Is it a prudent preparation for carrying out a Kosovo peace settlement or a stealth plan for ground attack?
NATO ambassadors meet this week to consider a plan to deploy tens of thousands more troops on the borders of Kosovo to help return more than 800,000 ethnic Albanians driven out by Serbian "ethnic cleansing."
"We are close to political decisions being made to ratify the options examined by the NATO planners," British Foreign Office Minister Tony Lloyd said in London yesterday.
Western officials say a 50,000-strong force - almost double the size of the peacekeeping contingent originally conceived - should be in place to quickly move into Kosovo if Russian-mediated negotiations produce a settlement to the conflict. But some experts say the troops deployed under that justification could just as easily be used as the vanguard of an invasion force should the peace efforts collapse.
In announcing United States support for the buildup, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon insisted that the Clinton administration remains opposed to a ground invasion. Yet he also conceded that NATO's two-month-old air campaign may not in the coming months force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate to the alliance's demands, including the return of all ethnic Albanian deportees.
"No one at this stage can guarantee that the air campaign will produce all of the objectives by the fall," Mr. Bacon said on Friday.
His comments reflect a growing concern among US and NATO officials that time is running out for the repatriation of the ethnic Albanian deportees before the onset of the fierce Balkan winter.
Those apprehensions are being driven by several considerations. They include ebbing public and political support within NATO countries for the bombing campaign because of mounting civilian casualties and blunders, such as the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. In one of the latest mishaps, a NATO jet on Friday struck a base of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.
In his most recent defense of the alliance's strategy, President Clinton insisted in an op-ed piece in Sunday's New York Times that NATO is fighting to end the kind of ethnic bloodshed that has sundered Europe for centuries. "We are in Kosovo with our allies to stand for a Europe, within our reach for the first time, that is peaceful, undivided and free," he wrote.
The weather is also becoming a major factor in NATO's calculations.
The cold, rain, and snow that begin in October would make it vastly more difficult and costly for the international community to care for the ethnic Albanian deportees, whether they remain in camps in Macedonia and Albania or return to towns and villages pillaged and burned by Serbian forces. Furthermore, the longer the deportees remain in Macedonia and Albania, the greater the potential for destabilizing their fragile governments.
In a move that may exacerbate these potential problems, a new wave of Kosovar Albanians began moving on Saturday into Albania and Macedonia. On Sunday, hundreds of men arrived on the Albanian border, saying they had been released from months of captivity during which they were tortured and beaten by their Serbian guards.
The onset of winter would also exacerbate the plight of tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians believed to be hiding in Kosovo's mountains and forests with little food, clothing, or shelter.
Moreover, the winter would greatly impede any kind of NATO military operation, be it the armed peacekeeping mission that it is demanding Milosevic accept or a ground invasion. Either operation requires months for preparation, training, and deployment, and officials say NATO has only a few weeks left to make a decision on an invasion. Currently, 14,000 NATO soldiers are stationed in Macedonia.
Some experts believe Milosevic hopes to hold out until winter against NATO's devastation of his country. By doing so, he averts the threat of a ground invasion and delays the repatriation of the ethnic Albanian deportees, thereby raising the pressure on NATO to compromise on a negotiated settlement.
President Clinton and other NATO leaders, however, insist they will not retreat from their demands that Milosevic withdraw all his police and troops from Kosovo and allow the return of all the ethnic Albanian deportees. They would be protected by an armed international peacekeeping force, the core of which would be comprised of NATO troops, and Kosovo would be given autonomy from Belgrade and then run by a United Nations administration.
Milosevic has indicated that he would accept a UN administration but opposes the deployment of well-armed peacekeepers that include troops from NATO countries involved in the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.
He is also insisting that thousands of Serbian police and troops remain in Kosovo. The province is cherished by the Serbs as their historic heartland, but it has a 2 million-strong ethnic Albanian majority that is demanding independence after almost a decade of rule by Belgrade.
NATO said Sunday that Yugoslav forces in Kosovo showed no sign of withdrawing, and in fact more soldiers were arriving, despite a recently announced partial withdrawal. Military spokesman Gen. Walter Jertz said fresh forces were moving into position in the western region of Pec, Kosovo's second-largest city.