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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Grounded in Kosovo

If NATO can't win from the air and won't go in on the ground, it has to find a diplomatic way out

By Mark Thompson/Washington

May 24, 1999
Web posted at: 10:28 a.m. EDT (1428 GMT)

TIME magazine

War is hell, but it turns out that some parts burn hotter than others. Only one picture frightens the White House more than televised images of the Chinese embassy aflame from an errant NATO bomb. That is a rerun of the scene from Mogadishu in 1993, when Somalis dragged a G.I.'s body through the streets of their capital. The searing footage, the result of a helicopter assault gone awry, turned Capitol Hill and the American public against the humanitarian Somalia mission overnight. That's what haunts the Clinton team as it struggles to attain victory in Kosovo. "Downed helicopters and dead pilots," an Army officer said last week, "scare this Administration to death."

As the war enters its third inconclusive month, political and public battle fatigue is setting in. Washington and NATO insist their bombing crescendo is slowly but perceptibly sapping Slobodan Milosevic's power and will to fight. Their spokesmen point daily to encouraging signs: last week it was word of soldiers' desertions and scattered antiwar protests inside Yugoslavia. Allied military briefers called the strife the most interesting battle damage they have seen in weeks. Belgrade, spared bombing for days in the wake of the mistaken attack on Beijing's mission, is once again blackened by flames from allied fire.

Yet a growing array of critics contend that the air campaign is doing too little too slowly. The allies, they warn, must fight harder if they are to prevail before NATO unity collapses under a crush of divergent political pressures. Statistically, U.S. pilots were in greater danger of dying during peacetime flights last year than while bombing Serbia last month. Too many laser-guided bombs are going astray and killing innocent civilians. Just last Friday, NATO mistakenly hit a Kosovo rebel base near the capital, Pristina. Washington is not leading the war but shying away from winning it. "If NATO wants a military victory in Yugoslavia, the only way to get it is to risk pilots now," says Maurizio Cremasco, a former general in the Italian air force. "They don't do this for the same reason the Apache helicopters haven't been utilized--because low-altitude flying still involves the risk that pilots and crews will get shot down and killed."

Therein lies the crux of NATO's dilemma. Except for Britain, no other nation has seemed willing to sacrifice its soldiers to this cause, in the skies or on the ground. Yet this week the U.S. will urge NATO to send 50,000 ground troops to the region, either to escort the Kosovars home with Milosevic's assent or to threaten an invasion without it. The war could succeed faster if the allies risked their own troops more, but political leaders fear the first body bags would destroy the public support they need to keep the confrontation going. But the slow and uncertain progress from 12,000 ft. is eating away at popular approval anyhow. Pit that against the prospect that if the air strikes fail to move Milosevic, ground troops might have to step in, and what's a poor NATO leader to do? Scramble for a diplomatic way out--the faster, the better.

A diplomatic phalanx went into furious motion last week as Washington stewed over martial means and ends. Colin Powell, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose Gulf War success carries great weight, spoke up on Kosovo after weeks of silence. A foreign policy imbroglio that requires military force needs clear, precise goals if that force is to be used wisely, advised the retired Army general. "You have to have pretty solid political objectives, and then apply decisive force to them," he said. "Nothing in the Powell doctrine says no casualties." He pointedly noted that the Gulf War planners kept all their options open from the start. "We had a ground force waiting," he said, "when air power had gone as far as we could take it."

But NATO continues to shrink from any change in its carefully calibrated "Goldilocks" air campaign--not too hard, not too soft. The chief culprits appeared to reside in Washington, where "there are people in the military who are putting the brakes on," says a U.S. diplomat.

Nothing illustrated Washington's hesitancy more than the Apache debate that burst into the open last week. Just 48 hours into the war, NATO Commander Wesley Clark called on Washington to send in the state-of-the-art AH-64 helicopter gunships as the best weapon against Milosevic's ferocious ground-level cleansing of Kosovo. After a week of backroom debate, a deeply reluctant Pentagon and White House agreed to deploy the Army's premier tank killers--but not to use them in battle. More than two weeks later, to great fanfare, the first of 24 began arriving in Albania along with their 5,350 attendant soldiers, where two aircraft crashed, killing two pilots in practice exercises. Top Pentagon officials oppose putting the gunships into the skies over Kosovo. "We're not going to trade two Apaches for six Serb tanks," a U.S. military officer said, explaining the fear of losses if the Apaches go into battle. Now it appears they may never see action. Last week Clinton said the Army's Apaches may not be needed because the Air Force's A-10 attack planes could do the same job of killing tanks and armor "at less risk."

It's true the Apaches' mission raises the threshold of danger. They would fly at night with their lights out. They'd skim less than 100 ft. over the mountainous terrain at only slightly more than 100 m.p.h. "There are a lot of individuals out on the battlefield carrying small arms and shoulder-fired weapons," says ex-Apache commander Colonel Mike Hackerson, now at the Pentagon. "It could turn into a bit of a knife fight, but that's part of the business." The grunts who fly the choppers say they're confident in their aircraft and their mission plan. "Some people have a perception that we are daunted by the threat posed by heat-seeking missiles, small-arms fire, radar systems and things like that," says Captain Mark Arden, with Task Force Hawk in Albania. "But enormous resources are put into this aircraft to defeat just those threats."

The Pentagon isn't so sure. The brass are worried that the Serbs have moved hundreds of SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles toward Albania, lurking in the valleys the Apaches would follow into Kosovo, just waiting for the gunships to cross the frontier. "The Apaches are MANPADs magnets," an Army officer says, referring to the acronym for Man-Portable Air Defense System, used for the small-missile launchers. "We keep asking the Army," a Joint Staff officer says, "how many Apaches they think are going to come back." That's why the helicopters--initially heralded as saviors--still sit at their Albanian base, twiddling their rotor blades.

Another reason officers give for grounding the Apaches is what might happen to the 400,000 Kosovars crowded into Albania if the choppers fly. "If we launch attacks from Albania, the Serbs aren't going to see it as a neutral country," a Joint Staff planner says. "And a lot of those refugees are in crowded camps within range of Serbian artillery." Already smarting over charges that the allied bombing accelerated Milosevic's ethnic cleansing, the Pentagon doesn't want to be blamed for triggering more civilian carnage.

Military and political leaders probably wouldn't be agonizing over what planes to fly, and how high, if they could settle on an answer to the question of ground troops. The longer the air war drags on, the more frequently the ground issue pops up. Last week the alliance found itself in a new muddle as various capitals sent out contradictory messages. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder called the use of ground troops "unthinkable" and pledged to block any alliance combat on land. From London came the opposite, a steady drumbeat of demands by the Blair government to start assembling a ground force that could go into Kosovo even without agreement from Milosevic. Long after the threat might have spooked the Serbian leader, Clinton for the first time last week reserved the right to send in ground troops. Two days later, NATO Commander Clark visited the Pentagon to push for deployment of the 50,000 ground troops, trying to make sure they'd be there before the snow flies. But Italy and Greece called for a bombing pause before addressing the ground-troops issue at all.

Since the war's start, allied unity has been more important than lethality. Unless NATO reaches a credible consensus to gather a serious invasion force, the Tower of Babel talk won't do much to move Milosevic. Threatening to dispatch troops at the start might have given him pause, or at least forced some of his soldiers to stay home and protect Serbian borders instead of depopulating Kosovo. Had a relatively small ground force been deployed by now, it could have made the air war more lethal by spotting targets and flushing Serbian armor from hiding. But now the noisy, public ground-troops debates seem more likely to crack apart NATO than to cow Milosevic.

While the Clinton Administration likes to lay responsibility on NATO for originally barring the use of ground troops, in reality the White House grabbed onto European reluctance as a handy way out of a thorny thicket. Ardor for a ground war is as lacking in Washington as in every NATO capital but London. "If the U.S. wants to do something in NATO, like send in ground troops, it happens," says Ivo Daalder, director of the European Affairs office of the White House's National Security Council during Clinton's first term. "We've been consistently hiding behind NATO to avoid doing what we don't want to do."

Clinton's abdication of command on the issue leaves the alliance rudderless. "I think it is fundamentally dishonorable for a country which proclaims itself the world's leader to refuse to put soldiers on the line for its principles," says political science Professor John Harper of Johns Hopkins University. The resulting vacuum invites other NATO nations to float their own, conflicting proposals, to Milosevic's delight.

A more sure-footed White House could take the lead in convincing the public that ground troops might be necessary. Indeed, one poll showed that 60% of 1,206 Americans surveyed last week by the University of Maryland would back the dispatch of troops if it were required to prevail, even at the cost of 250 American lives. But soldiers--and politicians with an eye on the next election--believe such numbers are thoroughly squishy. "The political support for this operation isn't so strong that it can tolerate high casualties," insists retired Army General John Shalikashvili, who succeeded Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. "You should avoid the casualties if you can, even if it takes a little longer."

Or a lot longer. The diplomacy to end the war has been as slow to gather momentum as the air campaign itself. Although the pace quickened last week as an assortment of peace brokers jetted around Europe, they are producing about the same vague results. "We're creeping forward; we're inching forward," says a senior Administration official. "We're not taking great strides."

Last week Belgrade was throwing out hints that Serbia is ready to cut a deal. The government's savvy, well-spoken Minister Without Portfolio Goran Matic predicted in a New York Times interview that "we can expect a political settlement" this week. But the only man whose word really counts is Milosevic, and the word he keeps using is Ne. Even if he is looking for an exit, says a Russian official privy to Milosevic's talks with Moscow mediator Viktor Chernomyrdin, he still believes he can pick and choose the parts he will accept from NATO's peace plan.

That leaves the allies to dicker among themselves and with Russia over what bits might be negotiable. NATO has watered down slightly its original five cease-fire demands into an eight-point Group of Eight plan to win Russian participation, but important differences on key details remain. The biggest gap, though, may be Moscow's desire for a deal that lets Milosevic save face and keep control over Kosovo. Officials in Washington say their view is hardening: that Milosevic must no longer have that much power.

Diplomacy is destined to pick up speed as both NATO and Belgrade begin to realize they don't want the air war to last many more months. If NATO is not ready to take risks to defeat Milosevic, it may have to prepare itself, and the wider world, for the least bad negotiated settlement.

And winter comes quickly in Kosovo. Clinton pleaded for the allies to "stay focused and patient." But there are not many months left for the air campaign or the diplomacy to work in time for ethnic Albanians to be shepherded home to their charred villages before the autumn snows turn the battered province into a frigid moonscape. So too does the inflexible logic of winter force NATO to confront whether ground troops even remain a live option. As a State Department official noted, there's a lot of motion going on, but not a lot of change.

--With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Vienna, James Graff/Brussels, Thomas Sancton/Paris, Jan Stojaspal/Tirana and Douglas Waller/Washington


Cover Date: May 31, 1999

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