NATO came within days of ordering ground war in Kosovo

Few in Washington expected Milosevic to accede to demands

November 07, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- In early June, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the most outspoken advocate of a ground invasion of Kosovo, had ordered the preparation of 30,000 letters calling up Britain's army reserves. They were about to go into the mail, making possible the commitment of up to 50,000 British troops to go into Kosovo.

In Washington, President Clinton, with enormous reluctance, was about to give his own approval to preparations for a ground invasion of Kosovo, including up to 120,000 American troops -- despite his vow on March 24, the first day of the war, that "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war."

Based on interviews with senior officials from seven governments -- the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Finland and Yugoslavia -- the United States came much closer to a ground war in Europe than is commonly understood.

On June 2, the day before President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia agreed to accept NATO's terms for an end to the conflict, the national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, convened the Clinton administration's top national security officials. The meeting included a detailed discussion of how NATO could win the war.

At almost the same time, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin of Russia and President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland were in Belgrade, laying out NATO's terms to Milosevic, but few in Washington expected Milosevic to agree to them.

In Washington, White House officials were still looking hard for ground options short of the proposal put forth by Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO commander, which called for an invasion by up to 175,000 allied troops.

But the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who did not favor an invasion, made it clear that they preferred Clark's proposals to anything that committed too few American troops to too limited a goal.

And the officials knew, they say, that Clinton had just a few days to authorize preparations for an invasion if it was to be sold to NATO, a reluctant Pentagon and a skeptical Congress and carried out before the winter, giving the refugees a chance to return home. The idea of the war's dragging through to the spring -- with Milosevic damaged but hanging on to Kosovo, 850,000 refugees in camps and the NATO alliance fraying or splitting -- "was too awful to think about," one senior official said.

The British thought they needed up to four months -- 120 days -- to prepare for an invasion. The Americans thought they needed less than 90 days -- but their schedule was rudely extended when they suddenly discovered that, without significant roadwork, the large American M1 Abrams tanks could not negotiate the single route from Albania.

Clark, whose troops were rebuilding the road from Tirana to Kukes, in Albania, in preparation for a possible invasion, had wanted a decision by June 1, but thought June 10 was an absolute deadline to start an invasion in September. Clinton's ambassador to NATO, Alexander Vershbow, a former National Security Council official, believed for the first time that he could sell a ground war to the alliance, despite German, Italian and Greek unhappiness, but would need five or six days to do it.

The meeting of the officials broke up with an understanding that of the three American goals for the war -- NATO's victory, holding the alliance together and keeping Russia on board -- victory had become the only outcome that mattered.

There was as yet no paper for Clinton to sign, but the only plan on the table was Clark's for an invasion by 175,000 troops through Albania.

"Clinton was going to have to decide in a couple of days," one senior official said, referring to a formal approval by the president of intensive preparations for a September ground war. "There was no way around that."

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