BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- In early June, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the most outspoken advocate of a ground invasion of Kosovo, had ordered the preparation of 30,000 letters calling up Britain's army reserves. Typed and addressed, they were about to go into the mail, making possible the commitment of up to 50,000 British troops -- half the standing army -- to go into Kosovo.http://www.nytimes.com/library/world/europe/110799kosovo-invasion.html
In Washington, President Clinton, with enormous reluctance, was about to give his own approval to preparations for a ground invasion of Kosovo, including up to 120,000 American troops -- despite his vow, in a televised speech on the first day of the war, March 24, that "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war."
Based on interviews with senior officials from seven governments -- the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Finland and Yugoslavia -- the United States came much closer to a ground war in Europe than is commonly understood.
On June 2, the day before President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia agreed to accept NATO's terms for an end to the conflict, the national security adviser, Sandy Berger, convened a lengthy meeting of the Clinton administration's top national security officials. The meeting included a detailed discussion of how NATO could win the war.
At almost the same time, former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin of Russia and President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland were in Belgrade, laying out NATO's terms to Milosevic, but few in Washington expected Milosevic to agree to them.
Chernomyrdin, unhappy with the terms, had nearly refused to go to Belgrade, but he listened as Ahtisaari told Milosevic that NATO would hit the city harder from the air, destroying its bridges and power plants, and was bound to invade Kosovo if necessary. Two weeks before, Clinton had said that "all options are on the table," and Chernomyrdin made it clear to Milosevic that Russia, which had supplied Belgrade radar information on incoming NATO aircraft, would be unable to help any further, even in the event of a ground invasion.
In Washington, White House officials were still looking hard for ground options short of the proposal put forth by Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO commander, which called for an invasion by up to 175,000 allied troops. They discussed the creation of a limited "exit corridor" for displaced Albanians to get out of Kosovo, and of "safe areas" for them inside Kosovo, where they could be given food and shelter.
But the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who did not favor an invasion, made it clear that they preferred Clark's proposals to anything that committed too few American troops to too limited a goal.
And the officials knew, they say, that Clinton had just a few days to authorize preparations for an invasion if it was to be sold to NATO, a reluctant Pentagon and a skeptical Congress and carried out before the winter, giving the refugees a chance to return home. The idea of the war's dragging through to the spring -- with Milosevic damaged but hanging on to Kosovo, 850,000 refugees still in camps and the NATO alliance fraying or splitting -- "was too awful to think about," one senior official said.
The British thought they needed up to four months -- 120 days -- to prepare for an invasion, which is why the call-up letters were nearly in the mail. The Americans thought they needed less than 90 days -- but their schedule was rudely extended when they suddenly discovered that, without significant new roadwork, the large American M1 Abrams tanks could not negotiate the single route from Albania into Kosovo.
Clark, whose troops were already rebuilding the road from Tirana to Kukes, in Albania, in preparation for a possible invasion, had wanted a decision by June 1, but thought June 10 was an absolute deadline to start an invasion in September. Clinton's ambassador to NATO, Alexander Vershbow, a former National Security Council official, believed for the first time that he could sell a ground war to the alliance, despite German, Italian and Greek unhappiness, but would need five or six days to do it.
The meeting of the officials broke up with an understanding that of the three American goals for the war -- NATO's victory, holding the alliance together and keeping Russia on board -- victory had become the only outcome that mattered, even if the alliance split and the Russians broke off cooperation with the West.
There was as yet no paper for Clinton to sign, but the only plan on the table was Clark's idea of an invasion by 175,000 troops through Albania, with some helicopter assaults from Italy and possibly a feint from the north, from Hungary, to tie Yugoslav forces down.
"Clinton was going to have to decide in a couple of days," one senior official said, referring to a formal approval by the president of intensive preparations for a September ground war. "There was no way around that."
The White House announced that Clinton would meet with the Joint Chiefs on June 3.
Earlier on June 2, Berger had met a group of outside experts and analysts who had been critical of the administration and urged the authorization of a ground war. The group included a former ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick; two former ambassadors to NATO, Robert Hunter and William Taft; a former NATO commander, George Joulwan; a former State Department official, Helmut Sonnenfeldt; a RAND Corp. official, Stephen Larrabee; and two former National Security Council officials, Ivo Daalder and Jeremy Rosner, who had helped Clinton sell NATO expansion to the Senate.
Berger told them that he was still convinced the air war was working -- an opinion not universally shared -- but told them that "we will win" no matter what was required to get "the Serbs out, NATO in and the Albanians back" to Kosovo.
There were "four irreducible facts," Berger said, according to notes taken by participants. "One, we will win. Period. Full stop. There is no alternative. Second, winning means what we said it means. Third, the air campaign is having a serious impact. Four, the president has said he has not ruled out any option. So go back to one. We will win."
In a subsequent discussion, Berger elaborated: "We have not yet concluded that the air campaign is not working. But we are preparing for the possibility that it isn't." And he said that victory would be won "in or outside NATO," adding: "A consensus in NATO is valuable. But it is not a sine qua non. We want to move with NATO, but it can't prevent us from moving."
He said, "There are a number of options and a number of time lines on how to use force, and we are looking at all of them." But in fact, officials say, there was only one option by then that the Joint Chiefs would support: Clark's option, even though the Pentagon and Defense Secretary William Cohen never liked the idea of an invasion at all.
An authorization by Clinton to send tens of thousands more American and NATO troops to prepare for a Kosovo invasion would have a psychological impact on Milosevic. Ideally, the officials hoped, such a decision would bring Milosevic to capitulate without the need to send those forces into battle.
Clinton had already had severe criticism from NATO officials and even a former NATO general, Klaus Naumann, for what they called the strategic folly of ruling out a ground invasion from the beginning of the war.
At the start of the bombing campaign, American and NATO expectations were that Milosevic would give in after just a few days of essentially symbolic bombing. American estimates that he would not hold out for more than 12 days of an escalating air campaign were wildly inaccurate.
Three weeks into the war, the officials said, as Milosevic drove ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo by the tens of thousands, there was real panic in Western capitals and new strains between Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who thought Milosevic would cave in early.
Blair was becoming convinced that a ground option was vital and made his own trip to NATO headquarters in mid-April -- just before NATO's queasy 50th anniversary summit meeting and again just afterward -- to discuss such an option.
While Clinton asked Blair in a telephone call to stop pressing publicly for a ground invasion before the summit meeting, the two men met with top officials during the meeting for a serious discussion of an invasion and approved joint planning for one, though it is not clear, some officials said, whether the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Henry Shelton, was informed.
Clark was given quiet authorization by the NATO secretary-general, Javier Solana, after conversations with Berger, to begin to discuss ground options. And Clinton was said to have decided that a ground war, if it had to happen, would not be "a half effort," one official said.
By mid-May, Clark had come up with his plan, and it was treated skeptically by the Pentagon, which was still unwilling to authorize the use of Army Apache helicopters over Kosovo. Still, with Blair pressing Clinton and the apparent failure of the air war to drive Milosevic out of Kosovo, Solana was authorized to have Clark work out a modified, detailed invasion plan. Clinton again had to ask Blair, in strong terms, to stop his government's public campaign for a ground option.
But in a photo opportunity on May 18, Clinton pointedly said that "all options are on the table," and within days, Clark was in Washington going over his plan with the Joint Chiefs. Clinton approved positioning up to 45,000 NATO troops (including 7,500 Americans) in Macedonia, to serve as part of a NATO occupation force for Kosovo if Belgrade capitulated, but as the core of a potential invasion force if not.
Pressed again by the British, Clinton sent Cohen to a secret meeting with his counterparts from Britain, Germany, France and Italy. At the meeting in Bonn, Germany, on May 27, the ministers decided that their governments would have to decide whether to assemble a ground force for an invasion, and do so pretty quickly.
So the officials, including Clark, reacted with enormous distrust and skepticism to clear signals coming from Belgrade as early as May that Milosevic was interested in discussing a deal. Despite all of NATO's public claims that Milosevic's army was being badly hurt, NATO generals understood that the army was well dug in and was not going to be bombed out of Kosovo. Increasingly, therefore, NATO strikes were aimed at putting political pressure on Milosevic and his regime by bombing civilian targets like bridges, roads, heating plants and electrical power stations.
"We knew he would have to capitulate sometime," one senior Western official said. "The only question was when. And no one expected him to cave in so soon."
Milosevic's acceptance of NATO's terms hit Washington with a shock early on June 3, and Clark and others evinced great skepticism, convinced that Belgrade was just trying to buy time and short-circuit any invasion.
But senior Yugoslav officials have said that Russian support for NATO's terms, the prospect of more intensive airstrikes against Belgrade's bridges and electrical and water systems, and, perhaps most important, the understanding that a ground invasion was imminent, were enough for Milosevic, who had won some important diplomatic shifts in NATO's stand.
Important for him, the United Nations would sanction the peace and control Kosovo, not NATO; Russian troops would be among the peacekeepers, and Kosovo was acknowledged to be a sovereign part of Yugoslavia. "It was the best moment for Milosevic to agree and save himself," one official said.
"In the end, the president concluded that he could not risk losing the war, and he was therefore prepared to send ground forces into Kosovo to assure a NATO victory," Daalder said. "But why did he and his advisers arrive at this conclusion so late into the war? Why did they not consider what might happen if Milosevic did not immediately cave when the bombing started? Indeed, why go to war if you're not prepared to go all the way?"
Daalder, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is working on a book about the Kosovo crisis with Michael O'Hanlon.
Some have contended that Kosovo has shown the possibility of winning a war with air power alone. But Daalder and numerous officials suggest that key to the psychology of Milosevic's decision was the prospect, real at last, of a ground war that he could not win and that would have decimated his army and police, two of the pillars on which his regime clearly rests. And one of the great security problems of the Balkans, as Milosevic holds on to power, these same officials say, remains his army and police, which he was able to withdraw nearly intact from Kosovo, precisely because NATO failed to destroy them from the air.
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