WASHINGTON -- By the middle of this month, thousands of U.S. soldiers could be sent to the strife-torn Yugoslav province of Kosovo and remain for years as part of a NATO peacekeeping force of up to 35,000 soldiers whose duties and duration are only in the vague planning stage.
Officials acknowledge that the plan could go terribly wrong: The Serbs could refuse to cooperate and could, as a consequence, be bombed. Kosovo's ethnic Albanian rebels -- the Kosovo Liberation Army -- could prove so intransigent that they would be left at the mercy of the Serbs.
For centuries, the province has been a symbol of ethnic tension between Muslims and Serbs, and Western experts fear that if fighting there spreads, it could ignite a regional war, drawing in Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece and possibly Turkey.
Top administration officials -- including Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- met yesterday with senators to discuss the still-uncertain plan for a peacekeeping force. The NATO force is expected to remain for at least three years, during which Kosovo would be granted autonomy from Serbia.
"A lot of the concept, a lot of the size of the force, I think, will depend on what type of a settlement or cease-fire comes out of the agreement between the two factions," Shelton told the Senate Armed Services Committee, shortly before the closed-door meeting with senators.
Cohen told the committee: "We are part of NATO, and therefore we will make a contribution" to the Kosovo force, though the number of U.S. troops "should be relatively small by comparison" to what the Europeans contribute.
"Because we have been carrying a very large load as far as the Air Force component, and should there be any air strikes that would be ordered, we would be the ones carrying the load on that, therefore I think more responsibility should be shifted to the Europeans to bear."
Shelton said the "maximum number" of U.S. servicement who would join a NATO deployment in Kosovo would be 2,000 to 4,000 troops.
The reason for any intervention is the breakdown of a cease-fire negotiated in October by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke. The breakdown was brutally driven home by the recent massacre of 45 ethnic Albanians, jolting Western leaders into action.
In the spring, officials fear, a better-armed, better-led and better-trained rebel force could challenge Yugoslav forces, reigniting the conflict with new savagery.
"We assess that if the fighting escalates in the spring as we expect, it will be bloodier than last year's. Belgrade will seek to crush the KLA once and for all, while the insurgents will have the capability to inflict heavier casualties on Serb forces," George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday.
The peacekeeping force is an integral part of a peace plan that U.S. and European officials hope will start taking shape Saturday at Rambouillet, a chateau outside Paris.
The aim of the talks is to produce a three-year interim agreement that grants substantial autonomy to Kosovo while keeping it within Yugoslavia.
The KLA indicated Tuesday that it would attend. No final word has come from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but he is expected to send a delegation as well.
If an agreement is reached, NATO would quickly place the peacekeeping force on the ground. "Things could happen fast," said a NATO diplomat.
The military plans are being drawn up by British Gen. Sir Rupert Smith, the deputy supreme allied commander of NATO, and are expected to be completed by this weekend.
Smith is "struggling" with what is called a "troop-to-task analysis," said one military official. Plans call for various levels of troops that would be needed to enforce a peace settlement or to force one, said one NATO source, with a high end at around 35,000.
That would more than double the number of NATO soldiers in the Balkans, where 32,000 -- including 6,900 Americans -- remain in Bosnia.
These figures, however, are "back of the envelope" estimates and not the result of careful planning, a NATO diplomat acknowledged.
Indeed, the exact size and the tasks of the peacekeeping force are expected to be worked out in the course of the talks at Rambouillet. But a NATO source suggesting U.S. mechanized infantry and armored troops would likely be deployed as part of the force.
Even the number of Americans being talked about now is unlikely to satisfy the Europeans, who would prefer a bigger U.S. force.
A large ground presence is needed because of Kosovo's bitter history. Its 90 percent Albanian majority has been repressed by the Serbs, for whom the province has been considered sacred ground for centuries since they lost a large battle there to the Turks.
Compared with Bosnia, "the situation in Kosovo is fraught with a bit more danger," Tenet told the Senate earlier this week. "In Bosnia we had a situation where all parties had exhausted themselves. That's not the situation you find yourself in today."
Though most the the NATO troops' tasks are unclear, they are likely to try to stem the arms flow to the ethnic Albanian rebels.
NATO is working with neighboring Albania on a plan to deploy troops along its border with Kosovo to prevent small arms -- from AK-47s to rocket propelled grenades -- from being smuggled over the rugged hills.
Up to 2,400 NATO troops could be used for such duty in the hills, which have been compared to the supply line of the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War, said the source.
It's also possible that a 1,000-strong civilian monitoring mission, which includes about 150 Americans, would remain in Kosovo. The monitors were put into Kosovo as part of the deal worked out with Milosevic last October.
Retired army General George Joulwan, who served as NATO supreme allied commander before its current chief, Gen. Wesley Clark, is worried about the lack of focus for military intervention.
What is essential, Joulwan said, is "clarity of mission."
"Do you have to seal the Albanian borders? Do you have to evacuate humanitarian organizations? Do you have to disarm both sides?" wondered Joulwan, who has supported both bombing Serbia and a robust ground force to keep the peace.
"We don't have a strategy, it's reactive rather than proactive," he said.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and combat veteran in Vietnam, agreed.
"The administration must be honest with the American public here: what are we committed to, and what are we committing to? And I suspect that it is probably a three-year period" in Kosovo, said Hagel, who supports U.S. troops being part of a NATO force "if that action is peacekeeping, not peacemaking."
Hagel is joined by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, and Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican, in saying that U.S. troops should be part of a peacekeeping effort and urging the Clinton Administration to discuss what is at stake. Sen. John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, is in this camp.
But many members of Congress have strong misgivings about deploying U.S. soldiers in such a dangerous place, that poses no obvious threat to the United States.
Yesterday, Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, told Cohen and Shelton he was worried about both the cost and duration of any peacekeeping mission to Kosovo.
"From my conversations with other senators, I don't believe this Congress is going to be very receptive to any major long-term commitment of troops in Kosovo," Sessions said.
Two other factors may disturb Congress: a British general would likely command the NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, and talks to determine the peace mission are being headed by France and Britain.
Pub Date: 2/04/99