Military aides lukewarm on any U.S. role in Bosnia

July 31, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia and Mark Matthews | Richard H. P. Sia and Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton tries to line up allied and congressional support for using air strikes to protect Sarajevo and humanitarian relief efforts, his military chiefs are zTC expressing strong private misgivings about expanding the mission beyond defending United Nations peacekeepers.

The chiefs apparently hope to limit the scope of the new mission as operational details are worked out with allies. Their views also could influence key members of Congress whose support for new policy may be crucial to the president.

All the planning may not be needed if a tentative political settlement reached yesterday in Geneva among the three Bosnian factions brings an end to the war. But until the accords are firmed up, the planning is continuing.

Mr. Clinton has tentatively decided to authorize air strikes to protect Sarajevo and its besieged citizens as well as other United Nations-declared "safe areas" and to back up the delivery of humanitarian relief.

Officials fear that without a political settlement in the conflict soon, the winter months would bring a new wave of civilian suffering and death unprecedented in the already hideous Balkan war.

The potential humanitarian catastrophe has persuaded Britain and France, whose opposition helped doom Mr. Clinton's previous plan to arm the Muslims and bomb the Bosnian Serbs, of the need for stronger action, although key differences remain, officials said yesterday.

Among members of Congress who were reluctant to use force, Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called yesterday for the administration to reconsider supplying ground troops to deliver humanitarian aid and protect safe areas.

But the Senate Armed Services Chairman, Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, has kept silent on the policy.

Pentagon resistance to becoming embroiled in the conflict has played a key role in limiting U.S. involvement almost from the beginning of the 16-month war. Most recently, the military successfully beat back a proposal to use U.S. ground troops to protect Sarajevo, arguing that 80,000 soldiers would be required.

Sources familiar with interagency meetings and diplomatic consultations on the current plan insist that a consensus has been reached within the administration and that the military is on board.

But outside those meetings, the military leadership continues to press its case against deeper involvement, apparently believing that Mr. Clinton has not yet made a firm commitment to military action there.

"It's fluid," said a military officer familiar with the views of the Joint Chiefs. "There are lots of options being considered, but no decisions have been made. A considerable amount of discussion would have to continue before that happens."

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is said to be cool to the option of the United States and its NATO allies using air power to force an end to Bosnian Serb attacks in Sarajevo. And other chiefs are expressing frustration, saying that some civilian policy-makers don't seem to understand or even appreciate the military's concerns about heading down this path.

At least two members of the Joint Chiefs have made these arguments privately:

* They cite a lack of overwhelming U.S. public support for broader military action.

* They note an increased risk to U.S. pilots, not only of being shot down but also of engine malfunctions, accidents and other glitches, as the mission is expanded. The Pentagon made it known Thursday that Bosnian Serbs have an "operational inventory" of shoulder-fired Gremlin anti-aircraft missiles.

* They predict that civilian casualties and property damage could be greater than the White House expects. For one thing, they say, military intelligence shows the Serbs positioning much of their artillery and other weapons near homes and hospitals.

Recent aerial surveillance photos show that many artillery pieces are constantly on the move and can be obscured easily under trees, a senior officer said. Some are squeezed into narrow alleys, making it certain that any attack against them from the air will destroy adjacent buildings.

The chiefs also acknowledge that planners expect a certain percentage of precision-guided bombs and other munitions to malfunction or simply miss their targets.

One of the chiefs said earlier this year that Serbian behavior could be "modified" by using military force but warned of pursuing goals that were "too ambitious."

"You're likely to kill a lot of people you're not angry with, so there's a downside to it," he said. "You're likely to lose some people doing it. In fact, they're going to be walking around on CNN with their hands up [as prisoners], which would be a big downer."

There appears to be more willingness by the military leaders to defend peacekeeping troops on the ground with air power, especially since 66 NATO ground-attack planes already are at Italian bases and aboard aircraft carriers in the Adriatic Sea for such a mission.

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