The United States and its European allies have inflicted a significant and necessary defeat on Serb forces in Kosovo through air power. But it should not be mistaken for victory over Slobodan Milosevic and the forces of evil he represents. There is no cause for triumphalism in the grim devastation that 10 weeks of war produced.

To secure a meaningful victory, the leaders of NATO -- and particularly its military commanders on the ground -- must now take advantage of the momentum of events, which has run in their favor since they decided to expand their initially anemic air war.

The soldiers must use the new momentum created by the cease-fire to outrun the diplomats while they can. Three immediate tasks are paramount:

(1) The Serbs in Kosovo must be treated as a defeated and disgraced military force that has surrendered unconditionally. The approach used by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf at the end of Desert Storm must not be repeated. Schwarzkopf treated Iraqi generals as vanquished equals and was then tricked by them on their use of helicopters.

British Gen. Mike Jackson appeared yesterday at Blace to have made a good start toward avoiding Schwarzkopf's "peace of the brave" errors at Safwan.

(2) NATO must move swiftly ahead with deployment of a Kosovo command and its peacekeepers, politely but firmly disregarding any attempts by Russia or others at the United Nations to exploit for delay the vague language of the ultimatum accepted by Milosevic. NATO has earned the whip hand on command arrangements.

Russia can employ fictions for domestic consumption about the command arrangements, but must acknowledge NATO control in practice as it does in Bosnia.

(3) Milosevic must be quarantined in Serbia and not allowed to reposition himself internationally through the cease-fire. Finnish envoy Martii Ahtisaari should be the last Western official ever to meet the Serb dictator -- until one puts handcuffs on him and delivers him to the Hague.

As long as Milosevic is free in Serbia, Kosovo is an unfinished and unfinishable episode.

NATO was not in a position to make Milosevic's indictment for war crimes the issue while Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was tenaciously fighting off Russian attempts to weaken NATO's conditions for a cease-fire. Talbott skipped past that, and also dropped from the final ultimatum taken to Belgrade by Ahtisaari and Russia's Viktor Chernomyrdin some key points from the aborted Rambouillet accord. These points had offered Kosovars a better chance at eventual independence.

The omissions were prudent in the circumstances. But they do not represent compromises with Milosevic that must now be observed. Kosovo must become free to establish its own destiny after a transition period. NATO should do everything in its now considerable power to encourage change in Belgrade that would make staying in Yugoslavia a goal the Kosovars will want to pursue.

The appropriate reaction to the cease-fire in Kosovo is one of pure relief. Europe and the United States have avoided the even greater human disaster that a ground war would have produced. That is not to be minimized.

But it is important to recognize the other things the cease-fire is not. It is not a victory for diplomacy, although Madeleine Albright and her spinners will try to sell you that view. Nor is it time to celebrate a clear-cut triumph for allied unity and the concept of securing human rights through high-tech warfare, an attractive notion Tony Blair has voiced.

Diplomacy backed by force failed in Kosovo. Milosevic, reportedly made aware by leaked information of the initial highly limited target list, expected to be hit lightly and briefly, as Iraq was for three days in Operation Desert Fox. The first month of underachievement in the air campaign convinced him he could ride out the NATO assault and encouraged him to expand the massive human rights abuses that turned Kosovo into a poisoned wasteland.

Once unleashed in full force, the power and especially the precision of sustained U.S. Air Force bombing with guided weapons forced Milosevic to turn to dealing, as suggested in this column 10 days ago. Air power, fully applied, did what many Army generals and others predicted it could not do. It drove the Serbs out of Kosovo.

But the lessons of warfare doctrine to be drawn from Kosovo must also be treated with modesty. The conflict in the Balkans is far from resolved: Milosevic and the other Serb genocidalists have not been punished. Their very presence still destabilizes the region. Second, Kosovo is a special case. It cannot and should not be repeated by NATO outside Europe.

It is therefore too early and too ambitious to proclaim the ushering in of a new world order of universal protection of human rights. But stopping a mass murderer in his tracks is a good 10 weeks' work. Everyone who contributed to that outcome deserves a vote of thanks not just from the Kosovars but from the world.