TV show to unveil Nato's clash in Kosovo

Richard Norton-Taylor

Saturday January 29, 2000

William Cohen, the US defence secretary, has roundly dismissed British claims that Nato had been prepared to use ground troops to force Serb army and police units out of Kosovo.

Sharp differences between Britain and the US - strongly denied during the bombing campaign - about the possibility of sending in troops are exposed in interviews to be broadcast in a three-part series starting tomorrow with Mr Cohen and the British prime minister, Tony Blair.

"It was never a close call in getting a consensus to put land forces in," Mr Cohen says. "Out of the total 19 [Nato countries], I doubt very much whether we could have gotten the consensus. I'm convinced we could not have."

The ongoing dispute about proposals to use ground troops when Nato was desperately concerned with the continuing failure of air attacks to destroy military targets will be exposed in the Channel 4 series, War in Europe.

"To make preparations for [a ground campaign] would have meant 150,000 to 200,000 troops, most of which would have come from us and, given the fact that we had a lack of enthusiasm for even a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, then it became very clear to me that it was going to be a very hard sell, if not impossible to persuade the American people," Mr Cohen says.

A US senate majority was opposed to a land campaign and the only option was to "stay the course" with bombing from the air, he adds.

However, Mr Blair says the US president, Bill Clinton, was prepared to consider sending in ground troops. "It would be wrong to think that the US administration was sitting there saying we're not contemplating ground troops because that wasn't their position at all," he says.

Mr Blair adds: "My belief is that President Clinton was prepared to see the thing through - and if that meant there was no other way we could do this, other than the use of ground troops, then I believe he was prepared to contemplate that. I think the bottom line about not losing was indeed the bottom line for people."

Mr Cohen also confirms that US military chiefs were split about a land campaign.

During the war, British ministers let it be known they were deeply frustrated with the Clinton administration's refusal to consider the use of ground troops. A string of US and British media reports which reflected this prompted Washington to deny any suggestion of a rift between Nato's two closest allies.

After the war, Whitehall claimed that overtly public discussions about the possibility of using ground troops was designed to keep Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic guessing.

Mr Blair tells Channel 4 that Mr Milosevic "had to know that we were prepared to do whatever it took to win".

However, Mr Cohen takes a different view.

"If you don't have a consensus for a ground campaign, then you shouldn't try to hold out the illusion that you have one," he says. "Empty gestures don't persuade your adversary that you're serious."

Part one of War in Europe to be broadcast tomorrow on Channel 4 at 8pm.,3604,130062,00.html