agency took Osama bin Laden seriously enough to form a bin Laden unit (BLU) within its Counterterrorism Center. The BLU developed a clear picture of Osama bin Laden’s key role in al-Qaeda and tracked him when bin Laden moved back to Afghanistan in 1996 to aid the Taliban and to embed his headquarters in those parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan where the Taliban and ISI could protect him and deter American overt or covert action.
All the plans foundered on the rocks of limited intelligence, uncertain international cooperation, operational complexity like the requirement that bin Laden be taken alive, and U.S. military skepticism. The CIA director, George Tenet, saw more risks than he considered bearable. NSC adviser Sandy Berger and Tenet reviewed the plans and doubted their success. Proposals to subcontract bin Laden’s capture to the Saudis, the Taliban, and the Pakistanis went nowhere. The Nairobi-Dar es Salaam bombings made a direct attack on bin Laden, including his death, more acceptable. The retaliation Clinton approved, however, was the usual token indirect attack on places, in this case an al-Qaeda camp complex in Afghanistan and possible WMD sites (chemicals) in the Sudan. On August 20, 1998, Navy ships in the Arabian Sea fired a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles at these targets, destroying them and killing perhaps twenty to thirty relative innocents. Following good evasion procedures, the al-Qaeda leadership had departed for some other site and kept moving throughout Afghanistan, while Osama bin Laden used electronic means to order more attacks, thus allowing the National Security Agency to track his movements. The CIA and now the Defense Department kept planning, but none of the plans persuaded the senior responsible officials to strike or enlisted foreign allies. The planning did, however, link the future of the Taliban to the destruction of al-Qaeda, a sound analysis but one fraught with greater international complications, such as relations with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The CIA looked to the Northern Alliance as a potential source of operatives who could get inside al-Qaeda and kill bin Laden, an act Clinton approved in December 1998. In the meantime, the staff of Central Command, headed by Marine General Anthony Zinni, planned several variants of a heliborne special operations raid, but it could not station helicopters and special operations aircraft close enough to al-Qaeda’s base network in southern Afghanistan without using Pakistani bases. More missile strikes seemed unrealistic since Osama bin Laden moved often; and when he stopped, it was in heavily populated cities like Kandahar. Still a low-success option, the CIA at least established an operational base in Uzbekistan and convinced Special Operations Command and Central Command to think about contacts with the Northern Alliance, especially Ahmad Shah Massoud, who wanted to fight the Taliban but regarded the plans to kill or capture bin Laden as fanciful. The contingency planning continued, a worthwhile educational exercise, but bin Laden as a man and al-Qaeda as a terrorist confederation remained at large and harder to track since an American newspaper revealed that intelligence agencies could trace his cell-phone calls.
In the fall of 2000, the United States had survived a confusing presidential election campaign that placed the governor of Texas, George W. Bush, the son of the former president, in the White House. The Electoral College system and a series of judicial decisions on the outcome of Florida’s vote-counting ensured Bush’s tainted victory. The president-elect, a reformed drinker and born-again Christian, brought little international experience to his new office. From college at Yale and Harvard Business School through his experience as an Air National Guard pilot-lieutenant through his undistinguished business and sports ventures, Bush had not absorbed his father’s international experience and Washington bureaucratic skills. When he made Donald Rumsfeld secretary of defense and Colin Powell secretary of state, he probably thought he had solved that problem. His national security adviser, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, had more university time than Washington experience, and her expertise was Russian security issues. The emerging center of power in Washington became Vice President Dick Cheney, the former White House chief of staff and secretary of defense. Cheney ensured that his loyalists, who shared his urge to finish off Saddam Hussein, filled key positions in the White House, at the State Department, and in the Pentagon. In January 2001, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger counseled the Bush team on the terrorist threat with an emphasis on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Although the FBI and other police agencies had foiled some inept attempts to make the Millennium a terrorist event, the FBI believed that Arab terrorists had created operational units within the United States. The available evidence suggested terrorist planning for some sort of direct attack within the United States. Berger, supported by Richard Clarke, made one point repeatedly: The United States was at war with a new and more deadly breed of Arab terrorists who would stop at nothing to attack the American homeland and thus force the United States out of the Muslim world. The Clinton administration had done little to impress Arab and Iranian terrorists with its retaliatory will. No one knew where al-Qaeda would strike next, but strike it would.