US SPECIAL OPERATIONS: THE BALKANS II

Serbian Army in Kosovo & Metohija

Kosovo had lived an uneasy existence in the fraying Yugoslav federation since Belgrade revoked its autonomy in 1990. In mid-1998, the Serbs began using police raids, artillery and helicopter attacks, and executions to push hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians out of the province and into neighboring Macedonia and Albania. Another fruitless chapter of diplomacy and saber-rattling ensued. NATO fighter jets conducted exercises and Marines were moved into nearby countries, and NATO approved air strikes but they were not launched. For months Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic toyed with international negotiators and ignored their ultimatums. By the time NATO issued its final deadline there were 11,000 dead and a million refugees.

Finally, in the spring of 1999, U.S. and European leaders decided to employ force. They were haunted by having stood aside so long in Bosnia, and history was repeating itself in Kosovo. NATO began a limited air bombing campaign and escalated it until Milosevic acquiesced, seventy-eight days later, in June 1999. Fifty thousand peacekeeping troops moved in under United Nations auspices to stop further violence and to keep the conflict from destablizing the neighboring countries, especially Macedonia, where ethnic frictions were mounting. Kosovar Albanians were rumored to be sending arms and men across the border to their ethnic kin. The Special Forces played much the same role as they had in Bosnia, moving around in teams to gather information, win friends and influence people, and keep tabs on the troublemakers.

The accord reached on Kosovo was a bare bones affair with no road map for resolving the status of the province, the return of refugees, or any other core issues. This may have been the key lesson of the decade’s “humanitarian interventions”: they were always too little, too late. The impulse to save lives was laudable, even if it was galvanized by television cameras broadcasting scenes of dying or starving people, but it did not constitute policy. Acknowledging the suffering did not suffice as a diagnosis of its cause or what would be required to remedy it. The application of military power in the absence of an accurate diagnosis and adequate solution was bound to result in confusion and impotence or, at worst, tragedy and failure.

The United States and the United Nations had pulled out of Somalia entirely by 1995, and the U.S. defense secretary had resigned, but that lesson had not been learned. Other humanitarian interventions were attempted nonetheless, without much greater success. U.S. troops were used to restore Haiti’s elected president to office, but the overriding goal was a casualty-free short-term occupation rather than lasting governability. Special Forces ODAs from 3rd Group were sent all over the country but were withdrawn before they had a chance to cement their progress. The Balkans experience combined ineffective diplomacy with halting interventionism that left the majority of victims displaced, key war criminals at large, a lingering international constabulary, and no clear end in sight a decade later.

A road map for Kosovo would have helped everyone involved, but the Special Forces were better prepared than most to deal with such murky situations. Kosovo’s conflict featured unconventional tactics, a separatist guerrilla army, a popular revolt, and nationalist and regional dimensions—a stew of complexities. As part of the UN mission, the ODAs worked to disarm the belligerents, protect the civilians, and keep ethnic strife from breaking out again or spilling over the borders.

Although 10th Group provided the lion’s share of Special Forces manpower to the Balkans effort, 5th Group lent its expertise at various junctures to work with Bosnian Muslims, Arab countries who provided peacekeepers, and the Kosovar Albanians, who were also Muslim. Alan Johnson had been in 5th Group’s first deployment to the Balkans in 1994, when a half-dozen Special Forces soldiers were sent to Bosnia. He spent a bleak Christmas there, another one away from home. His split team was assigned to gather information on the warring parties and to advise and assist the commanders of a Pakistani battalion, which was part of the earliest, fledgling, and ultimately unsuccessful United Nations effort to help shield Muslims in five “safe havens” from the Serbian attacks. The massacre of 7,000 men and boys in one of the safe havens, Srebrenica, in July 1995 finally jolted the United States into concerted diplomatic action that led to the Dayton Peace Accords.

For the rest of ODA 563, the team’s deployment to the Balkans in the summer of 1999 was an entirely new culture and experience. Even the physical environment—wooded, mountainous, and temperate—was a sharp contrast to the desert or subtropical regions where it usually deployed. A handful of teams from 5th Group was sent there to work with the Arab members of the UN peacekeeping force UNMIK and to serve as a liaison between those countries and American forces. Randy and Alan’s team worked with the United Arab Emirates and the Jordanians. The teams were also to use their cultural skills and understanding of Muslim norms to engage the Kosovar Albanians. The Kosovar Liberation Army had agreed to disband and assume the role of a domestic police force, but some of its members were reportedly helping foment irredentist sentiments across borders. Macedonia looked unstable, perhaps the next Balkan domino to descend into bloodshed and fragmentation.

Mule trains had been bringing in arms from Albania, across the mountains that formed the western border, from the bottomless cache of the Soviet-backed regime that had collapsed almost two years earlier. On the southern side of Kosovo, arms were being funneled across the border into Macedonia to arm ethnic Albanians there. One of ODA 563’s jobs was to help interdict these arms flows and uncover weapons caches hidden in the mountains.

The longitude and latitude might have been new, but Rawhide knew just the solution to deal with this terrain. He had used pack horses and mule trains for years in his family’s outfitting business. For years he, his father, and his cousins had led elk hunts in the mountains outside Cody. They did everything for the city slickers who came to bag big game: tracked the animals, set up camp, cooked the meals, and packed the gear. After the paying customers got their elk, they were free to get theirs. The cowboy life was where Rawhide started, and where he intended to end up one day.

By sheer luck, Rawhide’s team had been working with horses over the past year at Fort Campbell. ODA 563 and a few others had updated the field manual on pack animals and practiced packing techniques. Some people had criticized their little project as a lark and a waste of time. The command had disagreed and dipped into the discretionary funds so the team could train on horse-related skills at the post’s stables and local facilities. The men had argued that one never knew what kind of techniques might be needed in the Third World—or even in Europe, as it turned out.

In Kosovo, ODA 563 used pack horses so they could stay in the mountains for days at a time, running continuous interdiction operations. It also solved the problem of the Arab partners’ unwillingness to hump 100-pound packs. Their allies from the United Arab Emirates had never been in the mountains, so the team showed them how to use and care for the horses, even how to shoe them, and how to navigate and camp in the terrain. The team scored numerous successes against the arms smuggling, turning up caches and stopping mule trains loaded with Soviet-made AK–47s, pistols, and ammunition from Albanian stocks.

One day, the communications sergeant, Mark Reynolds, was tinkering with his SATCOM radio and antenna at their base camp in the mountains. The faint sound of a motor’s whine made him prick up his ears.

“Did you hear that?” he asked Alan.

“No, what?” Alan said.

“I think a helo just went down. Sounded like a Kiowa.”

Reynolds was well suited for the communications job; he had extraordinary hearing and an analytical mind, and paid attention to details. His guess was confirmed a few minutes later, when the pilot’s distress call came over the radio. Realizing that they were the only soldiers in the area and that it would be difficult for a heliborne search-andrescue team to spot the pilots in the heavily wooded mountains, Mark, Alan, and a couple of other sergeants set off to search for them. Mark’s sharp ears and keen sense of direction led them to the site. The pilot and co-pilot were uninjured, but their little Kiowa scout craft was wrecked. They walked down the mountain to where the medic, Matt Nittler, and a few men were standing by as a quick-reaction force. They drove the pilots back to their headquarters at Camp Bondsteel, the American base for the peacekeeping operation.

The team’s orders were issued from Bondsteel, as were its supplies, but otherwise ODA 563 stayed out roaming around. It was assigned with its Jordanian and UAE partners to search an area surrounding Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, that contained seventeen villages. ODA 563 knew the rules when it came to dealing with Muslim families: one dealt with the men, not the women. If the head of the house was not there, the sons, no matter whether they were the youngest people present, were the ones to talk to.

The armed resistance, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), had not been keen to give up its guns, despite the formal agreement to do so. The Kosovars were still smuggling guns in because they believed they would have to fight the Serbs again, and many of them remained committed to the cause of independence. They would not give up their goal of seceding from Belgrade, by force if necessary. A referendum on Kosovo’s status had been promised but no date set. From the standpoint of the international community, independence in the short term would provoke Serbian violence anew and send the Russians into orbit, as they saw ominous parallels between the Kosovo experience and their own breakaway Chechen republic. Those were the geopolitical realities—but on the ground the Special Forces were trying to stabilize the country one village at a time.

The village searches were tricky affairs. There was a good chance that the teams might stumble on dedicated KLA fighters who would shoot rather than surrender their arms. The population was not neutral; they were generally ardent supporters of their militia. The Serbs, for their part, had left booby-trapped buildings everywhere and were still ambushing people in the countryside and near the borders. Randy and Alan, both experienced in close-quarters tactics, knew they had to be executed precisely to avoid injury. They meticulously planned every operation and made sure each man knew his part. Everyone had to stay alert for that hair-thin wire attached to a grenade behind the door, a stack of strategically placed debris blocking their path, and a thousand other things. The vehicle was checked every single time before they got into it. One moment of casual inattention was all it took to end up dead.

Doc Nittler, the medic, was compact and extremely agile. His teammates called him “carni” because he could do flips and walk on his hands like a carnival entertainer. That made him the obvious candidate to be heaved into crawlspaces, attics, and barn lofts as the team searched the villages and countryside of Kosovo. It was a dangerous job, because an armed man lying in wait would likely have his gun trained on the opening, watching for someone to come through. In the close-quarter training, the instructors call this the “fatal funnel” because the target is perfectly silhouetted by the light behind him. This was Nittler’s lot, time and again. They were not at war and there were civilians everywhere, so the men could not shoot before entering or throw a smoke grenade inside. They just tossed Doc into the void, to land and react as best he could. Day by day the entire team became more proficient. They would move quickly and quietly into a room or building, covering each other from every angle, and search their pre-determined quadrants with textbook precision. They did so well that the soldiers were handed another slice of territory as soon as they finished the first seventeen towns.

The extensive close-quarters searches welded the team into a finetuned machine as few other assignments could. The men learned to read each other’s facial expressions and body language, making speech and the standard hand signals almost superfluous. Their skills kept getting better, team members bonded and the esprit de corps solidified. This was the epitome of what an ODA should be, and Randy and Alan were immensely gratified to see how well their mix of new and old blood, intellectual and instinctual types, acrobats like Doc and giants like Alan and Roderick Robinson, had come together. Their second communications sergeant, in addition to Mark, was a smart newcomer named Rich Davis. A few months before he had walked into Alan’s office and announced that he’d been assigned to his team. “Don’t I know you?” Alan asked, then recalled that he had encouraged Davis to try out for the Special Forces when he was a young soldier in the 101st Airborne Division. A friend had asked Alan to talk to Davis about the Special Forces, and here he was, three years later, on Alan’s team. Al had been mentored the same way. This is the most successful means of recruiting Special Forces candidates, because the soldiers themselves can often spot who has the right traits to fit in. Davis was one of them.

The team was humming, but Randy found Kosovo to be the most depressing place he’d ever been. The wholesale extermination of civilians had no possible justification. People had been driven from their homes and everything they owned was burned and pillaged. One day, as he watched from the road, a woman tilling a field was killed when her hoe struck a mine. It was a senseless, random death, which he had been powerless to prevent, but he felt terrible nonetheless. He knew many places where the law of the gun prevailed—much of the world, in fact—and he knew the Arab world’s strongmen, the chaos of Africa, but nothing so troubled him as this place. Education and wealth and “civilization” had not impeded this country’s descent into violence in the least. The Albanians and Serbs were still teaching their children to hate each other just because they were different, breeding the next generation’s war as he watched. If this could happen in Europe, he wondered, could it happen at home? What would it be like if war came to America?

Randy, Alan, and the rest of ODA 563 were at their compound on the army base, Camp Bondsteel, outside Pristina when they heard the news. It was mid-afternoon on September 11. Alan was outside with other team members, preparing their vehicles for a border patrol. Someone called him to come into the team’s operations center, where CNN was always on. He watched as the second plane hit the World Trade Center in New York City. Randy, who had been asleep on his cot, resting for the night shift, was awakened. Alan, who had been reading up on Al Qaeda since his millennium mission, instantly guessed that it was them and his team would be going after the perpetrators. He told the sergeants to pack their gear. Within twenty-four hours, while they were still in Kosovo, ODA 563 had initiated its mission planning process, set up target folders, and drafted concepts for operations. The way Special Forces works, the team with the best plan gets the job, and 563 intended to be ready. It seemed to Randy that everything in his life had been a preparation for this moment. It was the first time the United States had been directly attacked in almost sixty years, and he was sure that the country would retaliate, and soon. They would be called on to defend their country, and this was the war they would tell their grandchildren about.

Back at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Major General Geoffrey Lambert had taken the standard bearing the colors of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command from his predecessor four days earlier, on September 7, at a ceremony on the parade ground of Meadows Memorial Plaza. His new job came with a second star. Standing in front of a towering sculpture of a Special Forces soldier known as Bronze Bruce, the first Vietnam memorial, Lambert made a short and simple speech. “It’s great to be home,” he said. He thanked the soldiers from all seven of the Special Forces groups gathered for their work in the “dark, wet, and cold, in strange and lonely far-off places.”

They had no idea where he was about to send them, and neither did he. But Lambert had more than a premonition. All summer long he had been reading top-secret intelligence reports and intercepts that convinced him and his colleagues that Al Qaeda was going to strike somewhere, soon. For the past two years, he had been the director of operations, plans, and strategy at the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, where terrorism was the number-one topic that he woke up to and went to sleep with every day. They “war-gamed” the most likely scenarios, the worst scenarios, and what they might do to stop them. They knew an attack was imminent—there was just too much chatter on the bad guys’ networks. But they did not know where and they did not know when.

On the morning of September 11, Gen. Lambert was holding his first staff meeting at his headquarters in the three-story Robert L. McClure building on Desert Storm Drive just off Yadkin Avenue. An aide came in and said there was something on television that he should see. Lambert stepped out of the meeting, saw the smoke billowing from the first World Trade Center tower, and said simply, “They got us.” He stepped back into his meeting and announced to the colonels and majors and captains assembled in the conference room: “We just got hit.”

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