Ground Troops: Nato Is Damned If It Does, Damned If It Doesn't

As NATO escalates its air bombardment in the Balkans, there's little sign that Yugoslav forces are giving up their bloody work in Kosovo. Now, the Serb-dominated army is threatening Montenegro and lobbing bombs into Albania as well. When NATO leaders meet in Washington on Apr. 23 for the alliance's 50th anniversary, the failure of the air campaign to stop the slaughter will present the 19 nations with a dreadful choice: commit NATO ground troops to combat for the first time--or risk a humiliating stand-off with Yugoslav forces that could cost thousands of innocent lives.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has not ruled out the commitment of ground troops, calls the conflict a "just war for civilization." But analysts say NATO leaders have had good reason for their reluctance to send in the infantry. The use of ground troops--either to defeat the Yugoslav army deep inside Serbia or at least create a safe haven in Kosovo--would be a choice laden with political and military risks.

NOT MUCH HELP. To start off, Yugoslavia's neighbors are reluctant to offer their territories as staging areas for ground forces. Hungary--which joined NATO in early April--has given NATO aircraft use of a support base in Taszar. But Budapest fears reprisals against the 350,000 ethnic Hungarians in Serbia, so it won't allow NATO ground forces to invade Serbia from Hungary. Macedonia is taking a similar tack. And while the Greek port of Thessaloniki would be crucial for supplying troops, leaders in Athens have opposed the port's use against their Orthodox brethren in Serbia.

Without cooperation from these countries, military logistics will be daunting. Take the goal of carving out a protectorate in Kosovo. Defense consultant Robbin Laird argues that a force of 10,000 to 15,000 elite U.S., British, and French troops could secure an area that would be a safe haven for Kosovars. As more backups came in, they would isolate Serb forces from Belgrade--which the current air campaign is already helping to achieve--and seal off the Serb-held area. Attacking the Serbs would draw them out from their hiding places, allowing aircraft and helicopters to knock out tanks. "You circle and let them wait it out for a while," he says.

GEOGRAPHIC NIGHTMARE. But it might not be that easy. NATO is devoting so many planes to an airlift to help refugees that the alliance is having trouble moving a few Apache helicopters, much less thousands of troops, into the region. What's more, NATO troops invading across the mountainous Albania-Kosovo frontier would have only two passable roads at their disposal. Both wind through the Pagarusa Valley, overlooked by ridges that would turn the troops below into easy targets for Serbian mortars. Air power and infantry would have trouble taking the ridges. That creates the risk of duplicating the disaster of Dienbienphu, where the French were encircled and defeated in Vietnam.

It would also take much longer to build up the larger force required to take on all of Yugoslavia. As the conflict drags on, popular support for escalation of the fighting is dwindling. Public opinion about the operation in Italy--a key staging ground for the air strikes--is evenly divided, but support has declined since the campaign began. Two-thirds of Germans polled recently oppose ground forces even before the first casualty, and surveys show that support in the U.S. would drop fast should there be a serious body-bag count. Using ground troops would be a military and political gamble. The question NATO leaders face is whether waiting for a none-too-certain victory in the air is an even bigger risk.