WASHINGTON -- NATO's provisional approval of an allied evacuation plan for Bosnia puts 25,000 U.S. troops on notice that they could be headed for one of the bloodiest trouble spots on earth.
U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization commanders are anxious to avoid the sort of ignominious departure that characterized the final withdrawal from Vietnam and are planning a highly organized, carefully coordinated five-stage evacuation.
But they also have plans for an emergency extraction, should one become necessary.
To avoid the sort of command confusion between the United Nations and NATO that has bedeviled military operations in Bosnia, an evacuation would be under the sole command of NATO, headed by U.S. Adm. Leighton W. Smith Jr., allied commander in southern Europe.
The plan, known as 40104, is being prepared in case the allies have to abandon the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia.
If executed, an evacuation would entail the dispatch of 60,000 NATO troops -- almost half of them from the United States -- to extricate as many as 38,400 U.N. peacekeepers, most of whom are mired in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Many of these peacekeepers are lightly armed and surrounded by potentially hostile Bosnian and Serbian units in remote parts of the country. Bringing them to safety along narrow roads, through mountain passes and over minefields could take 22 weeks and cost $700 million.
The plan is to bring out not only the troops but also their equipment to prevent it from falling into the hands of the belligerents. This would require major engineering work to strengthen bridges, improve roads and build staging camps, all under the threat of hostile military action.
U.S. officials believe the largest threat would not come from the warring factions but from a civilian population desperate to hold onto the limited protection and humanitarian aid provided by the U.N. presence.
"It is our judgment that the most likely opposition we will get will be from the local population, who do not want us to leave," Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress recently.
U.S. military commanders, who fear that residents would join forces with local militias to try to prevent the evacuation, have nightmares of old ladies lying in front of tanks, children blocking bridges.
General Shalikashvili also said that he did not expect resistance from either of the main belligerents, but quickly added: "Having said that . . . this is the Balkans, and almost anything can happen."
Members of the former Yugoslavian army are trained in the sort of guerrilla warfare -- shrewd use of the mountainous terrain, strike-and-run tactics and sabotage -- that could make an evacuation extremely hazardous.
"You have a force that is trained in the things that makes life most difficult for you in an operation like this," said a senior Marine officer.
Another major concern is that peacekeepers -- none of whom are American -- could be seized as hostages, even before any evacuation begins, as they were in May to deter NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets.
To minimize the risk that any of the U.S. evacuation troops would be seized, they will be dispatched in such numbers that, in the words of General Shalikashvili, they will be "more than capable of taking care of themselves."
It is current Pentagon policy to apply overwhelming force when deploying U.S. troops into possible combat situations.
The United States is deploying one of its most sophisticated intelligence-gathering systems over Bosnia this week. Known as Predator, it is an unmanned spy plane that can relay moving and still pictures to its controllers, who will be based in Albania. It can relay the precise location of a single window in a building to a fighter plane, which can then program a "smart" bomb onto the window.
It will initially be used to help the NATO rapid-reaction force, which was recently deployed to help protect the U.N. peacekeepers. In any evacuation operation, it would relay immediate intelligence to the commanders, enabling quick response to trouble spots.
The five stages of the evacuation plan, as currently envisioned, are:
* PREPARATION -- Setting up a military communications network. A 50-member NATO technical team, including 20 U.S. communications experts, has been in Croatia since May. Its members have almost finished establishing the communication system for what would be the evacuation headquarters. Major supplies of trucks, armor and heavy hauling and engineering equipment are already pre-positioned on ships in the Mediterranean;
* LOGISTICS -- Securing the Croatian ports of Ploce and Split to allow the entry of the evacuation force and the departure of the peacekeepers and their equipment, and moving troops close to the territories of the former Yugoslavia. Negotiations are under way with Italy on providing staging bases for U.S. forces en route to the evacuation zone.