The Balkan crisis: US keeps its sights on war scenario: American generals remain wary of committing large numbers of ground troops in a country where long-term peace is far from assured

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The Independent Online
A TOP general and friend of Colin Powell, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said before the Bosnian Serbs signed the Vance-Owen peace plan at the weekend: 'If this thing is signed, it'll be the beginning of Colin Powell's worst nightmare.'

The cynical conclusion that might be drawn from that remark is that the US would prefer for the Bosnian Serbs to go on fighting. For should the plan go to implementation, the US will have to honour a pledge made on 10 February: that they would be prepared to offer ground troops as peace-keepers in Bosnia. On that day, Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, also said the US should try to convince the three warring sides that a lasting solution to their conflict could be achieved only by negotiating a settlement within the framework of the UN-EC peace conference.

Since then, Gen Powell and his military colleagues have had their say. There is nothing an American military chief detests more than the prospect of large numbers of men and women overseas for an indefinite period of time. Mr Clinton's spokeswoman yesterday was considerably more circumspect than Mr Christopher in February: 'We've ruled out US ground troops, under any circumstances, except perhaps in implementation of a mutually agreed upon treaty.'

No sooner had the ink dried at Sunday's signing ceremony than Lord Owen publicly called on the US to join the 9,000 French, British, Canadians and others already on the ground in Bosnia. Logic dictates that of the 50,000 to 70,000 peace-keepers estimated to be required to carry out the plan, 20,000 to 30,000 should come from the US.

Small wonder, then, that Mr Clinton and his officials would seem to consider war in Bosnia a far less costly option than peace. Their war scenario - lifting the arms embargo and limited air strikes - involves no US ground troops. Small wonder that Mr Christopher is busy trying to persuade the allies to go along with the war scenario and have a military plan in place for the moment the Serbs put a foot wrong. As he said in London yesterday: 'It's very important that we have an agreed plan to go forward if the Serbs fail to implement the signatures they have now put on the Vance-Owen plan. We're not going to be deterred. We're not going to be thrown off stride by these steps . . . That means dealing quite resolutely with the Serbs.'

Should the peace plan reach the stage of implementation - requiring first approval by the Bosnian Serb assembly, then a new UN Security Council resolution - it is not yet clear what the UN peace-keepers would be required to do. The plan would require Bosnian Serbs to withdraw from 40 per cent of the territory they control now, but it appears this is to be a 'voluntary' process prior to the arrival of peace-keeping reinforcements. Should they fail to do so within the required 45 days, they will be in violation of a UN resolution and the Americans may yet have their day.

Conversely, should the plan to divide Bosnia into 10 ethnically based provinces ever become reality, even the Europeans admit it would mean a commitment for years. It would not even mean the end of 'ethnic cleansing'; but, they argue, it would be of the self-imposed kind.

An EC diplomat gave this view of the future: 'There would be a massive voluntary population transfer in all directions, and they're all going to hate each other, and a lot of UN peace-keeping troops would have to stay there for a very long time. It's at that point that the UN troops become peace-makers rather than peace-keepers.'

(Photograph omitted)