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Crisis 1999
Opinions Archive 1999
With few options, NATO turns up heat on KLA to lukewarm

On August 8, French troops clashed with ethnic Albanians on the bridge in Mitrovica, that divides the ethnically Albanian and Serbian parts of the city. In the third day of clashes in Mitrovica, about 150 Albanian protesters, yelling anti-French slogans, were pushed back by French soldiers armed with rifles. The past weekend saw numerous incidents of anti-Serb violence conducted by ethnic Albanians, some of whom were directly involved in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). In addition, according to KFOR spokesman Major Roland Lavoile, KFOR continued to discover illegal arms caches along with uniforms and supplies linking the finds to the KLA. Most recently, on August 8, British troops found a number of weapons in a house in Lipljan searched in connection with a wave of grenade attacks. Along with weapons, "KLA Interior Ministry Police" identification cards and uniforms were found in the house. The evidence linking the KLA to violent activities and the series of clashes between the KLA and KFOR in Mitrovica illustrate both the continued threat posed by the KLA and, significantly, the rising tensions between the KLA and NATO peacekeepers.

The August 9 Scotsman newspaper quoted the NATO KFOR commander Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Jackson as saying KLA attacks on KFOR troops had raised questions about KLA leadership's ability to control KLA hardliners. "I can't say I am fully confident that they are in full control," said Jackson. After ethnic Albanians clashed with French peacekeeping troops for the third day in Kosovska Mitrovica, Jackson called on KLA leaders to explain to their people that currently "free Kosovo" represents "a great deal of what they fought for," although not quite independence. Despite his concerns about "hardliners" in the ranks of the KLA, Jackson dismissed the possibility that the KLA as a whole is close to clashing with the KFOR troops. "We may get some difficulty with fringe hot-heads and we will deal with it," Jackson said. He concluded that challenging KFOR "would be the most foolish thing to do and I am sure they are not going to be that foolish."

The continued KLA-perpetrated and facilitated violence in Kosovo has put NATO in an impossible situation. From the beginning of its involvement in the Kosovo crisis, NATO's actions have, directly and indirectly, supported the KLA and its leader Hashim Thaci. NATO thought it could use Thaci and the KLA as a lever in Kosovo, and just as easily put them away after driving out the Yugoslav Army. However, having enticed NATO into fighting their war for them, Thaci and the KLA have no intention of putting down their weapons, and are instead intensifying their fight for Kosovo's independence. Now that it has become clear who was using whom, NATO is left with few if any options to deal with the problem.

First, NATO is stuck spinning doubletalk, attempting to distinguish Hashim Thaci and the KLA leadership from KLA "hardliners." There are none harder in the KLA than Thaci, yet after giving him legitimacy during Operation Allied Force, NATO finds it politically impossible to call him a thug. For the same reason, NATO cannot arrest Thaci. Not only would this be politically difficult, such move would be tantamount to a declaration of war against the KLA. NATO can not challenge the KLA head to head without accepting some brutal casualties. The KLA operated quite successfully against a similarly sized force of Serbs who knew the territory and were anything but subtle in their efforts to eradicate a guerrilla army. To attempt a serious crackdown against the KLA with winter approaching, in unfamiliar terrain, surrounded by civilian supporters of the rebels and constrained by NATO's political and military baggage would be nothing short of disaster for NATO forces.

So if NATO can not seriously take on the KLA for political and military reasons, why not just ignore them and let them finish expelling the Serbs from Kosovo? After all, just a few tens of thousands more Serbs to go and NATO can begin to "move beyond" that political shame. Serbs and Russians charge NATO with doing just that. However, Serb and Russian forces have also warned NATO that if it does not rein in the KLA, they will be forced to do so themselves.

On July 31, Russian forces in Kosovo briefly detained KLA military leader General Agim Ceku after he was unable to produce documentation that allows some KLA members to continue wearing uniforms and carrying sidearms. Following Ceku's detention, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on August 1 claiming that the KLA was using force against Serbs in Kosovo and made public threats to international peacekeepers. The statement further said, "immediate efficient measures are needed to ensure KLA's unconditional fulfillment of all the terms of the Kosovo peacekeeping process and to prevent development endangering the whole peacemaking operations in Kosovo." Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov sent corresponding messages to the commanders of peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, to foreign ministers of the Western countries and to the United Nations. Russia's detention of Ceku was meant to send a message to NATO that it is ready to step in and provide protection to Kosovo Serbs.

Belgrade is also more than ready to return to Kosovo and fight the KLA. In an unmistakable reference to the KLA made on August 8, Third Yugoslav Army commander Colonel-General Nebojsa Pavkovic said, "KFOR troops, and its civilian component especially, are trying to suspend the laws of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia by forging alliances with illegal authorities." The Beta news agency cited Pavkovic as insisting that, according to the Kumanovo agreement between NATO and the Yugoslav Army, Yugoslav army troops are supposed to return to Kosovo at some point in the future. Pavkovic has claimed multiple times that the Yugoslav Army will return if NATO does not bring unbiased order to the province, and on August 8 he again noted to Beta that the UN forces in Kosovo "are coping poorly with the situation on the ground."

Given Russian and Yugoslav willingness, even eagerness, to take on the KLA, NATO can not afford to do nothing. Such a maneuver would create the worst of all outcomes for NATO, which would end up caught in the crossfire with serious questions about whom to shoot. NATO cannot effectively fight the KLA, it cannot eliminate the KLA's leader, and it cannot let the Russians or the Serbs step in. So NATO is stuck, playing the game of squeezing a little harder on the "fringe hardliners," while appealing to Thaci to bring his forces under control. In the end, this squeezing tactic is but a slight variation of the "do nothing" approach, NATO hoping to step up pressure just enough to keep the Russians and Serbs away but not enough to draw too much KLA fire.

Source: Stratfor Kosovo Crisis Center

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