First of three articles
Early on the morning of May 27, German police blocked every autobahn ramp and side street along the route from the Cologne airport to the Bristol Hotel in Bonn. Even the few people who happened to be up at 3 a.m. could not possibly catch a glimpse of the man inside the motorcade whizzing by.
The war over Kosovo had been dragging on for nine weeks, and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen had flown in secretly to discuss a possible NATO invasion of Yugoslavia. The meeting also brought together the defense ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy. After 6 1/2 hours of debate, the five ministers reached a momentous conclusion: Their governments must decide whether to assemble ground troops, and they must make the choice within days.
From the start of the 78-day air war in the Balkans, President Clinton publicly ruled out a ground campaign. Nevertheless, secret preparations for an invasion of Kosovo were extensive, and progressed much further than has been previously disclosed. Relying in part on a clandestine relationship with the Kosovo Liberation Army, NATO's leadership was probing Yugoslav defenses. NATO engineers were reinforcing a vital roadway for use in an armored thrust. Allied capitals were considering commitments of troops -- including nearly half of Britain's standing army -- when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic unexpectedly capitulated.
Clinton and the leaders of NATO's other member states never gave the final political go-ahead for an invasion. But Milosevic may have believed otherwise.
Despite public denials throughout the war, the CIA worked closely with the KLA to glean intelligence about the disposition of Yugoslav troops in Kosovo. When the ethnic Albanian rebels launched a major offensive in late May -- with NATO's full prior knowledge and active air support -- Milosevic and his generals seem to have concluded that NATO was on the brink of an attack. That, NATO commanders now believe, was an important factor in the Yugoslav leader's sudden retreat.
The ground war planning was one key thread of the Kosovo campaign as it unfolded inside the headquarters and secure communications bunkers of NATO's high command. During the conflict, much that happened within the top military and political leadership was muffled or kept secret: There was intricate diplomacy among NATO capitals, frequent argument over highly secure video links, and remarkable last-minute improvisation. There were powerful tensions between military commanders and civilian politicians, and also sharp disputes over tactics among the generals. This series, based on documents and dozens of interviews with senior officials, will chronicle those behind-the-scenes events -- beginning with the plans and preparations for an offensive that was never launched and yet may have triggered NATO's victory.
On March 24, the first day of the war, Clinton promised in a television address from the Oval Office, "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war." But only a few weeks later, in mid-April, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the supreme allied commander in Europe, called together British and U.S. officers at NATO headquarters in Mons, Belgium, to poll their views on various ground options -- "what-ifs, about what is feasible and what is not," according to one observer at the meeting.
Although NATO's political leaders had not authorized any invasion planning, Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, persuaded NATO Secretary General Javier Solana to authorize Clark's secret talks. Part of Clark's goal was to build support among American generals for his strongly held view that an invasion plan should be developed. It was a hard sell; the Pentagon never was enthusiastic about a ground option, and Clark's advocacy of it became a persistent source of friction.
Yet Clark was not alone in his opinion. Shortly before NATO's 50th anniversary summit in Washington, according to a senior presidential adviser, Clinton decided that he would send in U.S. troops if the air campaign failed and an invasion was the only way to win the war. In Mons, the senior military staff gave Clark a stark assessment: "If you want to induce the Serbs to leave Kosovo, you are going to have to use ground forces to do it," in the words of one officer. "We all felt very strongly we would have to go to a ground option, and that we needed to begin deployment of U.S. and allied forces for that purpose as soon as possible, knowing what the timelines were" for an invasion before winter.
On the eve of the April 24 summit, Clinton urged British Prime Minister Tony Blair to stop talking publicly about an invasion because it caused domestic problems for allies and made the Russians unwilling to help out diplomatically. In return, Clinton agreed to allow NATO to update old contingency plans.
Shortly thereafter, several dozen officers in a grass-covered bunker in Mons and 60 other military personnel at the U.S. Army's European headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany, started work on top-secret invasion options.
By mid-May, Clark had come up with a preliminary plan for an attack from the south by 175,000 troops, mostly through a single road from Albania. At the White House, it was called "the Wes plan." NATO charts called it the "B-Minus" option, reflecting its position on a hypothetical scale that began with an all-out invasion of Belgrade.
Clark went to Washington in May hoping to get approval from Clinton by June 1 and to have troops on the ground by Sept. 1. But the White House wanted to put off a decision as long as possible, banking on good weather and more aircraft to increase the chances of victory by airpower alone. Clark and Berger, in a long phone call, came up with a way to push back the deadline by at least 10 days.
They bought the extra time by speeding up repairs to the main access route through Albania, a muddy, slippery road from Tirana to Kukes. Officially, Clark had been authorized to repair the road for refugee travel. But U.S., German and Italian military engineers simultaneously made it strong enough to support the weight of Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
Clark asked for another engineering battalion to ready it for the even heavier tanks and artillery needed for a ground invasion. Meanwhile, Germany and Britain were standing by with pontoon bridges and other equipment that could be used on navigable waterways to bring in NATO's armor.
The bigger problem was that B-Minus had received a cool reception when Clark briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff in "the tank," the Pentagon's high-security conference room, on May 19.
"All the people that looked at it had genuine skepticism that it was feasible," said one official who attended the session. Clark was given the vague, kiss-of-death suggestion to study the issue some more.
Defense Secretary Cohen and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, conveyed their apprehension to the president and reiterated their reluctance to send in troops. "I think it's safe to say the Joint Chiefs did not want to have to launch a major ground campaign, and we had said this early on," said one of the chiefs. "By this time, we saw the air campaign working, we really did."
Clinton's national security team, including Berger, was far more interested in a ground plan than were Pentagon leaders. White House officials say they asked the Pentagon to look at other entry points -- through Bulgaria from the east, Bosnia from the west, and even Hungary from the north, which would mean rolling into Serbia proper.
The main instigator of Cohen's May 27 secret rendezvous in Bonn was British Defense Secretary George Robertson. In the session at the German Defense Ministry, which lasted from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Robertson argued that NATO should prepare immediately to send ground troops into Yugoslavia, and he committed 50,000 British troops.
Robertson's government was the main advocate for an invasion and had lobbied U.S. officials on the subject at every turn, contending that it would be unprofessional not to prepare for the worst-case scenario, a failure of NATO airpower to drive Yugoslav troops out of Kosovo.
Even before the secret meeting, Clinton agreed in a May 23 telephone conversation with Blair to give Solana, the NATO secretary general, approval to formulate a detailed plan for ground operations.
British officials were well aware of the deteriorating relations between Clark and Cohen, who adamantly opposed an invasion. The British even slipped Clark their notes on Clinton's conversation with Blair. They wanted to make sure that Clark did not get a diluted account of the phone call through the U.S. chain of command.
In Bonn, the German and Italian defense ministers seemed more open than ever to the idea of ground troops. But they still expressed serious reservations. The French, while not flatly opposing an invasion, argued that there wasn't time to prepare for one before winter. Cohen argued that it was safer to stick with the air campaign than to risk division over ground troops.
"It was clear from that meeting that a consensus for ground forces was not going to materialize," Cohen said later. "I argued for intensifying the air war and for streamlining and broadening the target selection process."
In the end, the defense ministers agreed that NATO could not afford to lose the war, and that their five governments needed to reach a consensus on ground troops within the next week. They also agreed that the issue was so urgent that they should convene an emergency meeting of all NATO defense ministers. But their schedule was overtaken by events.
The CIA's Role
In Albania, meanwhile, U.S. and European special forces at a secret operations center in the border town of Kukes were discussing how to turn the Kosovo Liberation Army into a light-infantry force that would be "at the enemy's rear blowing up bridges," said one U.S. official involved in the planning.
"Let's just say there was a growing appreciation for what the KLA could do for us," he said.
In fact, the CIA and NATO had been working with the KLA since late April.
By then, the CIA station in Tirana, Albania, and 24 U.S. Army Special Forces troops in Kukes and Durres were helping the disjointed, ill-equipped rebels to pass on useful information about Serbian positions, according to U.S. military and administration officials.
To avoid working directly with the KLA, however, the U.S. military used the Albanian 2nd Army as an intermediary, according to the U.S. European Command.
KLA representatives met daily with Albanian officers at the Albanian Defense Ministry in Tirana, often in the presence of a CIA officer and an Army captain who worked for Task Force Hawk, the U.S. Army contingent in charge of the Apache attack helicopters stationed at the Tirana airport. American officials who had been part of the Kosovo Verification Mission, the U.N. observer force that was forced to leave Kosovo before the war, also maintained close relations with rebel leaders.
Most of the KLA liaison work was done at the operations center in Kukes, where CIA officers and special forces troops gathered intelligence.
But U.S. officials say they were reluctant to become deeply involved with the KLA. The rebels allegedly had committed atrocities and were involved in drug smuggling, according to intelligence reports. In February 1998, Clinton's special envoy to the Balkans, Robert S. Gelbard, had even called the KLA "terrorists," though the Clinton administration quickly backed away from that term.
On May 26, the KLA launched a major offensive, with artillery support by the Albanian army, to secure a supply route into the embattled province. "This is the beginning of a new phase of aggression, the so-called land operation," said Maj. Gen. Vladimir Lazarevic, commander of the Pristina Corps.
Within three days, however, the rebels were losing badly, and 250 of their best fighters were pinned down by more than 700 Yugoslav soldiers on Mount Pastrik.
"That mountain is not going to get lost. I'm not going to have Serbs on that mountain," Clark told his subordinates in a video conference. "We'll pay for that hill with American blood if we don't help [the KLA] hold it."
On June 7, a pair of B-52s rumbled to the rescue, dropping their heavy payloads on what appeared to be two battalions of Yugoslav troops caught in the open. NATO believed that hundreds had been killed in the most devastating single strike of the war, a possible turning point toward victory.
But after the war, U.S. airmen who flew over Mount Pastrik found no sign of a slaughter on that scale. NATO commanders were surprised to see the robust columns that eventually withdrew from Kosovo, and they concluded that the Yugoslav 3rd Army could have held out for weeks or even months.
That realization has only heightened an enduring mystery of the war: What caused Milosevic to stop the fighting and suddenly agree to withdraw all of his troops from Kosovo in June?
One factor undoubtedly was the devastation wreaked by NATO bombs on Serbia proper. The air war ravaged Yugoslavia's lifelines -- its roads, bridges, railways, factories, airports, TV towers, fuel depots and power plants -- shutting down the economy and hurting businesses controlled by Milosevic and his associates.
NATO also succeeded in assembling a powerful diplomatic coalition, persuading the Kremlin to put pressure on Milosevic to end the war even though Russia was generally sympathetic to Serbia. Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and Turkey helped the trans-Atlantic alliance by granting overflight rights, troop-basing arrangements or temporary housing for refugees.
In hindsight, though, the battle of Mount Pastrik does seem to have been a turning point -- if not the kind commanders thought at the time.
"I think President Milosevic had plenty of intelligence and all of the indicators that would have made him conclude that we were going in on the ground," Clark said at a Washington think-tank in September.
Whatever Milosevic's calculations, it is clear in retrospect that at the very moment the Serb leader was preparing to capitulate, Clinton was thinking seriously about the ground option.
At noon on June 2, Berger, the president's national security adviser, met with several foreign policy experts who had publicly advocated that NATO consider sending in ground troops, including former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, former NATO commander George Joulwan, former U.S. ambassador to NATO Robert Hunter, and former National Security Council staff member Ivo Daalder.
According to a participant, the group was surprised to hear Berger hint strongly that the administration was prepared to back a ground invasion, if that was what it would take to win the war.
Berger made four points, according to notes from the meeting. The first was: "We're going to win." The fourth was: "All options are on the table." Asked directly whether Clinton would support ground troops, he replied: "Go back to point one."
That afternoon, Clinton's national security staff stopped short of recommending an invasion but urged swift planning. "We had to prevail, even if it meant preparing for a ground option. We all recognized this," Berger recalled in an interview last week. Clinton's aides outlined several options, such as carving out "safe havens" within Kosovo, arming the KLA or launching a full-scale invasion through Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria and Hungary.
The following morning brought a surprise: At 6:30 a.m. on June 3, White House Situation Room operators began tracking down Clinton's national security team to relay reports that the Yugoslav government was giving in. In Belgrade, Milosevic had unexpectedly told the European Union's envoy, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, and Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former Russian prime minister, that he would accept the peace deal they had put to him.
But Washington feared a ruse, and that afternoon, Clinton sat down with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to talk about sending combat troops into Kosovo.
Clark also reacted skeptically to the message from Belgrade, insisting in a video conference among commanders that work continue on the Albanian road. He referred, as he had often, to Milosevic's "talk/fight, fight/talk strategy."
Bombing continued even as British Lt. Gen. Michael Jackson, NATO's ground commander in Macedonia, began technical talks on a pullout with officers of the Yugoslav high command at a portable hangar in Kumanovo.
On June 7, a hitch in the peace talks developed as Yugoslav commanders refused to agree to NATO's terms for a pullout. The talks were suspended and bombing intensified. The possibility of a ground invasion remained very much on Clark's mind. "Every day that is lost is critical to the B-Minus trajectory," he told his commanders, according to meeting notes.
That evening, U.S. B-52 pilots dropped their bombs on Mount Pastrik. And the following day, Western countries and Russia reached a landmark agreement on a draft U.N. resolution for peace, cornering Milosevic diplomatically. Two nights later, Milosevic signed an agreement allowing the invasion of 50,000 NATO soldiers -- but as peacekeepers, not warriors.
NEXT: NATO's deliberations over civilian casualties
ABOUT THIS SERIES
NATO launched its first war as an alliance on March 24 after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refused to restore autonomy to Kosovo, a province the size of Connecticut. About 90 percent of its 2 million people were ethnic Albanians, and they chafed under the control of Serbs, Yugoslavia's dominant ethnic group. As NATO began airstrikes, Yugoslav soldiers and paramilitaries accelerated a brutal campaign to crush ethnic Albanian rebels, driving more than a million civilians from their homes. After 78 days of bombing, Milosevic capitulated on June 9, agreeing to withdraw forces from Kosovo. There are now nearly 50,000 NATO peacekeeping troops in the province, which is under U.N. administration but still legally part of Yugoslavia.