Commentary

Balkans Anniversary: Little to Celebrate

By Gary Dempsey
March 25, 2000
March 24 marks the one-year anniversary of the commencement of NATO air strikes against Serbia, but things in Kosovo, predictably, are not going according to the Clinton administration’s naïve plans. In fact, a senior Pentagon official recently warned that U.S. troops in Kosovo may soon have to fight their former partners in war, ethnic Albanian guerrillas who are now threatening cross-border attacks against Serbia.

“This has got to cease and desist, and if not, ultimately it is going to lead to confrontation between the Albanians and KFOR,” explained the official, referring to the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo. The following day, U.S. peacekeepers swept through eastern Kosovo seizing 22 crates of ammunition and more than 200 uniforms, mortar tubes, hand grenades, rifles, mines, rucksacks, sleeping bags, explosives and fuses. The operation was part of an interdiction strategy aimed at preventing ethnic Albanians from using Kosovo as a launching ground for incursions into Serbia.

That comes on the heels of the bloodiest month in Kosovo since NATO troops arrived. What was different about the latest round of violence, however, was that is was NATO peacekeepers and ethnic Albanians who were shooting each other. During the clash, which took place in the polarized city of Mitrovica, ethnic Albanian snipers shot and wounded two French soldiers. The French responded by killing one rooftop sniper and wounding at least four others.

The clash between NATO troops and ethnic Albanians was not surprising. As a candid intelligence officer with the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) explained to me in November, the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army has not disarmed and disbanded as the White House claims but instead maintains an underground network that has “more than enough weapons to start another war.” The relationship between NATO peacekeepers and the underground KLA, he added, can be summarized in the following way: “We are their tool, and when we stop being useful to them, they will turn against us.”

Since the violence in Mitrovica, NATO and UNMIK officials seem to be catching on, noting in a recent joint statement, “What is clear … is that two young French soldiers, who came here as peacekeepers, are lying in hospital beds suffering from gunshot wounds inflicted on them by the very people that they came here to protect.”

Meanwhile, a NATO official in Belgium has admitted that “the KLA is certainly trying to precipitate events politically and get rid of some people, both Serbs and moderate ethnic Albanians.” Even more worrisome, independent newspapers in Macedonia are reporting the existence of KLA-like formations in Macedonia. The papers say the units are waiting for an opportune time to link up with units from Kosovo and Albania following violence planned for the coming spring. There are also reports now coming from Western and independent media inside Yugoslavia telling of KLA infiltration into Serbia proper, specifically into the municipalities of Kursumlija and Presevo along the border with Kosovo. So far, two policemen have reportedly been killed and six people wounded, and there is fear that the number of incidents will increase after the spring thaw.

Moreover, in a move that suggests that Mitrovica is fast becoming the Belfast of the Balkans, French troops stationed there have been reenforced by about 150 soldiers from the British Royal Green Jackets. According to analysts, “The Green Jackets … have extensive experience in urban patrolling and civil unrest from serving in Northern Ireland” and, accordingly, have achieved some of the “best results” of all the peacekeepers in Kosovo. “I think it is widely understood that the British have experience of patrolling urban areas and in dealing with civil unrest,” explains a British spokesman, and “when it comes to infantry units, most of our men have been in Northern Ireland in the not too distant past.”

The analogy of Northern Ireland and Kosovo is fitting. The British army went to Northern Ireland to keep the warring sides apart and prevent another bloodbath. But instead of ending the violence, both sides continued for decades to launch sporadic attacks on one another as well as on the peacekeepers who were ostensibly there to help.

What then can we expect in Kosovo? Perhaps much the same. American hopes for peace in Northern Ireland were recently set back by the Irish Republican Army’s refusal to disarm. In Kosovo, similarly, NATO leaders who touted promises by the KLA to disarm must now explain why peacekeepers are targets.

The fact of the matter is that, from Belfast to the Balkans, unvanquished insurgent groups rarely turn in their weapons or give up their political agendas. As a result, NATO now finds itself, not with a peacekeeping policy in Kosovo, but with a KLA management policy. And like the British in Northern Ireland, NATO may find itself baby-sitting these belligerents for decades.

Gary Dempsey is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.