The first wave of 3,500 NATO troops recently poured into Macedonia to begin a 30-day mission to “disarm” ethnic Albanian guerrillas as part of Operation Essential Harvest. But Essential Harvest is just the latest move NATO has made that gets it wrong in the Balkans.
First, look at the numbers. The Macedonian government estimates that ethnic Albanian rebels have 70,000 weapons, roughly 23 times more than the 3,000 that rebel leaders say they’ll turn over to NATO weapons collectors. NATO officials, meanwhile, barely disagree with the rebels, and say that 3,300 weapons is a “credible, accurate, and non-negotiable” estimate of what should be turned in before the alliance declares the disarmament a success. Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, however, says, “We used to seize that quantity in a single raid… . I think it is laughable to speak about 3,300 pieces six months after the outbreak of [the] crisis.”
If NATO’s involvement in neighboring Kosovo is any guide, Georgievski has a right to be incredulous. After the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) turned in roughly 10,000 guns — many of them broken or antiquated — NATO officials declared that the rebel group was disarmed. What NATO officials failed to mention was that a few days earlier, German soldiers stumbled on a secret cache of 10 tons of ammunition. And that was only the beginning.
British troops later found two concrete bunkers dug into a hillside in a forested area of central Kosovo containing 67 tons of weapons and explosives, including 20,000 grenades, thousands of mines, and half a million bullets. A NATO spokesperson said the weapons were enough to eliminate the entire population of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, or to destroy 900 to 1,000 tanks.
NATO units have since discovered dozens of hidden weapons stockpiles scattered throughout Kosovo. One included sniper rifles, machine guns, more than 80 mines, 100 pounds of TNT and paraphernalia to detonate bombs remotely — “clear indications of a terrorist capability,” explained a prepared NATO statement on the find. In another incident, NATO soldiers in Kosovo discovered a complex of bunkers and fighting positions only 12 miles from the Kosovo-Macedonia border.
What’s more, even if Macedonia’s rebels turn in 3,300 weapons as NATO wants, it really won’t make much difference militarily. According to a top NATO commander, the rebels can easily and quickly replace the weapons they turn in. Indeed, over the past six months, NATO’s Kosovo force has intercepted as many weapons destined for Macedonia as the rebels now claim to have in their possession, and what NATO intercepted is probably a drop in the bucket compared to the total number of weapons that made it across Kosovo’s mountainous border.
Macedonia’s rebels could also replenish the few weapons they turn in by smuggling others in from neighboring Albania. In 1997, the central government in Albania collapsed. In the ensuing chaos, the government’s arms depots were thrown open. Between 650,000 and 1 million light weapons and 1.5 billion rounds of ammunition were stolen. An estimated 3.5 million hand grenades, 1 million anti-personnel mines, 840,000 mortar shells, and 3,600 tons of explosives also went missing. Many of the plundered weapons headed straight into the hands of the region’s gun traffickers and ethnic Albanian militants.
Lastly, Macedonia’s rebels could turn to drug trafficking to re-supply whatever arms they turn over to NATO. Indeed, as early as June 1994, the Paris-based Geopolitical Drug Watch (GDW) issued a bulletin that concluded narcotics smuggling had become a prime source of financing for civil wars already under way — or rapidly brewing — in southeastern Europe. The GDW bulletin went on to identify Albanian nationalists in Kosovo and Macedonia as key players in the region’s accelerating drugs-for-arms traffic and noted that they were transporting up to $2 billion worth of heroin annually into Central and Western Europe “in order to finance large purchases of weapons” from black-market arms dealers in Switzerland. At the time the report was written, more than 500 Albanians from Kosovo and Macedonia were in prison in Switzerland for drug- or arms-trafficking offenses, and more than 1,000 others were under indictment.
Ultimately, Operation Essential Harvest is based on two fictions: that Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian rebels have only 3,300 weapons, and that their objective isn’t to keep NATO in Macedonia indefinitely. Neither belief is true. The rebels have far more weapons and easy access to re-supplies. They are also served by NATO’s presence because it keeps Macedonia’s government forces out of their occupied territory.
What remains to be seen is how the rebels keep NATO in Macedonia or how they will make the alliance return when Operation Essential Harvest comes to an end.