Officially, the US continues to maintain it does not intend to send ground forces to Kosovo. But the scale of Serbia's ethnic cleansing has triggered the administration to review its options amid a realization that President Clinton confronts a possible third genocide during his presidency, several US officials say.
Not only has it become infeasible to negotiate with Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic- now widely denounced as a war criminal - but there is no chance ethnic Albanians will maintain support of a prewar peace plan, the officials add.
They say one scenario being actively considered sees the Serb killing or expulsion of Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces as NATO continues pummeling the Yugoslav army and takes the war to the heart of the regime, targeting government facilities in Belgrade.
The bombing, they say, would continue until Yugoslav military capabilities are thoroughly ravaged. US and allied troops would then move into Kosovo, secure the province from whatever Serbian control persists and oversee the repatriation of ethnic Albanians and a massive reconstruction effort.
Says one US official: "If Milosevic wants a war with NATO ... he'd better be thinking total surrender."
President Clinton hinted at such a possible strategy in warning Milosevic on Tuesday that the international community might reconsider its support for Serbia's claim to Kosovo. But US officials say that while the US continues opposing independence for the province, a postwar Kosovo would be made an international protectorate that only nominally remains part of Yugoslavia.
Informed sources say British and French commanders are actively considering using their 12,000 troops in nearby Macedonia for rescue missions into Kosovo to save ethnic Albanians being targeted by Serb forces. Such operations would involve sending in British and French units to destroy the offending Serb units and then withdrawing back into Macedonia.
Any military operation would face immense obstacles, say military analysts, given the numbers of men that would be required and the time needed to gather them.
A quick ground invasion of combat forces might protect civilians from further attacks, but it would risk prolonged fighting and significant casualties in the face of a 40,000-strong Yugoslav Army in and around Kosovo.
"Collectively, NATO doesn't have the stomach for a grueling and expensive ground fight for a confused purpose," says Ted Foster, a military expert with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. Reaching a consensus among NATO's 19 members to send in ground troops would be almost impossible.
And even should such a decision be taken soon, there is "no chance" of gathering sufficient men for an invasion of Kosovo in less than a month, according to Nigel Vinson, another RUSI analyst. "It takes considerable time to mobilize forces and they haven't even been earmarked yet," he points out.
For the 12,000-man force already in Macedonia, it would take a month for those men to assemble themselves and their equipment, and they would need at least another 30,000 reinforcements - at the most conservative estimate - along with heavy armor if they were to launch an invasion rather than implement a peace agreement. That armor would have to come by sea.
Most of those troops would have to come from the United States. For Britain, with one brigade already committed to peacekeeping duties in Bosnia, recent defense budget cuts mean that it could send only 8,000 men to any Kosovo operation. France could possibly muster 15,000 at a pinch, but that would be the effective extent of Europe's capacity.
Germany has constitutional restrictions on Wehrmacht soldiers engaging in hostile action abroad, and other European armies are too small to make a difference.
"Only the United Kingdom and France are attuned to combined operations projected over distance," says Col. Terry Taylor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Even if Washington did provide the bulk of the combat force and the bulk of the logistical support, getting an invasion force into Kosovo would present enormous problems.
Macedonian Foreign Minister Aleksandar Dimitrov said on Monday that his government would not be prepared to host the formation of an invasion force, according to NATO sources.
Greece, too, would not be enthusiastic about assisting an assault on its traditional Orthodox Christian Serb allies. Greek support would be essential since all heavy equipment would have to pass through the Greek port of Thessalonika on its way to Macedonia.