The Coming Explosion in Kosovo

Secretary of State Colin Powell recently pledged that the Bush administration would “stay the course” with its NATO allies in the peacekeeping and nation-building missions in the Balkans. “We went in together and we will come out together,” said Powell. The secretary is committing the administration to a foolish and dangerous course of action.

Washington might get away with keeping troops in Bosnia for the next four years without having some of them return home in body bags. Bosnia apparently has settled into the comfortable rut of a “soft partition” that meets the minimum demands of the three feuding ethnic groups.

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

But the violence is no longer confined to Kosovo. Tensions are mounting in areas adjacent to the province. Insurgents linked with the Kosovo Liberation Army have attacked targets in the Presevo Valley-the portion of Serbia across the border from Kosovo. The patience of the new democratic government in Belgrade is dwindling as NATO seems unable to stop the KLA’s campaign to carve off another piece of Serbian territory.

The KLA’s apologists in the United States typically excuse violence directed against Serbs as understandable vengeance for the mistreatment of the Kosovar Albanians at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic. But the expansion of the KLA’s military offensive into the Presevo Valley shows that the more mundane 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. The confrontation escalated in late February with a fire-fight involving insurgent forces and the Macedonian military.

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

Indeed, NATO’s current predicament is similar to that of the British forces that entered Northern Ireland to stem religious violence in the late 1960s. Initially, the troops were there to protect Catholics from armed Protestant extremists. As the mission dragged on, though, the Catholic population viewed the soldiers as an occupation force thwarting their dream of uniting Ulster with the Irish Republic. They began to attack the troops, and the British forces have spent most of the last three decades battling fighters of 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 Albanian Kosovar expansionists, NATO is no longer the de facto ally that helped them wrest Kosovo from Serbia’s control. It is now an obstacle to their goal of a Greater Albania that includes additional chunks of Serbian territory, as well as most of western Macedonia.

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

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

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the editor of NATO’s Empty Victory: A Postmortem on the Balkan War.