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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Options May Boil Down to One: Ground Forces

April 02, 1999|TYLER MARSHALL and NORMAN KEMPSTER and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — With Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic still defiant and unbowed in the second week of NATO's bombing campaign, many of those familiar with the crisis are now convinced that, barring an unexpected turn of events, airstrikes alone cannot end Kosovo's agony.

It is also becoming clear that, however distasteful and difficult it may be, President Clinton's options for avoiding the unthinkable debacle of a NATO defeat may soon be reduced to one: ground forces.

The Clinton administration continues to hope that Milosevic will eventually buckle under the weight of intensified, expanded strikes by North Atlantic Treaty Organization aircraft, which again Thursday carried the alliance's air campaign to the heart of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic, knocking out one of its main bridges over the Danube River.

In a speech Thursday at the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, Clinton urged his audience to give airstrikes a chance to work--to force Milosevic to accept an agreement that would grant considerable autonomy to Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanian population.

"We've been doing this for seven days now, just seven days," he said. "Our pilots have performed bravely and well, in the face of dangerous conditions and often abysmal weather. But we must be determined and patient."

(Commenting on the poor weather, one NATO official noted that the 30 French combat aircraft involved in the strikes had managed to drop a total of eight bombs during the first six days of operations.)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry H. Shelton on Thursday reiterated the current administration position on deployment of ground forces: "No plans, no intention."

But in the corridors of the Pentagon, the subject of ground forces has already become Topic A, while in the halls of NATO headquarters in Brussels, officials have begun to talk openly about the inevitability of a deployment of ground forces to the region.

Some, for example, argue that NATO could help Milosevic's victims considerably with a plan that didn't initially aim to sweep through all of Kosovo but created protected "enclaves" where ethnic Albanian refugees could be given temporary shelter.

"With planes alone, we're in the process of losing the race," confided one senior NATO diplomat.

Asked a high-ranking NATO military official: "Could two planes in the air stop gang violence in Los Angeles?"

The reason for this new focus on ground forces is not hard to discern.

As each additional day's television news footage depicts Milosevic in a business-as-usual setting in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, the key issue for the United States and its European allies has moved beyond the Balkans and halting the fast-unfolding human catastrophe in Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia. Suddenly, it is the credibility of the world's most powerful nation and the alliance it leads that is on the line.

Unlike in Somalia, where Clinton pulled out American peacekeeping forces after U.S.-led efforts to hunt down a local warlord ended in the deaths of 18 GIs, or in Iraq, where he simply declared U.S.-led airstrikes a success, the United States cannot walk away from Kosovo.

"If we end up looking like we're impotent, or NATO can't do the job it said it could, then the consequences are extremely serious--for NATO and for the United States," stated Brent Scowcroft, one of the most respected foreign affairs voices in Washington and the national security advisor in the Bush administration. "This conflict carries consequences that [affect] far more than just Kosovo."

Predicted William Kristol, an influential Washington-based Republican strategist and editor of the conservative Weekly Standard: "Let's be clear: If NATO doesn't win in Kosovo, it will be the end of NATO as an effective alliance."

In light of the Serbian atrocities in Kosovo during the last week, it is now virtually impossible politically, Scowcroft and other analysts agree, for NATO's use of military might to end with the forced exodus of Albanians and Milosevic still controlling an "ethnically cleansed" province.

Senior administration officials also admit that the atrocities of recent days may have permanently altered the conditions of the political deal NATO airstrikes were meant to force on Milosevic. Those conditions, outlined in the so-called Rambouillet accords already signed by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders, call for a high level of autonomy for Kosovo but leave ultimate political control in the hands of Belgrade.

Now, senior administration officials are seriously reviewing the possibility of placing Kosovo under some form of international control, protected by NATO.

Clinton has already agreed to contribute 4,000 Americans as part of a far larger, NATO-led peacekeeping force originally envisioned to police a settlement, but has consistently rejected sending U.S. forces into a hostile environment.

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