All around this overcrowded military base near Skopje's civilian airport, where there are 700 U.S. troops and all their accompanying armor, helicopters, tanks and fuel supplies, one can hear the hammering and banging of construction. The Houston engineering firm Brown & Root (headed by former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney) has a contract to build barracks to accommodate thousands of new U.S. troops. According to one U.S. soldier here, who asked not to be named, the Petrovac military base is being prepared to become a "staging area" for a ground troop deployment to Kosovo.
"We're trying to reinforce the camp," says the soldier, surveying the construction activity at Petrovac, which formerly housed only 350 U.N. troops and now holds twice that many. "We're on top of each other here." Brown & Root, he says, is renovating buildings and constructing new offices and transit billets that can accommodate thousands of U.S. troops who would make up part of a force that would be put into Kosovo.
The 700 or so troops here -- most of them from the1st Infantry Division, based in Schweinfurt, Germany -- are among some 13,000 NATO troops currently in Macedonia. The United States and NATO have deployed an additional 8,000 troops to neighboring Albania. Thousands more troops, including members of the 10th Special Forces Group from Colorado, have been forward-deployed from their home bases to European staging areas.
The large U.S. and NATO troop buildup in the region is not necessarily proof that NATO is preparing a ground invasion of Kosovo. After all, NATO makes no secret of the fact that should a peace agreement be reached, NATO troops will be deployed to Kosovo to serve as peacekeepers. Naturally, the NATO-led peacekeeping force would transit through Macedonia and Albania, Kosovo's closest neighbors.
But the troop buildup is only one of many facts on the ground that indicate preparations are being made for a ground force -- with or without a peace agreement.
Lt. Gen. Michael Jackson, the tall, weathered, fierce-looking British general in charge of 12,000 NATO troops in Macedonia who are to constitute the corps of "KFOR" -- the peace force planned for Kosovo -- has made fairly explicit comments suggesting NATO is preparing for a possible ground invasion of Kosovo. He recently said NATO forces had to withdraw from their competent management of five refugee camps in Macedonia because they have to "prepare for going up north soon."
British political leaders have led the 19-nation military alliance in openly acknowledging that the war to remove some 40,000 Serbian troops from Kosovo and enable the more than 1 million displaced Kosovo Albanians to return to their homes will likely require more than airstrikes. A report leaked to British papers over the weekend says that an 80,000-strong NATO force is being prepared to launch a "partially opposed" invasion of Kosovo at the end of May. The papers, quoting an unnamed British official, said U.S. forces in the Colorado Rockies were also training for such an invasion, while U.S. and NATO forces in Tuzla, Bosnia, were preparing to occupy the smaller Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. (On Sunday, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, told Sunday talk shows that the Clinton administration still believed NATO can accomplish the Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo with airstrikes alone).
But the constant denials by U.S. officials that any plans are being made for a ground force ring a bit false. Shortly after Clinton administration officials went on the Sunday talk show circuit denying any possibility of a NATO ground force for Kosovo, Clinton announced a call-up of tens of thousands of U.S. military reserves.
"British officials -- [Prime Minister] Tony Blair, [Foreign Minister] Robin Cook, Claire Short, Defense Secretary George Robertson -- have been much less guarded than their American counterparts in discussing a NATO invasion of Kosovo," says Chris Bennett, an analyst with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. Last week, Robertson told a Harvard audience that NATO ground forces would likely be sent to Kosovo. By the time he got to Washington a day later, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen made him take it back.
The Brits' lower aversion to a ground war and combat is in part due to the experience in Northern Ireland, British soldiers say. The British are simply used to seeing soldiers come home in body bags -- a prospect that most American politicians think the public would find unacceptable here. Many observers have closely analyzed the carefully worded statements of U.S. officials to determine if they leave room for a ground force in Kosovo. Many note that President Clinton has repeatedly said he has "no plans" for a NATO ground force -- which doesn't meant that one is impossible.
A U.S. soldier in Macedonia says it's no mystery to him -- a ground force is inevitable.
"Air power is great, but you're never going to finish the job until you sweep through Kosovo with ground troops," says Sgt. 1st Class James LaShelle, a platoon commander here in Petrovac. LaShelle says he wouldn't mind the chance to use the training he's received from the U.S. military on an actual battlefield. "I've never had the opportunity to be deployed before. It would be a waste of 20 years of training to never use what I've practiced on the actual battlefield."
A one hour drive west of the busy U.S. base in Petrovac, in the northwestern Macedonian town of Tetovo, there are other signs that the conflict in Kosovo has entered a new stage. Deportees from Kosovo -- who've been taken in by ethnic Albanian families in Macedonia -- say Macedonia's Albanians have started to volunteer as recruits for the Kosovo Albanian rebels -- the Kosovo Liberation Army. One Macedonian Albanian father, a reporter was told, sneaked into Kosovo last week to pull his two sons -- who had volunteered for the KLA -- by their collars back into Macedonia. The Macedonian authorities announced on Saturday that they had captured a cache of arms being brought into Macedonia from Albania the day before -- presumed to be for the KLA. Baton Haxhiu, the editor in chief of the leading Albanian language newspaper in Kosovo, now a refugee in Macedonia, says that some 15,000 new KLA recruits are in Albania waiting to go into Kosovo.
A KLA source in Albania says that NATO forces have begun to bomb the Serbian positions on the Kosovo-Albanian border, which have to date prevented the KLA from resupplying their forces inside Kosovo. While NATO insists it does not intend to serve as the KLA's air force, NATO and the KLA have found themselves with a common enemy in the battle to rid Serbian forces from Kosovo and permit Kosovo Albanian refugees to return to their homes.
But there are other signs of significant cooperation between NATO forces and the KLA. Last Tuesday, KLA forces in the western Kosovo town of Junik captured a Yugoslav Army soldier, and later turned him over to U.S. forces in Albania. He is now reportedly being interrogated by the Pentagon.
At their regular press briefing in Brussels, Belgium, NATO press officers frequently cite atrocities, refugee flows and other on-the-ground information from Kosovo that they acknowledge is from the KLA -- some of the only people left in Kosovo with the capacity to phone abroad.
And on Monday, KLA commander Sokol Bashota is reported to have called Western diplomats begging for NATO airstrikes to relieve shelling threatening tens of thousands of displaced Kosovo Albanian people in central Kosovo. It is not the first direct plea from the KLA to NATO and Western diplomats for airstrikes and air drops of food, medicines and weapons.
But several NATO soldiers say cooperation between the KLA and NATO is not just in the KLA's interest. They say the KLA could serve an invaluable role providing field intelligence for NATO ground troops who might eventually enter Kosovo, and for NATO pilots planning how to target dispersed Yugoslav military assets, some now hidden in garages and woods.
"The KLA is a great asset," says LaShelle, the platoon commander. "They know the area, they're knowledgeable about the terrain. They know where the Serb forces have their tanks and other assets. We'd need them in front of us as scouts and for intelligence. They could make NATO attacks more successful."
But, LaShelle adds, cooperation between the KLA and NATO is not without its problems.
"Our goal is not to put the KLA in power, but to put Milosevic out of power. Once you start to use the KLA, then you're taking sides. All we want now is for Milosevic to stop forcing out the ethnic Albanians. If we start to arm and use the KLA, then we're going down a whole new path."