Ground war seems inevitable, but what kind of peace will follow it?

The politics of wishful thinking have led us down dark Balkan alleys in the past
Click to follow
AT LAST we are readying ourselves for the battle long postponed. After the accidents and intelligence failures of the air war, we are being enjoined to have faith in the "big sharp teeth" of Nato ground forces. Naturally enough, we are told that the bombing has many weeks, if not months, left to run. With every new day we are told that it has reached a pitch of unprecedented intensity. But Nato is preparing for the option of entering Kosovo without the agreement of Belgrade - into a semi-permissive environment, as the politicians like to call it.

The indictment of Milosevic as a war criminal has removed the possibility of a fudge or compromise that could have saved his face. The endgame is now truly being played out and before the autumn we will see Allied troops on Yugoslav soil. The master of Belgrade has placed his hopes on Nato not being able to mount an offensive before the winter - for political and logistical reasons - and almost certainly calculates that the winter will allow him time to extract the deal he wants from the Alliance. For reasons I will come to in a moment, it is the single greatest miscalculation of his political career.

There was a time - in the immediate aftermath of the Chinese embassy bombing - when Milosevic might have tempted the Americans, and most of the other Nato countries (Britain excluded), with a compromise deal. That time has passed. In the eyes of the Allies, he has ceased to be a man with whom they can do business.

Of course, there are quiet prayers that Mr Milosevic will agree to Nato's terms, or be driven from office by his soldiers or restive civilians. But we would be well advised to treat reports of imminent rebellion or collapse with circumspection. The politics of wishful thinking have led us down dark Balkan alleys in the past; the truth is that we are edging closer to a confrontation on the ground from which there can be no retreat without the consequent destruction of Nato as an institution, not to mention the reputations of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. More to the point, there isn't a snowball's chance in hell of the refugees going home until they have well-armed Nato troops in front, around and behind them. I know, because I've spoken to enough of the refugees to have some idea of the terror they faced at the hands of the Serbs.

So the war is where we are, and no amount of talk about urgently calling Balkan peace conferences will alter that fact. Milosevic makes a real deal only when he has no other option, or when the game is no longer worth the candle; that was the lesson of Dayton. Back then, the Bosnian Serbs weren't worth the pain he was suffering. And so, like the Serbs of the Krajina, he abandoned them.

He has less room for manoeuvre on Kosovo. It really does represent a vital political interest in the way that the Bosnian Serbs never did. Too much of Milosevic's own political power was built on exploiting Serb nationalism and the deep-seated feelings of grievance that existed among Kosovo's Serb minority. It is not part of the abandoned project of a Greater Serbia, but part of Serbia itself. We can safely assume that a cave- in over Kosovo will come only when Milosevic has exhausted every other possibility, or has been driven from power.

And he is a cunning operator. He may not look quite the confident figure of a fortnight ago, but he still has other cards up his sleeve. A coup in Montenegro with a fresh refugee crisis is one possibility; shelling the border areas of Albania and Macedonia, causing panic and chaos, is another. But, as I've mentioned already, the most obvious temptation is for him simply to sit tight in Belgrade while the bombs fall, hoping for a catastrophic mistake by Nato that will fatally split the Alliance.

In all of this he has misjudged the mood now prevailing in London and, more importantly, Washington. There is a determination to see the war through to military victory and, if possible, to dislodge Milosevic from power. Nor should too much be read into the unease of the Greeks, Italians and Germans. They all have problems with public opinion, but would rather stay a difficult course than risk the destruction of the Alliance.

If the operation to enter Kosovo is couched not as an invasion but as a humanitarian operation to help the internally displaced and hungry, it is likely that political turmoil in European capitals will be avoided (with the possible exception of Athens). But if there is going to be real fighting on the ground, people would be well advised to consider what this would entail.

There will be casualties, and casualties mean coffins returning to RAF bases, and bleak funerals. I don't doubt that the military battle will be won by Nato; what nobody can say is how high the price will be in terms of military and civilian casualties. There tend to be two views of the Serbs as fighters: 1) they are fierce guerrillas who will fight for every inch of ground; 2) they are drunken blackguards who will flee once Nato attacks. There is no way of knowing until the fighting starts, but I suspect the truth is somewhere between the two.

And when the war is over, we have the prospect of the most turbulent peace. Does anybody seriously think that Albanians and Serbs will live alongside one another again?

It is fair to surmise that any Nato advance into Kosovo will be accompanied by an exodus of the Serb population. Guarantees of safety from Nato commanders will not impress the Kosovo Serbs, particularly if their army is fleeing north towards Belgrade. It is the attitude of the KLA and the returning refugees that will define the choice to be made by ordinary Serbs. And there is precious little appetite for reconciliation among the Kosovar Albanians who have been driven out by Milosevic. One repeatedly hears from refugees that they will never live with the Serbs again. The flight of thousands of Serbs will be embarrassing for Nato commanders whose moral task has been to defeat the very idea of "ethnic cleansing".

As for the KLA's wider ambitions, it will emerge from this war strengthened in terms of its support base. The refugee population has been radicalised by its experience; it has seen that - up to now, at least - the only people fighting its cause on the ground are the KLA. There may be some handover of weapons to Nato, but expect the KLA to stay armed and determined to pursue independence. Precisely how Nato plans to reconcile the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia and the political goals of the KLA, we do not yet know. I only hope somebody is making plans.

It is at this point - when the fighting has stopped - that the idea of a wider Balkan peace conference becomes critical. As we have been told to the point of tedium, there is a great deal more at stake here than the future of Kosovo itself. We will need a framework that maps out the political and economic future of the region well into the next century. And sitting around the table we are going to need Nato, the Russians, the Kosovar Albanians, the Macedonians, the Albanians and, critically... the Serbs.

But don't expect to see Mr Milosevic at that conference, or even managing events from Belgrade. We passed a point of no return with him this week. Peace, when it comes, will be troublesome enough without those malign fingers pulling strings.

The writer is a BBC special correspondent