Commentary

Belfast in the Balkans

By Gary Dempsey
February 18, 2000
This month has been the bloodiest in Kosovo since June, 1999, when NATO troops arrived after 78 days of punishing air strikes against Yugoslavia. What is different about this latest eruption of violence is that NATO peacekeepers and ethnic Albanians were openly shooting at one another for the first time. During the clash, which took place in the polarized town of Kosovska Mitrovica, ethnic Albanian snipers shot and wounded two French soldiers. The French responded by killing one rooftop sniper and wounding at least four others. NATO says that it has since arrested more than 40 people suspected of involvement in the bloodletting.

The clash between NATO troops and ethnic Albanians is not surprising. As a candid intelligence officer with the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) explained to me in November, the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) 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’s 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.”

With the recent violence in Kosovo, 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.” And Gen. Pierre de Saqui de Sannes, a French commander in Kosovska Mitrovica, has acknowledged: “I will have great difficulty in preventing someone from throwing a grenade or firing a rocket. If this strategy continues I confess I’m not very optimistic.”

State Department spokesman James Rubin, however, doesn’t seem to get it. He blames Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic for ethnic Albanians’ shooting at NATO peacekeepers. “When things go bad,” explains Rubin, Milosevic “feels like he had a good day.”

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 Leskovac 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 at winter’s end.

Nevertheless, in a move that suggests that Kosovo is becoming the Belfast of the Balkans, French troops stationed in Kosovska Mitrovica have been replaced by about 150 soldiers from the British Royal Green Jackets. According to the New York Times, “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, for instance, 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 the Kosovo, but with a KLA management policy. And like the British in Northern Ireland, NATO my find itself baby-sitting these belligerents for decades.

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