Ground Forces

President Clinton is right to be very cautious about sending ground troops into Kosovo. But developments may force him to do so.

The last week has shown once again the limits of air power. It can inflict heavy punishment on an enemy, but it can't create the desired "facts on the ground" - in this case, preventing Serbian forces' barbaric ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. Unlike Iraq, where the weather is more often clear than not, cloud cover over the Balkans has decidedly interfered with NATO air forces.

It's wrong to blame NATO air strikes for causing the atrocities now under way - Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was planning them anyway - but the NATO action probably caused Mr. Milosevic to accelerate and intensify his campaign. What air strikes can do in the short run is to slow the Serb assault and grind down the Yugoslav forces' ability to operate.

In hindsight, it can be argued that ruling out infantry action at the start let Milosevic know his own forces could operate unopposed except from the air. NATO clearly misjudged the ferocity and speed with which Serb forces would act. Its worst-case scenario, the massive depopulating of Kosovo, has virtually come about.

Now the Atlantic alliance must press its efforts to deter Milosevic's attack, concentrating on Serb forces and armor in Kosovo itself. US plans to send Apache helicopters and support teams to Albania make sense. The bombing over the weekend of government buildings in Belgrade may have had strategic value, but such raids carry a high probability of injury to civilians and should not become the main thrust of air operations.

NATO, meanwhile, should strengthen the planning process for sending in ground troops. That will increase pressure on the Serb leader and could, along with the continued air campaign, cause him to rethink his opposition to the Rambouillet accord.

At some point, NATO will have to go in, either with or without Serb acquiescence. NATO troops will have to be present in force before the hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanian refugees can return to rebuild their homes. And international forces will have to remain for a long time to protect an autonomous - if not independent - Kosovo where Serbs, too, have the right to live but that is only nominally under Yugoslav sovereignty.

Such military action is advocated with deep regret. The Yugoslav government's obsession with full sovereignty over the physical land of Kosovo must be reversed and Kosovar refugees allowed to return - under long-term international protection. At present, that's not in sight, and all necessary steps must be taken to challenge and defeat Milosevic's genocidal strategy.

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