War in The Balkans: Clinton prepares US for a long slog

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT BILL Clinton and senior members of his security team were out in force yesterday, defending the Nato operation in the Balkans and pledging that it would continue "for as long as it takes to achieve our objectives. Our timetable," Mr Clinton told an audience in San Francisco, "will be determined by our goals, not the other way round".

Summarising the achievements of the Nato campaign at its three-week point, Mr Clinton said Yugoslav air defences had been degraded to the point where Nato can fly 24 hours a day, not simply at night. All Yugoslavia's oil refineries had been destroyed, as had its capacity to produce ammunition.

Earlier, the Defence Secretary, William Cohen, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hugh Shelton, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee with the most detailed exposition yet both of the rationale behind the operation and its achievements so far.

The Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, told a separate committee she was keeping in contact with the Russians and planned to make daily broadcasts in Serbo-Croat (she lived in Belgrade as a child) to counter Serb propaganda.

With many in Congress clamouring for the use of ground troops, Mr Cohen told senators that even the air operation was "very risky", and the reason there had been no planning for ground troops was because "in truth, there was no consensus in Nato to do anything but this". He noted that there had been no consensus in Congress even for the 4,000 men that the US was planning to contribute to a Nato peace-keeping contingent of seven times that number, and warned that from now on Nato and US casualties were probable rather than possible.

Any debate on ground troops in Nato, he said, blurring the distinction between a debate in the US and in Nato as a whole, "could have been endless" and resulted in no one taking any action "while exterminations were taking place in Kosovo on an instalment basis". In fact, he said, Nato had conducted two "assessments". The first had considered a "non-permissive environment", taking control by force of "just Kosovo", or Belgrade and much of Serbia as well. The first, he said, would have required a force of 75,000; the second 200,000. The other scenario presupposed a "permissive environment" and estimated a force of 28,000-30,000 troops for peace-keeping.

General Shelton warned that if ground troops were to be sent, the time from dispatch to deployment would be "long drawn out", and that nothing could be decided without the "support of Congress and the American people", otherwise it would "fracture the alliance". The current position, he said, was that "the North Atlantic Council has said specifically not to commence planning "for ground troops".

In his breakdown of the operation so far, General Shelton said that the US had deployed 463 planes in the region, 247 of them fighters and bombers, 17 reconnaissance and the remainder support aircraft. Other Nato countries had contributed 217, the majority being fighters. US naval forces included an aircraft-carrier, two submarines and several minesweepers in the Adriatic.

It would not be easy, he told sceptical senators, to complete the operation with air power alone. "It will take a long time, but" - he said with emphasis - "the military objective as outlined can be accomplished".

There had been a three-phase plan: 1. To create the conditions to facilitate the operation; 2. To "isolate Serbian forces", and 3. "To dominate or decimate those forces". At each stage the hope was that Slobodan Milosevic would choose a political settlement.

The first stage had entailed the use of mainly long-range missiles and precision bombing to destroy or neutralise Yugoslavia's Russian, British and US-supplied air defences. In the second stage the range of ground targets had been steadily increased to include the headquarters of the army and police, Yugoslavia's integrated command and control system, its military supply system, and the road and rail network. The third stage would concentrate on forces in the field. "That is about where we are now."

Cataloguing the damage, General Shelton said 50 per cent of Yugoslavia's frontline fighters had been destroyed, with the bulk of surface-to-air missile storage sites, military headquarters buildings and barracks belonging to the police and army. A "considerable amount" of the country's fuel supplies had been destroyed, and three-quarters of munitions production had been "damaged or destroyed" in all areas of Serbia.

Mr Cohen said it was wrong to believe the Kosovo Liberation Army was destroyed: it had lost maybe "several hundred" men but was fast being replenished as Kosovars were "radicalised" by the Yugoslav assault. One objective, General Shelton noted, was to "degrade" the Yugoslav forces to the point where "the balance of power shifts between uniformed members of the Serb forces and the KLA".

On the risk that Russia could become involved, Mr Cohen said the US had "no evidence" Russia was sending war supplies to Yugoslavia. Washington had warned Moscow of "serious consequences" if the intelligence-gathering ship it was sending to the Adriatic was used to convey information to the Serbs.

President Clinton devoted a lengthy passage in his San Francisco speech to the reasons why the US opposed full independence for Kosovo, even though it was understandable that Kosovars might want it.

The province, he said, "lacks resources and infrastructure, and its neighbours fear it would be unstable and that instability could be contagious. For every grievance solved" by moving people or borders, he warned, "a new one would be created."

There would be continual fissuring into smaller and smaller states: "The last thing you need in the Balkans is more Balkanisation."

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