WASHINGTON — The rising toll from atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo is raising the possibility--unthinkable only days ago--that ground troops may be deployed in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's assault on Yugoslavia.
NATO and Clinton administration officials insisted Sunday that they had no plans to put troops on the ground in Kosovo, a province of the Yugoslav republic of Serbia. Such a step would greatly magnify the risk of casualties to U.S. forces, which in turn could solidify American public opinion against military action.
But their language did not rule out the option for the future.
"There are no plans right now to introduce a ground force short of a peace settlement in Kosovo," said Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Shelton, appearing on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press," said it would take "hundreds of thousands of ground troops over a rather protracted period of time and in a very dangerous situation" to sweep Yugoslav forces from Kosovo.
Some members of Congress asserted that air power alone might not be able to halt a slaughter that is being carried out on the ground with guns and knives rather than tanks and artillery.
"We must win this conflict with whatever it takes," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), expressing a sentiment echoed by others in Congress. "That may mean exercising every option."
Since NATO began pounding Serbian positions from the air Wednesday, reports of escalating violence by Serbs against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who make up 90% of the population in the province, have lent a new urgency to the issue of ground troops. The Serbs, the dominant ethnic group in Yugoslavia, reportedly have turned half a million residents of Kosovo into refugees while destroying entire villages and slaughtering residents.
NATO officials argue that their bombardment has already weakened the Yugoslav forces by severing their military communications, disabling parts of their integrated air-defense system and disrupting their access to fuel and spare parts. The troops carrying out the Kosovo offensive, these officials predict, will panic, and their leaders--including Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic--will abandon the offensive.
Critics respond that NATO underestimates both the Serbs' determination and the time it would take for aircraft alone to halt the Serbian offensive in Kosovo. Knocking out tanks in small groups, for example, is a time-consuming process, and only over the weekend were there indications that NATO forces are ready to deploy the A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft, the low-flying plane that is customarily used for such a purpose.
Milosevic Shores Up Positions
Milosevic, with the benefit of rough terrain and bad weather, apparently has preserved many of the surface-to-air missile batteries that threaten NATO fliers. And the Yugoslavs could slow the NATO drive by putting their troops and equipment near ethnic Albanian civilians--a process Milosevic apparently has begun.
In addition, some critics assert that Milosevic's security police are largely beyond the reach of aerial bombardment.
"If we are degrading his capability now, it is probably not apparent to the people in Kosovo who are being surrounded in their towns," McCain said on ABC-TV's "This Week" program.
Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also said they believe that ground forces might be necessary, though Hutchison said such forces should include only Europeans.
Charles A. Kupchan, a National Security Council aide during President Clinton's first term, wrote in a column published Sunday that while air attacks might damage the Yugoslav forces, only ground troops could expel them from Kosovo and then patrol the province's borders to make sure they did not return.
Writing in The Times, Kupchan said Clinton made a "fundamental miscalculation" in failing to deploy a sizable ground force before beginning the military campaign. "There is good reason to believe air power alone will not do the trick," he wrote.
Gauging Public Opinion in U.S.
The introduction of ground troops could quickly change the domestic politics of the military campaign.
Though polls suggest that the operation has the support of a majority of Americans, public opinion analysts say that feelings on the subject aren't strong and that even a relatively small number of casualties could quickly shift views of whether U.S. forces should be in a place that, as Clinton has said, most citizens might have trouble finding on a map.
The U.S. intervention in Somalia won general support when President Bush began it in 1992 to counter the effects of a famine. But the public turned against the move when 18 Army personnel were killed in a shootout in the capital, Mogadishu, in 1993.
Poland, one of NATO's three new members, has already offered to contribute ground troops to the Kosovo effort, U.S. officials said.