If the Serbs remain defiant next Wednesday, NATO air strikes would have to wait for the withdrawal of some 700 unarmed Western monitors from Kosovo -- which would take between 24 and 36 hours, assuming that Milosevic allows them to leave. Any Serb attempt to turn them into hostages could precipitate a ground war involving NATO's 2,600-strong "extraction force" stationed in neighboring Macedonia. If the Serb leader isn't in an accommodating mood, he could spoil next month's NATO 50th anniversary celebrations. Says Thompson, "There'll be scant reason to celebrate if history's most successful military alliance proves unable to grapple with a petty dictator in its own backyard."
What's the game plan after bombing? That question loomed over the Pentagon Thursday, as the latest Kosovo talks collapsed and the Serbs were given until next Wednesday to accept the peace deal. As the talks floundered, the Kosovar Albanians unilaterally signed the deal and the Serbs poured troops and anti-aircraft missiles into the region. With NATO under pressure to follow through on its threat to bomb the Serbs into compliance, military commanders are not convinced that a fusillade of air strikes will be sufficient to change the mind of President Slobodan Milosevic. "There's some hope that a short pounding will force Milosevic to relent," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "But if that doesn't happen, things could turn ugly. Remember, even sustained air strikes were not enough to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait -- it took ground troops to do that. And here the Serbs are defending their own territory."