WASHINGTON -- With the United Nations Security Council on the eve of authorizing military force to guarantee humanitarian aid to Bosnia, Pentagon officials yesterday painted a bleak outlook for armed intervention in the Balkans.
It would take 60,000 to 120,000 ground troops just to secure a lifeline to beleaguered Sarajevo, Lt. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, assistant to Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Air strikes would be of little use against the intermingled guerrilla forces in Bosnia, General McCaffrey said, and even an airtight arms embargo would do little good, since the Serbs and Bosnians have enough munitions stockpiled to keep fighting for at least a year.
Quelling the conflict would require at least 400,000 troops, he said, and could lead to "a very bitter struggle."
American, British and other allied military officials held lengthy contingency planning sessions in Brussels yesterday to consider a range of options, including dispatching "more than one division" of NATO ground forces to safeguard the routes for delivering humanitarian supplies. But no immediate action is contemplated.
The fighting continued in the Balkan republic yesterday.
One indication that the White House does not plan immediate military action: Defense Secretary Dick Cheney is leaving town for a weekend in Seattle, two days at next week's GOP convention in Houston and then a fishing trip to Wyoming.
"There's no easy or quick solution," General McCaffrey said yesterday, for the deep ethnic and religious hatred that has made the Balkans a battleground for centuries. "There are about 200,000 people carrying weapons in Bosnia-Hercegovina alone," he said.
The nature of the conflict is more akin to Beirut than the Persian Gulf, Pentagon officials said. Rugged terrain, forests and guerrilla tactics combine to make outside intervention difficult, if not impossible. Even if the U.N. were able to marshall enough troops to stifle the conflict, it would almost certainly resume once they left, General McCaffrey said.
Under at least one military option, a brigade or more of U.S. Army ground forces would be sent to the Balkans as part of a NATO division to safeguard routes to Sarajevo. Other options call for U.S. fighters and fighter-bombers to fly continuous "combat air patrols" over Bosnia while European NATO forces convoy supplies to the embattled residents of Sarajevo.
General McCaffrey estimated that 60,000 to 120,000 troops would be required to guarantee a 30-kilometer perimeter around the Sarajevo airport and the 200-mile highway corridor to the town of Split.