Allies to begin planning ground action in Kosovo

Operation envisioned as just mopping up pockets of resistance

War In Yugoslavia

April 22, 1999|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Allied leaders will begin this weekend to lay the groundwork for alliance troops to wipe out pockets of Serb military resistance in Kosovo after NATO bombers "soften up" the Yugoslav army, much as the air war did against Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait, a NATO source said.

While NATO officially is committed only to an air campaign to drive President Slobodan Milosevic's forces out of Kosovo, alliance officials are reluctantly concluding that limited ground action might be needed to complete the military mission after weeks of punishing airstrikes.

"We're looking at it in a more flexible way," the source said. "You're seeing the beginning of a subtle shift, changing the language politically."

Britain signaled the shift, in advance of a gathering of NATO leaders in Washington this week for the alliance's 50th anniversary.

"We are determined that an international military force will deploy in Kosovo once airstrikes have done their job, so that the Kosovar people can return to their homes," Britain's Defense Secretary George Robertson said yesterday.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic "will not have a veto," he added.

While Britain has started to adjust its rhetoric to the changed outlook, the Clinton administration continues to deny any plans for ground troops.

Testifying before Congress yesterday, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright continued to quote Clinton as saying he had "no intention" of sending ground forces into any hostile setting.

"The air campaign is moving along, we believe, in accomplishing what needs to be done, which is to damage and degrade and really undercut Milosevic's ability to control Kosovo," Albright said.

Cohen said NATO could give approval for U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the alliance's supreme military commander, to update a ground-war analysis from last fall.

"But that also takes consensus," Cohen said. "I haven't seen the consensus there. There are sharp disagreements about this within the alliance."

Initially, NATO planned for a force of 28,000 to 30,000 alliance troops, including about 4,000 Americans, that would be sent in largely to keep peace once an agreement had been reached on Kosovo autonomy.

Change in thinking

But few NATO officials now expect Milosevic to agree to an acceptable peace deal, so the allies have to adjust their thinking to plan for getting the refugees home. Intensive bombing will achieve a great deal -- "the best way to degrade is from the air" -- but not force a complete Serbian withdrawal from the province, the NATO source said.

The same source stressed that no one in the alliance favors a full-scale ground invasion in which NATO troops would have to fight their way in. After weeks of bombing, the forces would not meet with "serious resistance," but they can't expect the "permissive environment" that Clinton and top U.S. officials had previously spelled out as a condition for sending in ground troops.

Last fall, Clark came up with a concept for ground troops as part of the allied military mission against Yugoslavia, although NATO's political leaders rejected any ground element as too risky and politically untenable.

Clark's concept called for about 75,000 ground troops for a Kosovo mission alone, while 200,000 or more would be needed to subdue the entire country.

The number of allied troops needed to clean up remaining Serbian resistance would be impossible to predict until the bombing campaign comes to a halt.

Pentagon and NATO officials have repeatedly said the ever-intensifying airstrikes are degrading the Serbian military and slowing its advance in Kosovo.

But, despite such assertions, Serbian troops continue their assaults against the remaining units of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army and forcing out tens of thousands more ethnic Albanians.

Moreover, the Serbs have recently reinforced their Kosovo forces with 3,000 troops, bringing the total to 43,000. An additional 12,000 to 14,000 special police are taking part in the Serbian mission known as Operation Horseshoe.

NATO and Pentagon officials have said it would take many weeks, perhaps several months, to prepare for the thousands of troops that would be necessary for ground action.

Besides training the troops for combat, the allies would have to shore up and expand currently inadequate ports and airports in neighboring countries along with the sparse and crumbling roads for the untold tons of military equipment.

"Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics," said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor. "It would take months to build up a Kosovo force, to say nothing of the political ingredient."

A key requirement for any ground force would be sensitive political negotiations with foreign leaders to obtain permission to use their countries as staging areas.

Wary and reluctant

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