US SPECIAL OPERATIONS: THE BALKANS I

Over the course of the 1990s, Yugoslavia fragmented in a decade-long orgy of bloodletting that became known as the Balkans conflict. The disintegration began as part of the cascading breakup of the Soviet Union and its satellites and erupted into a murderous ethnic war in 1992, after Bosnia’s Muslim and Croat majority voted to secede from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation. For several years the United States stood aside, hoping that Europe would find a way to stop the hemorrhage. Diplomatic overtures and arm-twisting by NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) failed, while the killing of 250,000 of Bosnia’s population of three million proceeded apace.

The so-called ethnic cleansing was essentially complete by the time of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. The attempt to enforce the accords and prevent further killing fell to the Dayton Implementation Force (IFOR), composed of 60,000 NATO-led troops.

The U.S. special operations component of IFOR was led by Col. Geoffrey Lambert with Lt. Col. Charlie Cleveland as his deputy. Lambert had commanded the 10th Special Forces Group, which is assigned to operate in Europe, since the fall of 1994, and Cleveland was its executive officer. The two men had served together in 7th Group in Panama in operations Just Cause and Promote Liberty in 1989–90. Those who knew Lambert knew that the former Ranger was not the type to command from the rear. The towering redhead was going to be in the thick of the action.

A native of Kansas, Lambert had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1973 and had then hopped back and forth between the Rangers and the Special Forces. In his early years, he had led a long-range reconnaissance patrol platoon, a rifle platoon, and a detachment in the Rangers, commanded a Special Forces ODA, returned to the Rangers for three more assignments, and then rejoined the Special Forces in time for Just Cause.

Lambert and Cleveland flew into Sarajevo from Italy on December 8, 1995, six days before the formal signing of the Dayton accords in Paris. In Bosnia, acceptance of the accords was far from universal. Operation Joint Endeavor was the largest mission NATO had ever undertaken, and it was a muscular peace-enforcement, not merely a peace-keeping attempt. As part of the advance party, Lambert and Cleveland’s job was to pave the way for the rest of the IFOR and its British commander, who would arrive shortly. Special Forces teams were to fan out all over the country as liaisons among the member countries to provide a common communications network. Later, the teams became observers and, with their experience and language skills, waded into the ravaged and deeply divided communities to develop contacts, gauge the public mood, and identify the various power brokers, from priests to hoodlums, and persons of influence. Once they had constructed a map of the society they worked those channels to resolve problems at local, regional, and national levels.

The people of Sarajevo began begging the world for help when their picturesque and ancient city came under siege in 1992. Ultra-nationalist Serbs had taken over the surrounding mountains and relentlessly shelled the city, which had been a vibrant, multiethnic cultural center since the Middle Ages. It had hosted the winter Olympics in 1984 and charmed the world with its attractions, but that did not bring international help when the bombardment and slow destruction of the city began. The Serbs’ heavy artillery reduced many buildings to husks, damaged power plants, and left the city dependent on generators and more sporadic fuel supplies.

Senad Pecanin was the editor of Sarajevo’s newsweekly, the most balanced and trenchant publication in the country. A Muslim who cherished his city and its secular, tolerant tradition, he had dared to publish accounts of Muslim atrocities as well as Serbs’. After his parents’ apartment was riddled with bullets, he and his wife Belma, a stunning brunette with the looks and grace of a 1940s movie star, decided to send their parents abroad. As the death toll mounted Senad persuaded her to take their newborn son and leave too. He might not be able to save his city, but he could keep putting out the magazine, if he could only keep the generator for the printing press running. Thugs broke into his office and held a gun to his head to demand that he stop publishing. The U.S. embassy tried to ward off attacks by publicly voicing its support for the magazine.

Senad, a gentle giant in his mid-thirties, began losing his hair from the tremendous stress. He could not stop the country’s descent into barbarism, but he vowed that he would always walk, and never run, through the infamous avenue in the city called Sniper Alley, the deadly shooting gallery where so many Sarajevans bled to death. Snipers in the mountains would take aim at ordinary people crossing this exposed stretch of city blocks. It was the only route to the dwindling supplies of water. Terrified men, women, and children would dodge, weave, and dash, and try all sorts of stratagems to run the gauntlet unscathed. Senad always walked. He and his magazine had become a symbol, and this was one way he could give his countrymen heart. He was a huge target, a bear of a man, but he would never give the Serb snipers the satisfaction of seeing him run.

The sniper problem was breaking the spirit of the Sarajevans. It had become emblematic of the Serbs’ utter disregard for the conventional laws of land warfare. Snipers would sit in their nests high in the hills and cold-bloodedly pick off civilians, not caring that the world’s television cameras broadcast their atrocities.

The special operations compound in the Serb quarter of Sarajevo was also targeted; it had been sniped at twenty-four times. The gunmen fired rifle grenades at it and its vehicles day and night. The peacekeepers blacked out their building at night and ringed it with trucks, to no avail. The sniping went on. One soldier was shot through the hand, another one grazed on the neck. The snipers also shot holes into military planes as they landed at the airfield.

Under the Dayton accord, all the parties had agreed to stop shooting. Long-barreled rifles were explicitly banned, yet the Serbian snipers kept on. Colonel Lambert came up with an idea and explained it to his counterparts from the British and French special forces, who were working together in Europe’s first-ever combined joint special operations task force, led by a British general with Lambert as the deputy. The task force decided to give Lambert’s plan a try. He arranged for a Q–36 radar to be brought to the airfield. Although made for homing in on artillery rounds, it could also spot much smaller rifle rounds. Every time the planes landed, the radar locked on to the muzzle flashes to fix the snipers’ location. Lambert also handed out night-vision goggles to British sentries on rooftop observation posts. French special operators stole out with night-capable cameras and took pictures of the muzzle flashes of the snipers in the hills and used the photos to pinpoint the coordinates of the sniper nests. They were now ready for the next Serb shooter.

One night, the French special operators shot the man who was sniping at the airfield, riddling his body with thirty-seven bullets. The corpse was then taken to the Serbian police station. British soldiers were assigned to this sector, so they delivered the body and the message. They pointed out that the Serbs had agreed to abide by the terms of the accord, which included no more shooting and no long-barreled guns. The Serbs were furious. The Serbs claimed that the dead man was a guard at a factory, but the soldiers showed them the photographic and radar evidence they had gathered, and then calmly presented their ultimatum.

It was the Serbs’ duty as policemen to protect this sector of Sarajevo, yet there were Serb snipers ringing the city and shooting at people daily. The peacekeepers asked that policemen assume their responsibility to address this matter. The British expressed regret for the killing of the sniper, but they said that more of them could be killed if the sniping did not stop. They said they had the imagery and the coordinates for all the sniper nests in the mountains and the high-rise buildings around Sarajevo. “We’re going to let you handle this, because we know you can,” the British commander told the Serbs.

The plan worked. The peacekeepers did not have to kill one more Serb sniper, but there still were disgruntled Serbs. Whether an act of retribution or another random and senseless act, Lambert’s caravan was hit soon after this showdown. He was not riding in the same vehicle he normally used, however, but in the car in front. His radio telephone operator was in the seat usually occupied by Lambert, but was shorter than Lambert and so the bullet just grazed him as it passed through the car’s windshield. For his trouble, he received a Purple Heart for being wounded in action, and his commander’s gratitude for having taken a bullet meant for him.

At the same time that the counter-sniping campaign was unfolding, Lambert launched Operation Teddy Bear. The British thought both the name and the concept were most unsoldierly and refused to have anything to do with it. Someone had donated 1,000 stuffed teddy bears to IFOR, so Lambert decided to hand them out to all the Serbian children in the neighborhood. He put Lt. Col. Charlie Cleveland in charge of it. Special Forces soldiers walked the streets with teddy bears, giving them out to any children they saw. They went without helmets or body armor to show solidarity with the civilians, who of course had no such protection either. They wanted to show hostile Serbs that, while they would not tolerate the sniping, they had no animus toward the population. Stopping the violence was only half the job; they had to find a way to get these people to live together again.

Senad Pecanin now had some allies willing to walk the streets and try to revive hope in his beleaguered and beloved city. The Special Forces teams rented houses and lived among the population in the country’s principal cities and towns. They met with church leaders, businessmen, political and militia leaders, and even crime bosses. They fed all the information into their database, and each time the fragile peace was disrupted by a killing, a violent mob, an unfounded rumor, or a misstep by the peacekeepers, they would work their contacts to try to calm the situation and persuade the influential locals to step up to remedy the problem. These networks also yielded valuable information about the war’s atrocities and who had committed them. In a separate operation, secret units of Special Forces and others were tasked in mid-1997 with hunting down the PIFWCs, as the seventy-four “persons indicted for war crimes” were known, to be brought before the international war crimes tribunal that was eventually convened by the UN Security Council at the Hague.11

Lambert remained engaged with the Balkans’ for the rest of the decade. After leading the special operations element of IFOR, he commanded all U.S. special operations forces in Europe. That job came with a promotion to brigadier general and his first general’s star. Cleveland spent the next four years coming and going from the Balkans as well. In 1996, he served simultaneously as deputy commander of the combined joint special operations task force and 10th Group. In 1997–98, he headed the Joint Commission of Observers in Bosnia. Tenth Group’s 3rd Battalion, which he commanded, supplied most of the commission’s observers. Other Special Forces groups also contributed some of the 22 total ODAs to assist the non-European peacekeeping troops: 1st Group teamed up with Malaysians and 5th Group with Pakistani and Arab contingents.

Cleveland’s Alpha Company commander, Major Ken Tovo, was in charge of the American sector observers. From the American base in Tuzla, Bosnia, called Task Force Eagle, he helped his teams navigate some of Bosnia’s most neuralgic hotspots. Brcko was the center of a major tug of war between the ethnic factions: as arbitrators agonized over its fate, ODA 076 lived in the city to monitor and manage its constantly brewing strife. The triumphs were few and hard-won and sometimes laced with bitterness, as in Srebrenica, the city whose massacre epitomized the conflict’s brutality. There, as an elected Muslim city council gingerly moved to take office, they and peacekeepers were attacked and a helicopter crashed. The ODA there functioned as a quick-reaction and first aid force, as well as the best pipeline of information going out to Tovo and the rest of the peacekeeping commanders. Tovo came back for another tour as aide to the conventional American commander in 1998–99, as Bosnia gained a semblance of stability while Kosovo took its place as the new killing ground.

As the head of all the observer teams in Bosnia, Cleveland frequently visited them in their respective cities or towns while his staff at the battalion headquarters in Sarajevo analyzed and updated the massive databases that the teams collected. Out driving one day, Cleveland thought about how far they, and the country, had come. He recalled his first outing in the war-torn land in December 1995. He and a few staff soldiers had found themselves in a mountain tunnel blocked with vehicles. It was a dark, cold winter night and none of the locals had any idea who they were. His logistics officer had blanched when Cleveland asked if he had a rifle, afraid that his boss planned to go up against several hundred people. The handful of Croatian soldiers they had encountered let them pass without a fight, however. The logistician would not have been comforted had he known that, a few years before, Cleveland had blithely jumped into a van and driven, alone, to a camp of Panamanian insurgents to talk them into surrendering.

Even two years later, Bosnia’s peace was still an uneasy one, to be sure. One of the observer team’s houses had been attacked during a riot in Brcko in the summer of 1997, and one of the teams had been stoned recently when they rescued some Croats from a Serbian mob in Derventa. But despite occasional flare-ups, the Special Forces network did succeed in deterring violence, heading off confrontations, and working out disputes before they erupted into fights. This low-key, low-visibility job was tailor-made for Special Forces. They had the training and the confidence to circulate in the communities that few other soldiers had. The observers wore uniforms but no rank insignia and tucked pistols under their jerseys, rather than walking around bristling with weapons that would scare the civilians. They had to gain the trust of the locals to do their job; exposing themselves to some risk was part of the bargain.

The Balkans taught the Special Forces a lot of lessons about how to build credibility, defuse a deliberately orchestrated demonstration, and win the confidence of the clergy. This environment was neither war nor peace: the methods of the regular soldier wouldn’t work, and civilians tended to lack the necessary influence. The Special Forces could work in these gray situations to try to jumpstart the society’s own governing structures. For Cleveland it was something of a deja-vu experience; he had sent teams into remote towns in the months after the Panama intervention to mend the factionalized country, which had been a peaceful democracy for the past eight years. Like many success stories, it had gone largely unheralded. In the Balkans he and his men greatly refined this basic approach by applying social science tools. They constructed matrices identifying persons of influence in eight different spheres ranging from politics to business to religion and even crime, cross-categorized with the regional and ethnic scope of his reach. They developed a very precise and useful map of a most complex society.

Lt. Col. Cleveland’s former comrade from the Panama days, Kevin Higgins, was not surprised that his friend managed to juggle all these jobs in the middle of the festering Balkans mess, the longest-lasting crisis of the 1990s and one of the largest Special Forces deployments in terms of numbers of personnel deployed. Higgins had watched Cleveland dream up plans and organizations from scratch in Panama and Bolivia. Higgins compared him to the type of individual profiled in historian Daniel Boorstin’s book The Creators, someone who is endowed with the fresh perception and imagination that is the artist’s hallmark. “Many SF men could follow along and execute an already established mission quite well,” said Higgins, “but Charlie would be the guy most likely to have thought of it in the first place. When we were staring at a blank piece of paper, he would figure out what to do.” After leaving the Balkans, Cleveland went to a mandatory joint assignment at the Pentagon overseeing Special Forces personnel matters. Chris Conner worked with him and recalled him being there at eight or nine o’clock at night, trying to find the right man for the slot. He never wanted to assign a man to a job he didn’t want or wasn’t suited for. After a year at the army war college, Cleveland was promoted to full colonel and, on a high-mountain summer day in 2001, he took command of 10th Group at Fort Carson. The Balkans’ ever-brewing troubles still were not over.

The Dayton Accords had ended the fighting but also essentially rewarded the aggressors by permitting them to keep territory they had “cleansed” of unwanted ethnic groups. The political will had been lacking in the American and European capitals to enforce a return to the status quo ante. That lesson was not lost on the Serbian leadership, which wagered that the same methods could be used to clear ethnic Albanians out of the province of Kosovo, even though they comprised 90 percent of its population.

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