Reversing their oft-stated pledge that NATO would send peacekeeping troops into Kosovo only after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had signed a peace treaty, key Western allies now appear closer to ordering a ground invasion of the province even against Serbian military opposition.
NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana disclosed yesterday he had authorized military commanders to update plans for such an assault.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Tuesday at NATO headquarters that although "we have always made clear the difficulties of putting in ground forces ... against undegraded, organized Serb resistance," the alliance had "also equally made it clear that the international military force is there to allow people back to their homes ... and of course we have been building up forces in the area precisely so that we can achieve that aim."
In Paris, a senior official envisioned the possibility that "we do not wait for Milosevic to capitulate, but when we have weakened his military potential enough for him not to fight back, it will be unnecessary to negotiate."
Although NATO diplomats and officials insist they still hope that intensified aerial bombardment will persuade President Milosevic to withdraw his troops from Kosovo, they say they could quickly revise invasion plans that were drafted last year.
Those plans were rejected at the time by NATO governments as excessively costly, complex, and risky, and the alliance's 19 governments are still far from a consensus about the need for a ground assault. "There are sharp disagreements about this within the alliance," US Secretary of Defense William Cohen said on Wednesday.
The stage thus seems set for several more weeks of increasingly heavy bombardment. This would serve the twin purposes of piling pressure on Mr. Milosevic to sue for peace, and of trying to reduce the Yugoslav Army and special police forces to disorganized and poorly equipped units able to put up only weak resistance in case of a NATO assault.
"It will require starving and isolating the Kosovo-based Yugoslav Army and police to the point where it will really hurt them, and you could go in in a semi-permissive environment," says one NATO diplomat here.
Military planners are putting a lot of faith in US Army Apache helicopters that began arriving in Albania Wednesday. Designed for use against small units and armored vehicles deep in enemy territory, the Apaches are better suited than high-flying bombers to attack the squads of Serb soldiers who are forcing ethnic Albanian Kosovars from their homes and then burning their villages.
"We started with broader strategic targeting; now there is a great urgency to degrade his ability to kill Kosovars," says another NATO diplomat. "The Apaches and the A-10s (so called "tank-buster" airplanes) lend themselves to a tactical approach."
Meanwhile, the bombing is expected to intensify in Serbia proper, as well as in Kosovo, as pilots seek to strike at a wider range of military-industrial targets. NATO bombers are now flying twice as many daily sorties as they were a month ago, and the operation's commander in chief, Gen. Wesley Clark, has asked for 300 more planes.
"Nothing we have seen so far is a clear stop to their [Yugoslav] operations," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon this week. "What we are seeing is signs that we are grinding them down, but it's slow and it will require a lot more attacking."
NATO planners acknowledge that the bombardment has had less effect than expected, especially against Yugoslav air defenses. This is partly because bad weather has hampered accurate targeting - especially from the high altitudes that NATO pilots have been maintaining for safety - and also because the Yugoslav Army has been adroit at hiding its assets, the planners say.
BUT many targets that cannot be hidden also remain undamaged. Yugoslavia still retains 75 percent of its stored fuel, according to Mr. Blair.
Many independent military analysts blame the step-by-step nature of the air campaign, which started slowly in the hope that Milosevic would quickly yield before any real suffering was imposed on the Serb civilian population. Top NATO commanders are known to have been frustrated by this approach, which was decided by their political masters.
"I don't think the air campaign has yet been fully tested," says Col. Terry Taylor, an analyst with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "The phased program didn't allow a hard enough blow but it still has a chance to work" and make Milosevic change his mind.
It does not have a chance to stop the "ethnic cleansing" already under way, however, NATO diplomats acknowledge. "We cannot stop the hand that holds the dagger," in the words of one.
Indeed one aspect of NATO strategy - the initial refusal to countenance the use of ground forces - may have facilitated the deportations. An invasion threat would have forced the Serbs to meet that threat by concentrating their armor, points out Nigel Vinson, a military commentator with the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London.
The absence of an invasion threat "allowed the Serbs to use their forces to do maximum damage to the Kosovars," he says.
The way in which the Yugoslav Army and special police - estimated to number some 40,000 in Kosovo - have dispersed their men and their vehicles has also made NATO's job much harder. Striking tanks and armored personnel vehicles one at a time, and currently hitting about five a day according to NATO spokesmen, it would take another two months before the 300 Yugoslav tanks in Kosovo have been destroyed.
It would take at least that long to gather the estimated 75,000 to 100,000 soldiers required for any ground assault on Kosovo, NATO diplomats say. And the logistical difficulties of mounting an attack from neighboring countries such as Macedonia and Albania, with poor communications and mountainous terrain, would be monstrous.
"To even think of ground troops boggles the mind," says one NATO diplomat. "Any kind of ground element will be a very risky operation and we are very sobered by that."