Commentary

U.S. Must Stop Being a KLA Pawn

This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, March 5, 2000.
Kosovska Mitrovica—scene of ethnic fighting between Serbs and Albanians and violent attacks on NATO peacekeepers by both groups—is just the most recent flash point in Kosovo. The United Nations reports that ethnic Albanians continue to use terror to drive Serbs out of the province, and U.N. and NATO officials now are worried that the supposedly disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army is waging a separatist guerrilla campaign within Serbia in the hopes of drawing NATO into renewed fighting.

Coming nearly a year after the U.S. and its European allies intervened in the civil war between Serbia and Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, the current crisis illustrates: the illusory nature of the Clinton administration’s goal of transforming Kosovo into a multiethnic democracy; the fact that the administration has naively allowed the U.S. to be manipulated by the KLA; and the fact that KLA is as much or more of a threat to Balkan stability than the regime of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

NATO is poised to end Kosovo’s de facto partition by resettling ethnic Albanian refugees in the northern (Serb) sector of Kosovska Mitrovica. This is a short-sighted decision that would trigger the exodus of most of the province’s remaining Serbs, thereby undercutting Washington’s stated policy of creating a multiethnic, democratic Kosovo. If NATO goes ahead with this policy, it will again become the unwitting tool of the KLA, which never has wavered in its determination to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its Serb (and other minority) populations.

The continuing ethnic violence in Kosovo underscores the fact that there never has been even a remote possibility that Serbs and ethnic Albanians can live together in a society shaped by the values of democracy, diversity and tolerance. In Kosovo as elsewhere in the Balkans, ethnic fragmentation, competition for power and the intermingling of populations (which creates real, not imagined, insecurity) are a combustible mix. Invariably, Balkan conflicts are “zero-sum” struggles in which rival ethnic groups can be secure only by attaining physical control over the territory in dispute.

The Clinton administration didn’t have to immerse itself in Balkan history to know that ethnic exclusivity, not multiethnicity, is the only basis on which enduring peace can be constructed in that region. The outcome of the conflicts in Bosnia and between Serbia and Croatia proved this. Of all the ethnic rivalries in the Balkans, Kosovo is the least tractable because it is impossible to reconcile the Serbs’ historical and cultural claims to the province with the ethnic Albanians’ claim to self-determination.

The administration blundered into war in Kosovo through ignorance and the KLA’s skillful manipulation. As the PBS “Frontline” series reported, the KLA had a simple strategy. Knowing it could not defeat the Serbs without NATO’s military assistance, the KLA waged a nasty insurgent campaign to provoke brutal Serb reprisals that would outrage Americans and spur Western intervention. In early 1999, U.S. intelligence officials told the administration what the KLA was up to. The administration ignored these warnings and placed all the blame for the Kosovo situation on Belgrade.

As European officials pointed out last week, it is the KLA that is the most dangerous mischief-maker in Kosovo today. The KLA is not democratic. It wants an ethnically exclusive Kosovo, and it wants an independent Kosovo as a springboard to a Greater Albania, made up of Albania, Kosovo and parts of Macedonia and Serbia. The KLA’s ambitions threaten to reignite conflict in the Balkans.

A U.N. official recently said the “central problem” in Kosovo is NATO’s refusal “to read the riot act to the KLA” for fear it will enrage the province’s ethnic Albanian political leadership.

The administration is appeasing the KLA because it worries—as it should—that the KLA will turn its guns on NATO peacekeepers.

As a senior French official said, Kosovo is a quagmire that defies solution. Even some administration policymakers now see that NATO is in a lose-lose position. That it would come to this was easily foreseeable a year ago.

The questions now for the U.S. are whether it is prepared to support an open-ended military commitment that could last half a century and whether it is willing to continue to allow itself to be used as a pawn by the KLA. Perhaps the time has come to tell the European Union that the Balkan situation is Europe’s problem to solve, not the United States’.

Christopher Layne is a visiting scholar at USC’s Center for International Studies and a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute.