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Ground Troops Can Do the Job

Kosovo: The key is to keep the intervention limited and focused, but preparations must start now.

May 25, 1999|MICHAEL O'HANLON | Michael O'Hanlon is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and an adjunct professor at Columbia and Georgetown universities

So are ground forces on the table? President Clinton, who seems to consider it a virtue to maintain the maximum amount of confusion on this subject, has just suggested that NATO might indeed send ground forces into Kosovo, even without an agreement signed by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. It is not hard to see why.

Few military analysts inside or outside government believe air power alone can win a war. Serbia is in firm control of Kosovo and has wreaked far more havoc on the ethnic Albanian population there than NATO has visited on Serbia's military or economy. In addition, the president's own ambassador on war crimes, David Scheffer, now says that more than 200,000 Kosovo Albanian men are still missing, and that more than 500,000 Kosovars displaced within their own country are at risk of disease and starvation.

Yet, Russia and China talk as if any NATO ground operation would plunge the world back to a cold war; U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticizes NATO for acting against Serbia without U.N. authorization; and key allies like Italy and Germany reiterate their strong opposition to any consideration of a ground campaign. Where does this leave us?

The United States and its allies cannot callously let hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians who have placed their trust in NATO and who have nowhere else to turn, continue to die from Serbian bullets, disease and starvation. Nor does it make sense to bring down the entire Serbian economy in order to starve Milosevic's forces out of Kosovo. Causing suffering among the Serbian people in an indirect attempt to alleviate the plight of the Kosovo Albanians risks undercutting the humanitarian principles and ethics that we properly invoked to justify this war in the first place. Perhaps even more to the point, it does not prevent Serbian armed forces from further killing and ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo Albanians.

At the same time, relations with Russia and China are far more important to our country's own future security interests than is the fate of one province in one rump country. And we cannot conduct a ground invasion without allied support.

Our position would seem to be next to hopeless--unless somehow Milosevic relents and agrees to let NATO forces into most or all of Kosovo for a long stay, which, to paraphrase Colin Powell, is more of a hope than a strategy. The only solution is a carefully calibrated policy that involves the use--or if we are lucky, just the threat--of ground forces.

But any ground intervention must be carried out in a restrained and limited fashion. Our policy should incorporate the following elements:

* Plan to take back most but not all of Kosovo. Since both Serbs and ethnic Albanians have legitimate claims to Kosovo, some form of partition is probably the only viable solution. The president does not like such talk, but he should remember that partition is the name of the game in the former Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia seceded, and Bosnia was then itself partitioned in all but name. It is more realistic to envision a strong NATO presence in the southern and western two-thirds of Kosovo, with Russia and other neutrals taking any responsibilities assigned an international force in remaining regions. (We can make it known, however, that if Serbia escalates its slaughtering of Kosovo Albanians as we begin the military invasion, we may escalate our war aims.)

* Do not ask Italy, Germany or Greece to send ground forces. Because of their locations, their histories in the Balkans, and their current governments, some would suggest that asking these countries to contribute ground units would be counterproductive. However, there is a good chance that these three allies, though reluctant to approve ground forces, could be persuaded to do so if the mission were clearly focused on humanitarian goals and were limited in scope.

* Start sending forces by sea in case Italy does not provide base access. We would need 30,000 to 50,000 more U.S. troops to conduct a limited intervention. For that reason, additional Marine units and some Army forces should put to sea now, sailing to the Mediterranean in preparation for a possible invasion. That may not be essential if Italy can be persuaded to provide bases for units such as the Army's 101st Air Assault Division, which could be flown to Italy within weeks. But it would be critical if Italy refused such access.

Clinton has made an important decision in reopening the door to ground forces. But Milosevic may doubt Clinton's seriousness. He also will take comfort in the opposition of much of the rest of the world to any NATO ground intervention. We need to give the policy teeth. Otherwise it could be a long summer in the skies over Serbia--and an even worse summer, fall and winter for the Kosovo Albanians on the ground.

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