Clinton Expected To
Order 90,000 American
Troops To Kosovo
By Michael Evans
Defence Editor
President Clinton is now ready to consider a full-scale land war against Serb forces in Kosovo, sending up to 90,000 combat troops from America, if no peace settlement emerges within the next three weeks.
Although Nato is only officially planning for a peace implementation force of 50,000-60,000 troops, there is a growing feeling in Washington and London that the alliance must prepare itself for a much bigger operation, involving 150,000-160,000 troops.
Mr Clinton's dramatic conversion, after weeks of apparent reluctance to send in ground troops, has emerged in the light of detailed briefings from General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander, last week.
A new sense of urgency has been injected into Nato's contingency planning because of a warning from the military that a decision will have to be made "by mid-June" if the alliance is to contemplate a ground offensive.
The tight timetable is being dictated by the alliance's determination to start returning ethnic Albanian refugees to their homes in Kosovo before the winter.
The huge number of troops required for such an operation will be a daunting challenge for Nato. However, alliance sources said that with Mr Clinton committed to defeating Mr Milosevic one way or another, the US would be expected to contribute more than half of the force.
They estimated the US contribution could be about 90,000 troops who would be deployed from America, not from Germany. They might include the 12,500-man US 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which was deployed in the Gulf War in 1991.
Britain and France would also be expected to play a major part. Yesterday, George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, took the first step by announcing an extra 12,000 troops and support personnel for the peace implementation force, called Kfor. This will bring the total British military strength committed to the Kosovo crisis in Albania, Macedonia, Italy and the Adriatic to more than 19,000.
Although Mr Robertson insisted that it was not an invasion force, Tony Blair indicated in the Commons that the troops could be used for a combat role.
The alliance sources said that the size of an invasion force would depend on the amount of damage achieved by the airstrikes against the Serb troops in Kosovo over the next few weeks. Last week, it was estimated that the Serb strength in the province remained at about 40,000 in spite of two months of bombing.
However, Nato still hopes that the intensified bombing campaign combined with Russian diplomatic efforts will persuade President Milosevic to agree to the alliance's five conditions for stopping the airstrikes.
It is also recognised that if Nato were seen to be preparing for a land offensive, while backing Moscow's peace diplomacy, it could seriously undermine the already strained relations between Russia and the alliance.
Another key factor is that the alliance itself has to be held together, and any formal request made to the 19 member states for authority to plan for a ground war could damage the unity that has been maintained so far. Germany indicated yesterday that it would not veto a move towards a ground war, although its troops would not take part.
One resolve shared by the whole of Nato is that Mr Milosevic must not win, and the alliance sources said that if the air campaign and diplomatic efforts failed to get the Yugoslav leader to back down within the next three weeks, there would be no alternative but to prepare a ground offensive.
The alliance sources admitted that the operation would be difficult, "but not impossible", and that a number of ways into the province were being studied.