WASHINGTON -- If United Nations peacekeepers in Bosnia cannot prove their effectiveness in the next several weeks, a costly and dangerous NATO withdrawal of U.N. troops -- calling for the aid of as many as 25,000 U.S. troops -- appears almost certain to begin, officials on both sides of the Atlantic say.
Both President Clinton and allied European leaders, who are undertaking initiatives to support the embattled peacekeeping force, insist that they have not given up hope.
Mr. Clinton has invited congressional leaders and his national security team to dinner at the White House tomorrow, his first meeting with Congress on Bosnia since the Republicans took control of Congress in January. Confronted with rising demands from lawmakers of both parties for an immediate U.N. withdrawal, the president intends to argue that trying to extricate the peacekeepers would be worse.
In Europe, a new 10,000-strong European reaction force will begin its first operations in Bosnia today. Its goal is to aid the peacekeepers in their delivery of food and medicine through Serbian blockades to increasingly isolated Bosnian cities.
But policy-makers and military officials are more and more resigned to the fact that those are frail hopes and that the crucial factors necessary to maintain the status quo are out of their control.
Several factors could make a withdrawal inevitable, they say: reckless aggression by the Bosnian Serbs, foolhardy bravado by the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government or the passage by Congress of a resolution to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia.
The chances of an evacuation are being discussed with new urgency, as leaders in Washington and Europe increasingly feel that time is against them. The NATO withdrawal plan, approved last month by all 16 NATO members, calls for -- in the worst case -- a 5 1/2 -month evacuation that requires three months on the ground. If the withdrawal is to be largely complete before the dead of winter, the decision date is uncomfortably close.
"We don't have much time -- only a few weeks -- to re-establish our credibility," Gen. Philippe Morillon, a former commander of the U.N. Protection Force in Bosnia and a member of the French General Staff, warned in an interview in Paris. "This is the last chance."
It is always possible that the allies might decide that the dangers they face already are preferable to the dangers involved in an evacuation, including the risk of being bogged down in a wider war. But the French, in particular, say that they are unwilling to leave their forces in harm's way indefinitely.
That danger was underscored yesterday when Serbian tanks blasted a Dutch-operated U.N. observation post in Srebrenica, a "safe area" in eastern Bosnia, forcing the peacekeepers to withdraw through a hail of Bosnian government army fire that killed one U.N. soldier; a French peacekeeper was also wounded by a sniper in Sarajevo.
But the fighting underscored the dangers of a pullout as well: Extricating the Dutch soldiers would be assigned to U.S. troops, a fact Defense Secretary William J. Perry has cited repeatedly in stressing the need to bolster the U.N. force.
Reflecting the unpredictability of Serbian behavior and intentions, the United Nations also said yesterday that the Bosnian Serbs had agreed to allow aid trucks into Sarajevo, a promise that has been broken repeatedly.