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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.