Planning for Kosovo lacks needed ground force NATO's airstrike option fails to consider what would follow, experts say

October 07, 1998|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration and NATO have started the countdown to airstrikes against Yugoslavia. But they have yet to come to grips with what is clearly inevitable, say diplomats, former military officers and other experts: an international ground force in Kosovo that might include Americans.

While NATO, administration officials and some in the military are pointing toward phased airstrikes, there is little agreement on what would happen once they succeed or fail, or if President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia were to forestall military action.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said yesterday that he opposes sending U.S. ground troops, but European nations would likely balk at sending soldiers unless Americans joined in, as in Bosnia.

One Clinton administration official said diplomats are saying, "Let's just talk about airstrikes," even as NATO and U.S. military officials contend that the alliance must prepare for the next step of sending some type of international force.

Retired U.S. Army Gen. George A. Joulwan, a former NATO commander, said: "What concerns me is, the air option doesn't include the second or third [option], and that should include a ground option. I think the senior military leadership has to stand up and be counted and give clear military advice to our political authorities."

Serbian security forces under Milosevic's control have waged a violent offensive against ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo, and the United Nations secretary-general issued a report this week that said the Serbs were continuing their campaign of terror.

Milosevic has defied a U.N. resolution intended to force him to end the violence and to let refugees receive humanitarian aid and return home.

Open discussion of increasing the number of U.S. troops in the Balkans is politically explosive, with President Clinton unable to say when the 7,500-strong U.S. peacekeeping contingent in Bosnia will be brought home.

With a month to go before congressional elections, the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill is reluctant to give Clinton political cover for a step that poses risks for them as well. Yet, Kosovo is considered a key to stability in the Balkans. Officials fear that an uncontrolled conflict in the province could spread through the region.

Under current NATO plans, ground troops would be sent to preserve a halt in hostilities, keep warring parties apart and help get humanitarian aid to those who need it.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke confidently of a bombing campaign to end the crisis while playing down any talk of ground forces.

"I think that there is a lot that will and can be done by air that will cause significant damage to [Milosevic's] ability to do some of the things he's been doing," Cohen told the committee.

When Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, asked if a peacekeeping mission would be among the options, Cohen said: "It could require an international presence."

"Would that include U.S. troops?" McCain asked.

"It's a possibility," Cohen said, but added, "I have urged we not get involved on the ground in Kosovo."

Shelton said that while "some type of element" would be needed to supervise a peace settlement, "that has not gotten out of the conceptual planning at NATO to my knowledge."

Even as Clinton administration officials in Washington were trying to avoid talking about the use of ground troops, the idea gained strength at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Today, NATO ambassadors will receive staff proposals for a ground force in Kosovo calling for up to 26,000 troops.

Susan Woodward, an expert on the Balkans at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said of European officials she has contacted: "They all accept the inevitability" of ground troops. But they don't know where the troops would come from and won't send in their own units without Americans, she said.

"I hope we would be preparing a headquarters for a ground option," said Joulwan, the former NATO commander. "NATO should respond, and the United States is part of that. Our support should be there."

U.S. forces would be entering a perilous and complex situation in Kosovo. Unlike Croatia and Bosnia, which were recognized as separate states after they broke away from Yugoslavia, the province of Kosovo should remain a province, in the view of the West. This means that NATO would be intervening in an internal conflict.

NATO does not want to help the forces fighting for independence in Kosovo, even though allied military action, by striking at the Serbs, would have that effect. And the Kosovo rebels don't want to accept the peace plan offered by the United States and its allies.

The peace plan calls for enhanced autonomy and cultural activities but would delay any discussion of independence for three to five years. The government in Belgrade is expected to demand that it be able to keep its secret police in Kosovo.

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