Picture Perfect Peacekeeping in Kosovo?

March 5, 1999 • Commentary

Peace talks between Serbs and ethnic Albanians on the crisis in Kosovo aren’t scheduled to resume in France until March 15. That gives Americans a chance to contemplate the morass that awaits the 4,000 U.S. soldiers the Clinton administration wants to send as NATO peacekeepers should the proposed peace settlement be signed.

The White House insists that it will initiate air strikes against Serbia if ethnic Albanian negotiators agree to sign the peace settlement and their Serb counterparts refuse. But if the ethnic Albanians don’t agree, no military action will be taken against either side. Such a threat structure creates a perverse incentive: the ethnic Albanians have every reason to agree — at least on paper — to the peace settlement in order to bring NATO bombs down on Serbia.

What’s more disturbing is that Washington may be actively promoting that rationale with ethnic Albanian negotiators. As the former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, recently explained, “I’m sure that this is the point that has been pressed very strongly with them, that if you agree, not only will you have international support, but then you will isolate the Serbs and there will be air strikes against your enemy.”

Meanwhile, Serb negotiators continue to insist that they will not permit NATO troops on Serbian soil to implement the peace settlement. The Clinton administration says it will bomb an invitation out of Serbia if it has to.

[The] reality on the ground is likely to be very different from the security picture the president paints for the American public as he dispatches 4,000 U.S. soldiers to Kosovo.

The president promised the American people that deployment of American troops on the ground in Kosovo would take place only in a “permissive security environment.” But if Serbia grants “permission” for U.S. troops to enter Serbia after being pummeled by American air strikes, it will be phony permission indeed, and worth no more than the paper it’s written on. The real security environment will be thick with resentment and revenge.

The Clinton administration has now enlisted former senator Bob Dole to sell the proposed peace settlement to ethnic Albanian negotiators. That move has alienated Serbs and fostered a growing impression among ethnic Albanians in Kosovo that the peace settlement is merely Washington’s cover for eventually securing their secession from Serbia. Why would they feel otherwise? Dole has publicly advocated measures that would clearly facilitate that goal.

Last September, for example, Dole said that Washington should demand a complete withdrawal of all Serb forces from Kosovo. Such a step would facilitate Kosovo’s de facto secession from Serbia because it would effectively transfer control of the entire province to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Dole certainly is not regarded as a neutral broker by either side.

Moreover, persuading ethnic Albanian negotiators to sign the peace settlement is one thing, but getting the KLA to adhere to the document’s provisions would be quite another.

The KLA abhors the proposed peace settlement’s requirement that they disarm. “We didn’t take up arms just to give them up,” explains one KLA guerrilla. “Full disarmament for us is an impossibility,” says another. And KLA commanders insist that their fighters will not give up their weapons, even with Washington’s promise that NATO will protect Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians. Says one, “We believe in the U.S.… But we believe more in ourselves. And we cannot believe anyone who says the KLA must disarm.”

And why would they want to disarm? The KLA is not war weary. Quite the opposite. They are feeling stronger, better organized, and may soon have NATO bombs falling on their enemy. In a year, their army has gone from bands of ragtag guerrillas to a force of 15,000, equipped with increasingly sophisticated weapons. Even if the ethnic Albanian negotiating team signs the proposed peace settlement, it is far from clear that the KLA will honor the disarmament provision. Will the Clinton administration then risk provoking a KLA backlash by using U.S. troops to disarm the guerrillas? Or will the administration simply look the other way to avoid having American soldiers become the possible targets of both Serb and ethnic Albanian forces?

Ultimately, both the permission for NATO troops to be in Serbia and the requirement that the KLA disarm will likely exist only on paper. That means that reality on the ground is likely to be very different from the security picture the president paints for the American public as he dispatches 4,000 U.S. soldiers to Kosovo.

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