WASHINGTON -- A U.S. military role enforcing a peace settlement in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- as suggested by the Clinton administration -- would commit up to 75,000 U.S. soldiers for as long as 10 years, according to U.S. and NATO military planners.
President Clinton has declared his willingness to commit military forces to a multinational peacekeeping effort once the warring parties in the former Yugoslavian republic reach a peace accord, although he has stopped short of making an explicit offer of ground forces.
Other administration officials said the White House is prepared to dispatch troops if necessary. Plans requiring the stationing of thousands of U.S. soldiers for a prolonged period have been drawn up for such a contingency.
Mobilizing a force of 75,000 troops for up to a decade could require Mr. Clinton to shelve plans to reduce the U.S. military presence in Europe by 1997 and frustrate his efforts to cut deeper into military operations and maintenance budgets, Army officials said last week.
Moreover, the Army would have to dispatch troops from bases in the United States to reinforce or replace the first waves of U.S. troops that would be sent from Germany to Bosnia, officials said. Some U.S.-based special forces, such as psychological operations and civil affairs units, would probably be included in the initial deployment, they added.
These projections, as outlined by senior officials at the Pentagon, happen to justify the military's argument against deeper cuts in U.S. forces in Europe and its reluctance to introduce troops into the Bosnian civil war. But officials denied they had tailored the plan to frustrate Mr. Clinton's aims.
The current planning calls for 20,000 U.S. troops -- a division of about 17,000 plus necessary support personnel -- to be sent to Bosnia as part of a multinational peacekeeping force. Because tours of duty would be limited to the customary six months, the equivalent of two more divisions or an Army corps would be needed as a base for rotations.
That means a total of 60,000 to 75,000 U.S. troops would be tapped for the operation, according to current planning figures.
A senior Army war planner warned Friday that these numbers "will be substantially larger" if the actual mission assigned to U.S. peacekeepers "is more rigorous" than expected. If the "operational environment" is as risky as it has been for British troops in Northern Ireland or Israeli forces battling the Palestinian intifada, then "you'll use larger numbers," he said.
Scores of thousands of people have been killed or are missing since Bosnia's Muslims and Croats voted to leave Yugoslavia last year, over the objection of ethnic Serbs. The Serbs, backed by Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, revolted and have overrun about 70 percent of Bosnian territory.
At NATO's southern command headquarters in Naples, Italy, planners assume the Western alliance will act as a
"subcontractor" to the United Nations, which is sponsoring peace talks among three groups involved in the Bosnian fighting Serbs, Muslims and Croats.
NATO planners are considering a U.S.-led, multinational unit of 60,000 troops, backed with heavy weaponry and air support, to enforce a peace agreement inside the country -- with roughly one-quarter to one-third of the forces provided by the United States. Troops would be dispersed throughout Bosnian territory, which would be divided into 10 ethnic "cantonments" in a peace plan devised by former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, the U.N. mediator, and Lord Owen, the European Community representative.
"What you'd really like to have is a division [13,000 to 17,000 troops] per cantonment, but the size of the multinational force really depends on what you want to do -- monitor humanitarian relief routes, do check points, spot and close down artillery -- and what capabilities the participating forces have," a NATO official in Naples said in a telephone interview.
Planners are busy
Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher met with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on Friday to invite allied participation in an airdrop of relief supplies to Bosnia. NATO officials were said to have briefed him about "concepts" in the peacekeeping plan, even though many details were undecided, including precisely which countries should participate.
The NATO official, who agreed to discuss current planning if his identity was not disclosed, said military planners were busy trying to wrap up their work.
"We really wouldn't have enough time to think about this once a settlement is reached. You can't say to the parties, just wait 30 or 60 days so we can finish our planning. . . . When it's signed, we'd better be there."
Asked how long a peacekeeping operation might last, he replied, "Try 10 years."
"Ten years isn't definite, but it's common sense if you think of this as creating a U.N. protectorate," he explained. "You want to compensate for those who would say you can get in and out in a year or so."