U.S. troops must flex muscle in Kosovo

March 20, 2001|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- It's testing time for the Bush administration in the Balkans. Already.

The Bush campaign mantra was that we should bring our NATO troops home from Bosnia and Kosovo. The Bushies backed off after the Europeans rightly complained their troops were doing most of the job of stabilizing the region.

But the U.S. unwillingness to do its share is encouraging a few hundred Albanian guerrillas to grow increasingly bold. The guerrillas are smuggling arms over the Kosovo border to fight in areas of Serbia and Macedonia populated mainly by ethnic Albanians. This raises the specter of a war to create a Greater Albania that could fracture much of the region.

Most embarrassing is that U.S. peacekeepers patrol the section of the Kosovo border across which the guerrillas pass. The Bush administration won't let them do their job well enough to thwart the troublemakers.

Maybe it's the Somalia syndrome -- the notion that the U.S. military should avoid the risk of casualties at any cost -- that holds the administration back. Or maybe President Bush has bought the myth Bill Clinton once believed -- that the people of the Balkans are doomed to fight forever. Maybe he doesn't grasp that conditions have improved since the vicious ethnic wars of the 1990s.

For one thing, the leaders who fomented war in Bosnia and Kosovo, including Slobodan Milosevic, are either dead or out of power. The peoples of the Balkans are desperately looking to Europe, frantic to be included in European institutions -- and NATO. Except for a few hundred diehard fighters, no one in the Balkans wants to be "Balkan" any more.

Most understand that ethnic differences, and any border changes, can be resolved only by negotiations. Thus, Albania has officially criticized the ethnic Albanian guerrilla violence. Moderate ethnic Albanian leaders in Macedonia have also condemned the guerrillas from Kosovo and scoff at the Greater Albania concept.

In 1999, I interviewed Arben Xhafferi, leader of Macedonia's largest Albanian party. We met in the city of Tetovo, not far from the current skirmishes. He told me, "It is pure imagination to think of joining Albania with (the Albanian parts of) Macedonia and Kosovo because there are rules in international law. You can't change borders every day.

"Our priority is to push Macedonia into the EU and NATO and to bring forward European standards and values," the bearded Mr. Xhafferi continued. He wants more rights for ethnic Albanians within Macedonia -- including a controversial plan to have them make a constitutional nation equal to the Slavs, but inside one country. "No, no, we are not talking about two states in Macedonia," he insisted.

So why are ethnic Albanian guerrillas fighting? In part, because some hard-line fighters from the anti-Serb Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) can't give up the struggle for a Greater Albania. And in part because of uncertainty over the region's future.

Kosovo remains under United Nations administration and NATO control, uncertain when or if it will gain independence from Serbia. Across the border, the fate of Serbia's Presovo Valley, populated mainly by Albanians, has been equally uncertain. NATO forbade Serbian troops to enter a three-mile-wide buffer zone in the valley, so KLA fighters felt safe to operate.

The situation became explosive after the defeat of Mr. Milosevic in Serbian elections. With democratic rule in Belgrade, KLA hard-liners feared NATO might never let Kosovo split from Serbia. So they're testing the alliance.

To meet that test, NATO must regain credibility by halting the guerrilla violence on Kosovo's borders. That requires U.S. troops to show their mettle. The Bush administration has forbidden U.S. peacekeepers to cross into the Presevo Valley on patrol to check on the insurgents. Maybe we should swap zones with the British -- who have shown that they're willing and able to use force.

Such shows of strength would not amount to mission creep. On the contrary, they would set the stage for an eventual withdrawal of NATO troops from the Balkans. Force must be accompanied by support for Kosovar moderates who reject the KLA's use of violence. Kosovo-wide elections should be scheduled soon to undercut the extremists. Those elected will negotiate Kosovo's future relationship to Serbia.

The KLA is the last gasp of the past. Surely they aren't too much for the world's strongest military alliance -- including U.S. troops.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa., 19101, or by e-mail at trubin@phillynews.com.

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