We Were Suckers for the KLA

By Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz

On March 24, one year ago, NATO began its campaign to defend ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. After almost three months of bombing and a massive exodus of Albanian refugees, Serbian troops withdrew from the embattled province. Today, Kosovo is roiled by continuing violence, and ethnic divisions seem as strong as ever. Inevitably, a debate has surfaced about the wisdom of NATO’s intervention: Success or mistake?

The United States and its NATO allies won a military victory in Yugoslavia a year ago but, as the deteriorating situation in Kosovo attests, it has proved a hollow triumph. As a test of the Clinton administration’s doctrine of virtuous power–the notion that the United States should intervene when other countries’ internal conflicts offend American values–the Kosovo war has proved one of the administration’s more notable failures. It is a failure–strategic, diplomatic and military–that should have been predicted and avoided.

Accuse us of relying too heavily on the benefits of hindsight if you will, but a brief overview of the current situation confirms the notion that this was, from the start, a misguided venture. Washington’s declared objectives of bringing stability to the Balkans and building a multiethnic democracy in Kosovo have utterly foundered. Worse, as should have been foreseen, the United States and its allies are becoming stuck in a geopolitical quagmire.

Throughout Kosovo–especially in the northern town of Mitrovica–ethnic tensions are at a boiling point, and, as recent United Nations reports have underscored, the supposedly demobilized KLA continues to wage a violent campaign intended to force Kosovo’s remaining Serbs to flee the province. More ominously, the KLA is waging a guerrilla war inside Serbia in the hope of drawing NATO forces into renewed fighting against the Yugoslav army.

Looking back, it is clear that this unfortunate outcome was inevitable, given the failure of President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and their advisers to understand the complex background of the conflict and the motivation of the warring parties. In Kosovo, there were no good guys. Over the centuries, relations between Serbs and ethnic Albanians have been marked by reciprocal repression and revenge. The more immediate causes of the violence that prompted the United States and NATO to step in were the irreconcilable goals of these two hostile ethnic groups. Ethnic Albanians, the overwhelming majority of Kosovo’s population, wanted complete independence from Yugoslavia. Serbs, invoking the principle of national sovereignty, refused to accept an independent Kosovo.

As a result of its failure to understand, the administration appears to have fallen for some of the oldest tricks in the book. The KLA’s guerrilla campaign was a deliberate attempt to provoke Belgrade into reprisals that would attract the West’s attention. Knowing it could not defeat Yugoslavia without NATO’s military support, the KLA waged a nasty insurgency that included assassinations of Serbian political and military officials. The KLA calculated–accurately–that a violent Yugoslav retaliation would pressure Washington and its allies to intervene. Although U.S. intelligence warned the Clinton administration of the KLA’s intentions, Clinton and his advisers took the bait: Washington placed the blame for events in Kosovo on Belgrade and absolved the KLA.

The administration’s choice of sides was compounded by a series of diplomatic and military miscalculations. The U.S. believed it could easily force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept an American-imposed settlement of the Kosovo question. The Milosevic government might eventually have accepted partition, a solution that might have restored a semblance of peace. But instead of pursuing that diplomatic solution, the Clinton administration cynically offered Belgrade terms that would have nullified Yugoslav control of Kosovo and granted NATO the right to station troops anywhere in Yugoslavia–terms Milosevic was bound to refuse. The United States and its allies then decided to teach Milosevic a lesson by carrying out their threat to bomb Yugoslavia.

In this light, Clinton’s assertion at a June 25, 1999, postwar news conference that the bombing was a way to stop “deliberate, systematic efforts at . . . genocide” in Kosovo seems either disingenuous or ignorant. Before the start of NATO’s bombing on March 24, 1999, approximately 1,800 civilians–overwhelmingly ethnic Albanians but also Serbs–had been killed in 15 months of bitter warfare between the KLA and Yugoslav forces. Up to that point, however, there had been no genocide or ethnic cleansing. The Yugoslav army’s admittedly brutal operations had been directed at rooting out the KLA, not at expelling Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population.

Ironically, the U.S.-led NATO bombing precipitated the very humanitarian crisis the administration claimed it was intervening to stop. Belgrade did not turn from conducting a counterinsurgency against the KLA to uprooting the province’s ethnic Albanian population until several days after NATO began its bombing campaign. Indeed, in its May 1999 report on ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the State Department conceded that “in late March 1999 [after the NATO bombing began], Serbian forces dramatically increased the scope and pace of their efforts, moving away from selective targeting of towns and regions suspected of KLA sympathies toward a sustained and systematic effort to ethnically cleanse the entire province of Kosovo.”

Not only did the forced removal of civilians result from the NATO bombing, but administration claims of mass killings–made to rally popular support for the war–turn out to have been exaggerated. Clinton defended the intervention on the grounds that the Yugoslavs had slaughtered “tens of thousands.” Secretary of Defense William Cohen termed it a “horrific slaughter.”

The numbers we now have tend to disprove those claims. To date, according to U.N. reports, forensic specialists working under U.N. auspices have exhumed 2,108 bodies. It is far from certain that all of these victims perished as a result of Yugoslav atrocities; some may have been combatants, others may have been civilians caught in the cross-fire between the Yugoslav army and the KLA. Still others may have been civilians killed by NATO bombs. In the end, the number of civilians believed killed by the Yugoslav army in Kosovo is certain to have been far less than the Clinton administration and NATO claimed.

Though the United States and its allies accomplished one goal by forcing Belgrade to withdrew its troops from Kosovo last year we must, in the end, ask at what price. The war in the province itself never ended. Moreover, despite the presence of U.S. and NATO peacekeepers, once Yugoslav forces left Kosovo the KLA began a new campaign of terror, this time targeting the province’s Serbian and Gypsy populations. This campaign of ethnic cleansing continues unabated. Albright’s assertion March 8 in a speech in Prague that the KLA “disbanded” is a fiction. Politically, the KLA leadership constitutes the backbone of Kosovo’s de facto government. Militarily, it has merely gone underground; the continuing violence against the province’s remaining Serbs bears–according to NATO officers on the ground–the hallmarks of the KLA. Meanwhile, across the border from Kosovo in Serbia proper, the KLA–as part of its effort to carve out a greater Albania–is waging guerrilla war in the Presevo Valley region, which is populated largely by ethnic Albanians. In a disturbing replay of the events leading to the U.S. intervention, the KLA is attempting to provoke a violent Serb response in the hope that NATO again will be drawn into war, and that this time NATO will do the KLA the favor of finishing off the Milosevic regime. The Clinton administration has already been played for a sucker twice by the KLA. It remains to be seen whether it will be manipulated yet again.

Impartial observers recognize that in postwar Kosovo, the KLA has been the heavy. Until now, the United States and NATO have been hesitant to confront it, fearing–with good reason–the KLA will turn on them. Last week’s U.S. raids on KLA arms caches are, to judge by the miscalculations of the past, likely to prove merely the opening skirmish in the next Kosovo war–between NATO and the KLA.

This looming NATO-KLA confrontation shows how the Clinton administration has painted the United States and NATO into a corner. Allowing Kosovo to become independent, as the KLA demands, would make a mockery of Washington’s claims that it fought the war to bring stability to the Balkans and multiethnic democracy to Kosovo. But if the United States continues to insist that Kosovo retain its current nebulous standing as a province of Serbia under U.N. administration, it risks an almost certain conflict between NATO peacekeepers and the KLA. A third option–if NATO decides simply to wash its hands of Kosovo–is equally unworkable because would not take long for Belgrade to resume its war against the KLA. Which, of course, is how this all started.

Confronting Kosovo’s depressing prospects, Clinton administration officials console themselves that, if nothing else, they at least “did the right thing” by intervening. Even granting that doubtful premise, this is not enough to exculpate them from the responsibility they bear for the brutal quagmire Kosovo has become. In the real world, policymakers are judged by the consequences of their actions, not by their intentions. Measured by this standard, the Kosovo war is a damning indictment of both the administration’s foreign policy and its doctrine of “virtuous power.”

Christopher Layne is a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute and next summer will become associate professor at the University of Miami’s School of International Studies. Benjamin Schwarz is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly.

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