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Counting The Cost Of Ground Troops

NATO bombing has failed to force Slobodan Milosevic to back down and Serbian forces in Kosovo have dug in. Any NATO ground invasion must expect heavy casualties.
By Dejan Anastasijevic

Three weeks into NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic has refused either to crumble or to back down.


Instead, he has turned the NATO attacks to his advantage to reassert his grip on power in Serbia, and to cleanse a large chunk of Kosovo, including all the major towns, of its ethnic Albanian population. Time now, therefore, for NATO to turn to the contingency plans its strategists must have drawn up in the months before the offensive began.


Although not yet officially acknowledged, the deployment of NATO ground troops in Kosovo without Serbian agreement is clearly on the agenda. Statements by international statesmen and NATO officials suggest that the alliance believes that after several more weeks of bombing, Serbian forces in Kosovo will be weakened to a point where NATO troops would be able to enter without meeting much resistance. It seems that the alliance may also be hoping that by that time, a reorganised and re-equipped Kosovo Liberation Army would be able to take part in the action, reducing the risk for the NATO troops.


The plan therefore appears to be for NATO troops to enter, Serbian forces to withdraw, and for all refugees to be able to go home. Whether formally independent or not, Kosovo would in effect become a NATO protectorate, while what remains of Serbia, isolated and surrounded, would be too busy licking its wounds to pose a threat to any of its neighbours.


The above scenario is fine as long as the assumptions on which it is based are correct. But this is by no means clear. On the contrary, NATO officials are naturally inclined to over-estimate the effects of the air offensive on Serbian ground forces in Kosovo. Meanwhile, Milosevic has had ample time to build and fortify defences in preparation for an invasion force.


The results of NATO's bombing campaign are probably not nearly as great as those presented in Brussels. NATO representatives claim that they have "degraded and reduced" the fighting capabilities of the Serbian police and military, but they have failed to supply the evidence.


How many Serbian soldiers have been killed or incapacitated? How much armour and artillery pieces destroyed? Could Yugoslav air defences still be operative and waiting for NATO tactical aircraft to begin attacking at lower altitudes? So far, Brussels has failed to provide clear answers to any of these questions.


NATO could enter Kosovo via three routes. One goes over the mountains bordering Albania. However, while useful for infiltrating guerrilla and commando units, this route is unsuitable for heavy vehicles because of poor roads.


The other two routes are via Macedonia, one directly into Kosovo over the Kacanik gorge, and one through southern Serbia, making a loop and entering Kosovo from the north. If combined, these two routes would enable NATO to outflank Serbian forces in a classic pincer movement.


The trouble is that Milosevic has been preparing for such a scenario for several months. Ever since the beginning of the Rambouillet talks, he has been massing troops along these routes, laying mines, and building fortifications.


Moreover, the additional time needed to assemble a NATO invasion force could be used to bring more reinforcements and build stronger fortifications. And further attacks against air defence systems would be required to make the skies above Kosovo safe for tactical warplanes and assault helicopters.


In addition, the expulsion of ethnic Albanians during the first two weeks of bombing was in part motivated by strategic concerns. By removing a potentially hostile population from northern and eastern Kosovo -- exactly the routes NATO would have to use - Milosevic has constructed buffer zones in which his forces will not be bothered by guerrilla activities.


He has also secured the logistical support of local Serbs, who now see the police and the army as their only protection against the return of their former neighbours. By taking part in expulsions and looting, local Serbs have tied their fate to that of Milosevic's security forces.


The past three weeks have also boosted the morale of Yugoslav Army. Contrary to the picture which NATO has attempted to portray of increasing disloyalty and desertion among Milosevic's troops, the military now feels that their moment has finally arrived.


After years of neglect and humiliating defeats in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, the army feels that it is finally engaged in an honourable fight defending the homeland against foreign invasion--in contrast with earlier campaigns against the other peoples of the former Yugoslavia.


To NATO's credit, the alliance has been successful in destroying Serbian fuel supplies. While this reduces Milosevic's capabilities of bringing reinforcements, mobility is of lesser importance to those whose primary task is to stay where there are.


Add this all up, and it is clear that NATO's march into Kosovo would be anything but a stroll. This is not to say that Kosovo may evolve into a new Vietnam, just that NATO must expect a prolonged ground war and be prepared to take heavy casualties.


One of the more likely outcomes of such a confrontation would be partial NATO victory, with a front-line stabilising somewhat north of Pristina. This would pave the way for the division of the province -- something neither the West nor the Albanians would consider acceptable.


In the heated atmosphere which has been fuelled by images of Kosovo refugees and memories of the Bosnian war, the price of deploying NATO ground troops is easily neglected in the name of ethics. Since that price will be paid in human lives, it may pay to look at the tag before signing the cheque.


Dejan Anastasijevic is a correspondent for the Institute of War & Peace Reporting.


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