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NATO Preparing for Possible Troop Deployment in Bosnia

By John Lancaster
and Daniel Williams

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

With Bosnian peace talks reaching a critical point, NATO military planners have begun to prepare for the possible deployment of roughly 50,000 peace-keeping troops, including thousands of U.S. infantry soldiers and Marines, according to senior NATO officers.

If a peace agreement is reached, the U.S. troops and their NATO counterparts would arrive in Bosnia by rail, road and air, then spread out across the countryside to help maintain order while the country is rebuilt. The size of the U.S. contribution has yet to be determined but could reach 20,000 or more, the officers said.

The planning is still in its preliminary stages, since neither the United States nor its NATO allies want to commit specific numbers of troops until there is a viable settlement among Bosnian Serbs, Croats and the country's Muslim-led government.

Even then, U.S. and NATO troops could be in for a long and dangerous stay if the warring parties resume hostilities. That could prove politically damaging for the Clinton administration, already struggling to map an exit for U.S. soldiers in Somalia and preserve its focus on domestic policy.

Nevertheless, President Clinton intends to live up to the commitment he made in February to provide U.S. ground troops in support of a peace settlement, administration officials said. The administration has embraced with reservations a plan brokered by European Community mediators in Geneva that would carve the country into three ethnically distinct republics.

Peace talks are scheduled to reconvene Monday in Geneva, with the possibility that Bosnia's Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, could sign the peace plan. While Bosnia's Serbs and Croats have already endorsed the proposed solution, Izetbegovic and his followers have criticized it as tantamount to the destruction of an internationally recognized state and a reward for aggressive Serb nationalist forces.

The Muslims face pressure from U.S. and European governments, which have warned them that demands that would derail the talks could undermine a NATO pledge to protect Sarajevo and other Muslim population centers.

U.S. officials said that in addition to reaching agreement, all three warring parties would have to take concrete steps -- such as impounding heavy weapons and ceasing hostilities -- to show they intend to abide by the terms of a peace accord. The United Nations would then authorize the peace-keeping mission, paving the way for deployment of NATO troops.

At the same time, U.S. officials do not want to wait too long to judge the effectiveness of any peace accord, fearing that Serb forces might take advantage of the delay to resume their attacks. U.S. officials thus expect a phased insertion of NATO troops, area by area in Bosnia, as the Serbs withdraw.

The bulk of the planning is taking place at the Naples headquarters of Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, who commands allied forces in southern Europe. Boorda had something of a head start, having already commissioned detailed peace-keeping plans in anticipation of an earlier proposal, the so-called Vance-Owen peace plan, which would have divided the country into ten semi-autonomous cantons.

That proposal fell apart in May when the Serbs refused to sign, but Boorda ordered his staff to continue the planning effort through late June in anticipation that some military intervention might be needed, NATO sources said. Two weeks ago, Boorda ordered his staff to resume their planning efforts as negotiators reported progress in the Geneva talks, a senior NATO officer said.

"If NATO gets called upon to do the job, it just makes good sense to be ready to do it because the planning is very complex," the officer said.

NATO officers said planners have come up with a slimmed-down version of the earlier peace-keeping plan, which called for deployment of 25,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops out of a total NATO commitment of 77,000. They added, however, that because Boorda's staff received its copy of the Geneva draft agreement only this week, planners have yet to determine how many troops the new mission would require; several put the ballpark figure at 50,000.

The NATO officers said that Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, the top NATO commander in Europe and soon-to-be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wants to move in quickly and secure heavy weapons with the goal of establishing security early in the mission. That way, the officers said, the operation could make a swift transition to a smaller security force and avoid the costs of a prolonged stay.

The officer said the planners are devoting considerable attention to logistics: tens of thousands of troops would have to be housed, moved and fed in a country whose infrastructure has been gutted by two years of war. One unique aspect of the plan calls for creation of a separate, U.S.-run "logistics command," which would coordinate support to U.S. and allied troops. That operation would likely be commanded by Army Lt. Gen. William G. Pagonis, the logistician for U.S. forces during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm which routed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991, military sources said.

In addition, Clinton could end up having to defend a Bosnian peace agreement clearly weighted against the Muslim-led government, which has been vastly disadvantaged on the battlefield. Putting U.S. troops on the ground could be interpreted as, in effect, endorsing Serb gains won in part by a terror campaign against civilians.