Updated: 06-Aug-2001 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 49 - No. 2
Summer 2001
p. 26-27

Increasing Italy's input

Carlo Scognamiglio-Pasini (1) explains how and why Italy has expanded its role in the NATO-led Balkan peacekeeping operations.

On target: Italy has increased its contribution to the NATO-led peacekeeping operations in the Balkans to match that of France and the United Kingdom
( © NATO - 82Kb)

In the five-and-a-half years since NATO troops first deployed in the Balkans, the number of Italians on the ground, both in absolute and proportional terms, has been steadily rising. Indeed, Italy is now contributing as many troops to the NATO-led peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) and Kosovo as France and the United Kingdom. This is the result of a conscious policy to take on a greater role in a region in which Rome considers its national interest to be at stake.

Sharing the Adriatic Sea with Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia, Italy is an obvious magnet for refugees, many of whom have grown up watching Italian television, dreaming of Italy and speaking Italian. These links are deep and enduring, and help explain why many ordinary Italian citizens have, in recent years, come forward as aid workers, helping provide humanitarian assistance during war and later helping rebuild shattered societies.

Italian peacekeepers first deployed on the ground in the Balkans with the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) to Bosnia in December 1995. They were not involved in UNPROFOR during the Bosnian war, since, at the time the mission was being set up in 1992, the United Nations was reluctant to employ peacekeepers from neighbouring countries with a history of military involvement in the former Yugoslavia. Between 1992 and 1995, therefore, Italy focused its efforts on relief work. When, in 1994, the European Union took over administration of the divided and war-ravaged town of Mostar in southern Bosnia, Italy dispatched 40 carabinieri to an international police force set up under the auspices of the Western European Union. And when NATO planes took off to attack Bosnian Serb targets, first for limited strikes to lift the siege of Sarajevo in 1994 and then in a sustained wave of attacks in August and September of 1995, they did so from Italian air bases.

Initially, some 3,200 Italian troops were deployed in IFOR in the French sector. At the time, IFOR numbered 60,000 soldiers. Today, some 1,800 Italian troops remain in a much-reduced Stabilisation Force (SFOR) of 20,000 and another 6,000 are currently deployed in the Kosovo Force (KFOR). These figures include carabinieri, police with military status, who have, since August 1998, been deployed in so-called Multinational Specialised Units (MSUs) to help maintain public order. Carabinieri have skills which are ideally suited to peacekeeping. As a result, they have been deployed throughout Bosnia and Kosovo to patrol sensitive areas, assist the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes, and intervene in the event of public disorder.

Carabinieri were also key to the success of Operation Alba in 1997, when Italy put together an eight-country, 7,000-strong intervention force to restore law and order to Albania in the wake of the collapse of a series of pyramid investment schemes. This "coalition of the willing" was authorised by the UN Security Council and coordinated by an ad hoc political steering committee. Lasting from April to August, it was also the first crisis-management mission conducted in Europe by a multinational military force composed exclusively of Europeans.

The turning-point in Italian attitudes occurred in the wake of NATO's decision to station an extraction force in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.(2) This French-led force was deployed to support and, if necessary, assist the withdrawal of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's verification mission in Kosovo. In November 1998, the new government of Massimo D'Alema made a conscious decision to play a major role by deploying 2,850 soldiers, the equivalent of a brigade, equipped with the much sought-after anti-tank A-129 helicopters.

The reason for this change in attitude is that Massimo D'Alema and I, then the defence minister, were concerned about the impact of events in Kosovo on the stability of Albania. That country had already descended into anarchy on three occasions in the preceeding decade, leading directly to increases in smuggling and crime across the Adriatic Sea and forcing Rome to react in almost impossible conditions. We wanted to prevent a repetition by stabilising Albania, and I thought that the best way to achieve this would be to help Albanians feel secure at home. Moreover, I felt this might have been achieved, if NATO included Albania in its strategic security policy.

At the time, however, the other NATO members opposed this proposal. At the time, we were concerned about the way in which the Italian-Albanian relationship was beginning to resemble a protectorate, but our attempts to internationalise the issue had failed. However, I realised that something was wrong on our side, if the other Alliance members were not listening to us. The first step to drawing the attention of our Allies to our concerns required matching the troop contribution to NATO-led operations in the Balkans of France and the United Kingdom. The decisions that followed stemmed from that turning point.

When, on 24 March 1999, NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslav forces, Italy contributed 50 combat aircraft out of an overall force of 900 to the campaign. At the conclusion of the 78-day air campaign, the Yugoslav Army agreed to withdraw from Kosovo and the following day, Italian forces entered the province from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia(2) to take charge of a sector in north-western Kosovo, around the city of Pec.

My records of the Kosovo campaign include two aspects that are little known about: the issue of the so-called "ground option" and the Albanian context. At the beginning of the conflict, Slobodan Milosevic's strategy appeared to be one of seeking to endure air strikes until the coalition against him disintegrated, while destabilising the neighbouring countries of Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia(2), whose territory would have been a necessary staging post for NATO ground forces. One month into Operation Allied Force, the efficiency of a campaign based entirely on the use of air power came into question and NATO was under pressure to come up with another option to win the conflict. Although plans for a ground invasion of Kosovo were never drawn up, this matter was discussed at an informal meeting of defence ministers of the five largest NATO members on 27 May. Moreover, despite being considered the weakest link in the coalition, Italy pledged to supply unconditionally up to 10,000 men at that meeting, an event described in former SACEUR General Wesley Clark's recent book.

The outcome of that meeting was a decision to reassemble on 15 June in order to muster the necessary forces to launch a ground offensive by no later than 15 September. In the event, however, the second meeting never took place because Milosevic decided to surrender and withdraw the Yugoslav Army from Kosovo on 9 June. However, I am persuaded that he was aware that his last chance to see the coalition break-up had disappeared and, consequently, any further resistance made no sense.

In Albania, we feared that Milosevic might attempt to destabilise the country by precipitating a mass exodus of refugees. Two approaches were required to counter this tactic: supplying Albanians with sufficient shelter and food to keep refugees close to the border for a possible return home; and giving them confidence that NATO would take care of them and, above all, that the Alliance would prevail. In January 1999, the Italian Army identified possible sites for refugee camps and began storing food and preparing shelters. When, soon after the beginning of the air campaign, Albania found itself deluged by close to a million refugees, it was possible rapidly to construct camps in the region of Kukes and elsewhere, thus maintaining hope among the population and alleviating the humanitarian catastrophe. Moreover, the deployment of more than 7,000 NATO soldiers, including a large Italian contingent, to Albania in Operation Allied Harbour on 15 April reinforced the message that the refugees would be going home.

Since, at the time, Italy only possessed a rapid reaction force of 20,000, we seriously risked overstretching our armed forces during the Kosovo campaign. In the wake of these operations, our government proposed a law, which has subsequently been passed by the parliament, ending the draft and transforming the army into a fully professional one. This should substantially increase the size of Italy's rapid reaction forces to meet the needs of any future NATO peacekeeping operation.

  1. Senator Carlo Scognamiglio-Pasini is head of Italy's Aspen Institute and a former Italian defence minister.
  2. Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.