U.S. Army General Wesley K. Clark became SACEUR in July 1997, and almost immediately afterward the NATO Summit at Madrid invited three nations - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - to begin accession talks for membership in the Alliance. Representatives of the three invited countries then came to SHAPE for initial planning and preparation, and in March 1999 the three nations joined Allied Command Europe with an impressive ceremony held at SHAPE.
SACEUR Clark briefing reporters at NATO Headquarters durign the Kosovo Air Campaign
Soon afterward NATO found itself involved in its first actual conflict in support of the international community's efforts to stop the harsh oppression of ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo. NATO's attention had already turned to Kosovo in 1998, after fighting broke out there and a humanitarian crisis began. To support the diplomatic efforts of the international community to end the violence, the Alliance developed a number of possible military options involving various types of air operations.
NATO's threat to carry out such operations, coupled with the personal diplomacy of Gen. Clark and other senior alliance officials, succeeded in forcing Yugoslav President Milosevic to back down in October 1998 and withdraw large numbers of Serbian security forces from Kosovo. Afterward NATO reconnaissance aircraft monitored the situation while a NATO ground force stood ready to assist an international verification mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) inside Kosovo.
But this respite proved short-lived; fighting again flared up in January 1999 and the Serbs responded with harsh measures and began bringing reinforcements into Kosovo in violation of the October agreements. A renewed threat of NATO air strikes succeeded in bringing the conflict parties to the negotiating table at Rambouillet, France, in February and March 1999, but only the Kosovar Albanians were willing to sign the proposed peace agreement.
Once the talks collapsed, Serb security forces stepped up the intensity of their operations against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes. The OSCE observers withdrew from Kosovo, and President Milosevic rejected final attempts at mediation, so on 23 March 1999 NATO began limited air strikes to force him to accept the international community's demands. Milosevic responded by greatly expanding his on-going programme of ethnic expulsions in Kosovo, and by the end of May 1999 more than 800,000 Kosovar Albanians had been forced flee into neighbouring states and another 580,000 were estimated to be homeless inside Kosovo.
To deal with this immense humanitarian crisis, NATO acted quickly to build refugee camps and emergency feeding stations while moving large amounts of humanitarian aid to those in need.
The air campaign began with attacks on Yugoslavia's air defences and then gradually escalated to other military-related targets to increase the pressure on President Milosevic. Precision-guided munitions were used extensively, and all possible efforts were made to avoid civilian casualties. Nevertheless some unfortunate incidents did occur, costing a number of civilian lives.
Gen. Clark's highest priority was to strike the Serb forces carrying out ethnic expulsions in Kosovo, but this was not easy because these forces quickly ceased exposing themselves to NATO air power.
Despite some differences in outlook among the member nations, NATO maintained a high degree of solidarity throughout the conflict, and it was this solidarity, along with the continuing pressure of the air campaign, that finally convinced President Milosevic to give in to the demands of the international community. On June 9, 1999 Serb and NATO officers signed an agreement for the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo and the entry of an international NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) into the province.
The following day NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana announced the suspension of NATO's air campaign. In 78 days of operations, NATO aircraft flew more than 38,000 sorties, of which more than 10,000 were strike sorties, with the remarkable record of no combat fatalities and only two aircraft lost to hostile fire.
KFOR entered Kosovo on June 12, 1999 and immediately set about restoring law and order in the province while large numbers of refugees began returning home. Violence has declined substantially since KFOR's arrival, but unfortunately ethnic tensions still remain high and KFOR has had to devote considerable effort to protecting the remaining Serbs in the province. Another continuing problem is unrest on Kosovo's borders. Much remains to be done in Kosovo, but KFOR is providing the necessary stability that enables the international community to assist in rebuilding the province.