WITH international peace efforts blocked and the UN mission impotent in Bosnia-Herzegovina, NATO ambassadors have requested a detailed plan for evacuating United Nations peacekeepers and asked member nations how many troops they might supply for the task.
Such a pullout would be bloody, chaotic, and most likely led by thousands of US ground troops, analysts warn. Hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslim civilians, left at the mercy of Bosnian Serb forces, may try to block the departure of UN troops.
The political stakes would be enormous. Britain and France would put intense pressure on the United States to commit ground troops to the operation.
``Unless the US is willing to ante up at least the 2,000 Marines currently in the Adriatic,'' says Patrick Glynn, a foreign policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, ``you can kiss NATO goodbye.''
British and French officials remain furious at the US for not committing ground troops to the UN mission in Bosnia, while pushing for a more aggressive use of NATO air power against the Serbs.
``I think there's a real feeling in Europe that this whole thing is due to the US acting unilaterally and siding with the Muslims,'' Mr. Glynn says. ``Just imagine the impact of European troops dying [as they pull out], and the US doesn't help.''
NATO officials estimate that an additional force of 20,000 to 25,000 troops will be needed to evacuate the 23,000 UN peacekeepers from Bosnia. NATO military experts are expected to present detailed withdrawal plans today.
A pullout would also force the Clinton administration and Republican leaders to act on their calls for arming the Bosnian Muslims and mounting an aggressive bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs.
The practicalities of taking military action in Bosnia are sobering, analysts say. Serb antiaircraft missile systems could shoot down US planes. Bombing would hold back Serb forces only temporarily and may not significantly reduce the huge advantage the Bosnian Serbs have in heavy artillery.
Direct US arming of the Bosnian Muslims is also risky. It could provoke an already irritated Russia into arming the Serbs and solidifying the ``cold peace'' that Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned of at this week's Council on Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Budapest.
For President Clinton, it is a lose-lose situation, according to Glynn. ``Clinton is going to be blamed either way. If he doesn't bomb, any disaster that occurs will be blamed on him,'' he says. ``If he does, he'll be blamed for whatever disaster it causes.''
Scenarios of what will happen on the ground in Bosnia vary widely, but all are grim.
``There will be mayhem,'' says Paul Beaver, editor of the London-based Jane's Balkans Sentinel. ``There's going to be a six-month breathing space for the Serbs to go in and finish the Muslims off.''
Mr. Beaver predicts that Muslims in surrounded enclaves fearing Serb massacres may try to block a UN pullout. ``I'm sure they'll try passive resistance,'' he says. ``The Brits and French won't run over women and children. It's going to be very difficult.''
UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Peter Kessler says humanitarian aid efforts will continue if UN Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) pull out, but the already limited aid operation could be further hampered by widespread fighting.
Mr. Kessler says the most vulnerable people following a pullout are the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in Bosnia's Serb-surrounded Muslim enclaves and Sarajevo.
``For the people of Sarajevo, the airport provides the only lifeline ... and the operation of the airlift is closely related to UNPROFOR's presence. They monitor all security there,'' Kessler says. ``A lot will depend on the cooperation of local authorities.''
How quickly the pullout occurs and whether a UN arms embargo is lifted will be crucial in determining the Muslims' fate. Analysts say if the Bosnian Muslims - who have twice as many troops as the Bosnian Serbs - have enough time to be armed and trained, they could be a formidable foe.
``The Muslims ... are far from finished,'' says a Zagreb-based diplomat. ``There is some [military] cooperation between Muslim and Croat forces. The federation [between Muslim-led Bosnia and neighboring Croatia] is not finished either.''
Islamic nations have also said they will quickly step in to fill the gap left by a UN withdrawal. Four Muslim countries, including Iran and Iraq, offered on Wednesday to send 20,000 peacekeepers to Bosnia and supply heavy weapons to Bosnian Muslim forces.
Marshall Harris, executive director of the Washington-based Action Council for Peace in the Balkans, cautions that a full pullout may never occur, because the UN presence helps both sides.
``I think when [the Bosnian Serbs] weigh things in the balance, they won't want a UN pullout. The peacekeepers are too valuable to them [as potential hostages] to prevent airstrikes,'' says Mr. Harris, who resigned from the State Department in August 1993 to protest US policy on Bosnia.
Jane's analyst Beaver says a massive pullout can and will occur. ``It will be difficult, but it won't be impossible,'' he says. ``The military has been planning this for months. All the politicians need to do is decide to do it.''
But the horror that may await both sides - especially the Muslims - in a bitter war that has already claimed over 200,000 dead and missing, leads even pullout backers to give pause.
``This whole thing is going to leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth,'' Glynn says. ``I think we're looking at a debacle.''