Should NATO Send in Ground Troops?

Slate’s Complete Kosovo Coverage

Dear Bob,

I agree with you that Milosevic has been emboldened rather than intimidated by the NATO air strikes.

As President Bush recognized in the run-up to the Gulf War, the option of ground troops must always be on the table. The fervent denials by William Cohen, Sandy Berger, and Madeleine Albright about the possibility of U.S. ground troops will go down in history as having been a green light for Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. It was the equivalent of Ambassador April Glaspie’s tacit approval of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

“Costing out” your options is a relatively straightforward exercise. For the first option, an immediate intervention of Kosovo with ground forces, the problem is with the “immediate” part. If the president decided tomorrow to “go,” the critical mass of ground troops needed to stop the atrocities would not be in place for a few weeks–and that is almost wildly optimistic.

To be sure, we could put forces in there within hours. At least one 2,000-man brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, with whom I recently served, is always on alert status. But suddenly thrusting lightly armed paratroopers (who, upon hitting the ground, are limited to walking) into Kosovo is obviously a risky operation. Now, we do risky operations (as if D-day wasn’t!), but I can’t see this president wanting to take that risk.

More realistically, paratroopers and rangers could seize airfields in Kosovo–and then we pump in troops via an “air bridge.” The Air Force would be considerably nervous about this, as the Serbs have really husbanded their air defenses and probably won’t turn them on and light them up until there are good targets such as this Berlin-airlift-type airflow. The real key to success in this operation would be mechanized forces–that is, tanks and other armored vehicles–and they would take some time to get to the region and into Kosovo. There are some 12,000 NATO troops in Macedonia, but they are a disparate bunch there for peacekeeping (the U.S. soldiers captured yesterday are tankers who have left their tanks in Germany!). Those troops are not ready for integrated offensive operations.

The officer who told you a tank company could do the job is surely the most confident man in the world. That is only 13 tanks and 120 soldiers. They are to chase tens of thousands of Serbs out of an area the size of Connecticut? I think a more realistic (but still optimistic by Pentagon standards) number is 30,000 to 50,000 NATO troops, of which I’m sure 20,000 would be U.S. We don’t need all of them before the going in, but I doubt anyone in NATO would act without at least 15,000 to 20,000 poised to go. The military is well aware that nobody goes down in the good history books by underestimating the enemy.

But hold on here! We’re leaping ahead of some important considerations:

Thinking about ground troops must be done in the context of several criteria. This is not a rote checklist, but a way of thinking through the exercise. I know that you and other advocates from both sides may see them as purposeful constraints, but they are profound policy considerations that have been learned at some cost.

1) Will the ground forces have goals that are defined, achievable, measurable, and sustainable? There must be much more behind the deployment of ground troops than the idea that they were sent to Kosovo because a) something must be done, b) this is something, c) therefore we must do it. We’ve talked about this and I’m not confident that the administration has your clarity of mission in mind.

2) Will the actions and goals of the ground forces lead to political success? The angst from Vietnam that gave rise to the Weinberger-Powell doctrines results not from the military’s losses there but from the fact that they were incurred in vain. Whatever ground troops do in Kosovo, their daily actions must directly contribute to the desired political solution.

3) Will this deployment have the support of Congress and the American people? The president and his advisers have long promulgated a myth about Americans being “casualty-averse.” Americans will tolerate casualties, but only in pursuit of causes that are understandable, important, achievable, and sustainable. Thus the support for the Gulf War despite predictions of 10,000 dead, and the paper-thin support for Somalia when it became obvious that the United States was changing little in that unhappy country. Leadership from the president can shape this support on Capitol Hill and throughout the United States. We cannot sustain the long haul in Kosovo without the country on board.

4) How will the deployment of ground troops affect America’s ability to respond to its other security commitments around the globe? Wall-to-wall Kosovo coverage has knocked Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and China off the news but not off our radar screens. Like it or not, the United States is an imperial power with global ambitions and a finite pool of military resources. A commitment to Kosovo must be weighed against this backdrop.

If we can work through those issues, we can construct a coherent policy. To answer your questions, I think the two scenarios you describe can meet all those criteria except those of congressional and public support. Support might exist but be deeply buried. To bring it to the surface, President Clinton must invest, as he never has before, his own political capital in trying to rally not only our nation but also 18 others. A very difficult task as people start to lose interest, which they will.

I will leave discussions of invading Serbia for later. With U.S. rhetoric at such a high pitch, we’ll have to invade or spin our way out of this and learn to live with Milosevic as we did in Bosnia. I think I know where you stand on that!