The Coming Explosion in Kosovo

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Secretary of State Colin Powell recently pledged that the Bushadministration would "stay the course" with its NATO allies in thepeacekeeping and nation-building missions in the Balkans. "We went intogether and we will come out together," said Powell. The secretary iscommitting the administration to a foolish and dangerous course of action.

Washington might get away with keeping troops in Bosnia for the next fouryears without having some of them return home in body bags. Bosniaapparently has settled into the comfortable rut of a "soft partition" thatmeets the minimum demands of the three feuding ethnic groups.

The Bush administration is not likely to be so lucky in Kosovo. Indeed, thesituation there deteriorates almost daily. Inside the province, Albanianextremists continue to launch attacks against the dwindling Serb population.The attack that killed nearly a dozen Serbs on a bus headed forcommemoration ceremonies at a cemetery is only the most recent outrage.

But the violence is no longer confined to Kosovo. Tensions are mounting inareas adjacent to the province. Insurgents linked with the KosovoLiberation Army have attacked targets in the Presevo Valley—the portion ofSerbia across the border from Kosovo. The patience of the new democraticgovernment in Belgrade is dwindling as NATO seems unable to stop the KLA'scampaign to carve off another piece of Serbian territory.

The KLA's apologists in the United States typically excuse violence directedagainst Serbs as understandable vengeance for the mistreatment of theKosovar Albanians at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic. But the expansion ofthe KLA's military offensive into the Presevo Valley shows that the moremundane motive of territorial greed is at work.

That point is made clearer by the KLA's recent trouble-making in Macedonia.There have been incidents of sabotage in western Macedonia in recent months,as well as armed clashes between Macedonian police and Albanian gunmen. Theconfrontation escalated in late February with a fire-fight involvinginsurgent forces and the Macedonian military.

United States and NATO troops now face the task of trying to prevent the KLAand its offshoots from waging a war for territorial expansion against bothSerbia and Macedonia. NATO already has decided to shrink the buffer zonebetween Kosovo and the rest of Serbia that KLA fighters have been using as astaging area for attacks in the Presevo Valley. That is not likely to makethe KLA leadership happy.

Indeed, NATO's current predicament is similar to that of the British forcesthat entered Northern Ireland to stem religious violence in the late 1960s.Initially, the troops were there to protect Catholics from armed Protestantextremists. As the mission dragged on, though, the Catholic populationviewed the soldiers as an occupation force thwarting their dream of unitingUlster with the Irish Republic. They began to attack the troops, and theBritish forces have spent most of the last three decades battling fightersof the Irish Republican Army—at a cost of some 2,000 casualties.

Likewise, the KLA is emerging as NATO's main problem in Kosovo. To AlbanianKosovar expansionists, NATO is no longer the de facto ally that helped themwrest Kosovo from Serbia's control. It is now an obstacle to their goal ofa Greater Albania that includes additional chunks of Serbian territory, aswell as most of western Macedonia.

During the presidential campaign, Condoleezza Rice stated that the UnitedStates should avoid peacekeeping and nation-building missions in theBalkans. Candidate George W. Bush also expressed the view that the UnitedStates should withdraw its troops from that volatile region. Unfortunately,both the president and Secretary Powell now seem to be retreating from thatposition.

But Rice was right. The United States should exit the Balkans as quickly aspossible. We have no strategic or economic interests there that evenremotely warrant the risks the administration is incurring. Moreover, thewindow of opportunity for a graceful exit from Kosovo is closing. If theadministration does not act soon, it will be saddled with a thankless,dangerous and endless mission.