The General's Mission

By David Abel  |  Defense Week  |  4/19/1999

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- The soldier who would lead ground troops or peacekeepers into Kosovo sat cross-legged in front of a wall of maps detailing the inhospitable terrain of the southern Balkans.

He had little time to mince words or speculate on hypothetical scenarios. He looked dour, spoke in crisp sentences, and brooked little tolerance for skepticism.

"Our mission is simple: It's to be prepared to implement a peace agreement in Kosovo," said British Lt. Gen. Sir Mike Jackson, who commands the 12,000 NATO soldiers assembled in Macedonia by the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps. "We decided to put forces in early during the Rambouillet negotiations process so that they can move very quickly to implement any agreement."

They could be asked to move quite quickly indeed. Under a peace proposal by the European Union that was gaining diplomatic momentum late last week, if Belgrade agreed to begin withdrawing troops, then Western ground forces would immediately and simultaneously step in to take control of the province. Though it has requested membership in NATO, Macedonia has ruled out allowing the alliance to launch an invasion from its soil.

In an interview Thursday with Defense Week at his headquarters in an old shoe factory on the outskirts of Macedonia's capital, the 55-year-old Jackson explained how his role as commander of NATO forces in the region has required him to do everything from responding to the massive refugee crisis and ensuring troops are ready and well-protected to soothing diplomatic tensions with local authorities.

He would not talk about the possibility of invading Kosovo, Serbia's violence-wracked province whose border lies just 15 miles north of downtown Skopje. But he acknowledged NATO leaders could soon ask him to lead forces into Yugoslav territory. Jackson knows a land war could be long and grueling. He knows that Serb guerillas and Partisans plagued Nazi German occupiers during World War II, and he knows a small, motivated army operating on familiar territory can inflict pain on a larger, better-equipped invading force.

"It is mountainous, wooded terrain, and it lends itself to irregular warfare," he said. "I am a general student of military history. I'll leave it at that."

Jackson took over the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps in early 1997, soon after serving for nearly two years as the commander of the British army's 3rd Division, which acted as headquarters for the Multinational Division Southwest at the start of the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.

Now, the one-time paratrooper who served in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and helped plan Britain's invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 has partial command over nearly 500 U.S. soldiers in Macedonia. While American troops take orders from their own superiors, Jackson directs all forces in Macedonia in matters of how to work together and how to maintain a joint defense.

He also has to coordinate and keep the peace with the Macedonian government. As the weeks of the NATO bombing campaign piled up, and more bombs rained from allied planes over Serbia, soldiers under Jackson's command from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States and Norway were digging in late last week. Every day their temporary forts appeared more permanent.

Ensuring the alliance retains its welcome has become an increasingly trying task. Soldiers patrolling the border and driving their military vehicles through local cities are frequently pelted by rocks and bricks. Jackson says he is in frequent contact with Macedonian police and government officials. He has directed the alliance's 35 helicopters in Macedonia to avoid flying through urban areas, especially in Skopje. He has also banned the driving of tanks and other earth-scarring vehicles unless absolutely necessary.

"[Macedonians] are obviously concerned about the number of NATO soldiers, the effect that has on the economy, the environment and all of that," he said. "It's my job to make sure that the Macedonian government does not have cause for complaint."

There were few protests, however, when Jackson helped implement the alliance's heroic response to the hundreds of thousands of refugees expelled from Kosovo since NATO began its bombing campaign March 24. He is proud of the way the soldiers have built tents, distributed food and brought calm to thousands in such quick fashion.

Still, he supports the transfer of the camps' authority from NATO to international relief agencies and the Macedonian government, even though many refugees say they fear the local police.

"As a point of principle, soldiers should not run refugee camps," he said. "That's not what soldiers are for. Refugees are better looked after by civilian organizations."

The military's primary role is to fight or to halt fighting, he said. Despite critics who question NATO's cumbersome balance of 19 nations with different cultures and militaries, Jackson argued that this multinational force is effective and represents the future in fighting wars.

The only gripe he admitted is that NATO is geared still for large-scale conflicts envisioned during the Cold War, not for small-scale, high-intensity conflicts such as pushing a guerilla army out of a small patch of mountainous territory. But the track record so far proves NATO can do the job, he added.
"Is this multinational thing actually a shambles?" he asked. "It's not. It works .... We're all in the same game. Here to do the same job. It's a unity of effort."