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Crisis in Yugoslavia

U.S. Shuns Advice on Plans for Invasion Force

Military: As officials hedge on use of troops, NATO's Gen. Clark says time to start planning operation is now.

May 22, 1999|PAUL RICHTER and DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The United States on Friday rebuffed, at least for now, the recommendation of NATO's top U.S. military commander that the alliance begin additional formal planning for a possible invasion of Kosovo.

Faced with a warning from Gen. Wesley K. Clark that time might run out on planning such a complex operation, senior officials said they consider it too early to draw up blueprints that they fear could fracture the 19-member Atlantic alliance in its war against Yugoslavia.

"I think it's premature," one top official said of Clark's request. "We don't see a need to make those decisions yet."

Another policymaker said the United States is "kicking the can down the road"--but not dismissing the idea entirely--while NATO's military staff updates its study of what an invasion would require.

The disagreement was the latest over a sensitive subject that has divided NATO leaders since the alliance began considering military action against Yugoslavia last fall over President Slobodan Milosevic's brutal crackdown in Kosovo, a separatist Serbian province.

While some officials in the United States and Britain believe that NATO must be prepared to use ground troops to drive Milosevic to the bargaining table, others fear that even raising the possibility might undermine support for the war from countries such as Germany--and perhaps within the U.S. as well.

On Friday, U.S. and European leaders continued to send slightly contradictory messages that appeared to be aimed at different audiences.

Some officials, apparently seeking to preserve alliance unity, insisted that NATO has no intention of launching an invasion. Others, eager to intimidate the Serbs as diplomacy continues, stressed that the option was not off the table.

In meetings with officials during a one-day visit Thursday, Clark did not advocate an invasion, officials insisted.

But he pointed out that if planning does not begin now, the alliance might lose the backup option of taking Kosovo before winter.

Some British officials and other military analysts have warned that unless moves are made within the next few weeks, an invasion force might not be able to flush Serbian forces from the province before snow makes military action difficult.

Clark wanted to make sure that no decisions are made "by default," said Kenneth H. Bacon, the chief Pentagon spokesman.

Bacon declined to characterize the reaction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Clark's comments. The administration, he said, is committed to the idea of quickly organizing a peacekeeping force of nearly 50,000 troops to disarm and rebuild Kosovo after a peace agreement is signed.

At the same time, Bacon acknowledged that the ground force option has not been dismissed. "No one can guarantee at this stage that the air campaign will produce all of the objectives by the fall," he said. Although "we think it will . . . you have to be open to other possibilities."

One senior military officer said the Joint Chiefs are ready to begin formal planning for an invasion force as soon as they receive approval from civilian leaders.

They have been frustrated by some of the restrictions that have been imposed on their conduct of the war, the officer said, and "want to do what it takes" to win.

Indeed, he said, the military has been quietly laying informal plans for what it would do if it were suddenly asked to prepare an invasion force.

"It's only prudent to look over the horizon," the officer said.

Officers said Clark is eager to quickly mobilize the peacekeeping force, the so-called KFOR, or Kosovo Force, in part to awaken fears in Milosevic that such a contingent could be converted to combat purposes.

Senior administration officials insisted that, like President Clinton, they believe that the air campaign is effective and that an invasion is unnecessary.

But while some U.S. officials were trying to tamp down speculation about ground forces, others were more equivocal.

In one of a series of appearances with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stressed that NATO has several options.

Albright and Cook spoke Friday morning on BBC Radio of the need to plan for deploying NATO forces under a variety of circumstances.

"We have not taken any option off the table," Albright said.

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