European Affairs

The problem in the Balkans has become severe in recent months. Ethnic Albanian militants, many of them former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army that fought Serbia two years ago in Kosovo, continue to make trouble in Serbia's Presevo Valley.

Worse yet, what is partly the same group of fighters has recently brought tiny Macedonia, a country of only two million people, to the brink of civil war. No longer "freedom fighters" opposing repressive rule by Mr. Milosevic, they are now for the most part extremists who simply aspire to conquer more land for a greater ethnic Albanian homeland centered on Kosovo.

Current rebel activities are concentrated in regions with ethnic Albanian majorities. That fact may embolden the insurgents to think that the international community will ultimately take their side - just as it did within Kosovo in 1999.

The Bush administration and other NATO governments need to tell them otherwise, loud and clear. General words of support for Macedonia's government will not suffice. The ethnic Albanian extremists need to know that we will use force to oppose them, for example by strictly clamping down on illicit movements across the Macedonia-Kosovo border.

They also need to know that even if they succeed in a military sense, they will fail more broadly. In other words, even if they cause mayhem in Macedonia that ultimately leads to the de facto partitioning of that country into a larger Slav part and a smaller Albanian part, ethnic Albanians on the whole will likely suffer. Some may be driven from their homes.

Even more to the point, such an outcome would weaken the Western world's commitment to help Kosovo politically and economically. It might lead NATO to withdraw forces from Kosovo sooner than it otherwise would. And it will certainly set back, if not preclude, any Kosovar Albanian aspirations for eventual independence from Serbia.

NATO has not intervened in the Balkans in recent years to favor one group over another. It has intervened to prevent the very type of violence that the Albanian extremists are now carrying out. These militants, who number anywhere from many hundreds to a few thousand in all, have become the enemy.

While it is true that the ethnic Albanian population in Macedonia has several valid grievances against the Slav-dominated government, they are not comparable to what Kosovar Albanians suffered under Milosevic in Kosovo during most of the 1990s. In short, they are insufficient grounds for war.

In fact, it is doubtful that most of the Albanian extremist fighters are motivated solely by such grievances. More likely, they are out to grab land, pure and simple.

Some steps are already being taken to counter the extremists. The Bush administration has allowed American troops to conduct limited operations with Macedonia's armed forces to isolate and ferret out Albanian militias along the border between Macedonia and Kosovo. Along with other NATO governments, it has also allowed Serbian forces to return to part of a buffer zone on their own territory adjoining Kosovo.

The Bush administration and NATO, however, must be prepared to do more. Since the end of the 1999 war against Serbia, NATO has been reluctant to raid the Albanian militias' arms caches within Kosovo. In recent months, it has also been slow to approve more general Serbian efforts to clamp down on extremist Albanian elements throughout the Presevo Valley.

Worst of all, the Bush administration has been unwilling to help the beleaguered Macedonian government defend its territory, and unwilling to consistently toughen NATO's vigilance along the Kosovo-Macedonia border.

Given the size and quality of Macedonia's armed forces, it is doubtful that they can defeat the Albanian extremists on their own. Macedonia's military totals only about 16,000 rather poorly armed troops, half of them conscripts serving nine-month rotations.

That is a very modest number, given that counterinsurgency operations are generally believed to require at least a ten-to-one advantage in force levels - and given that the ethnic Albanian extremist fighters may number 1,000 or more (no one really knows at this point).

Making matters worse is the dearth of proper military equipment within the Macedonian armed forces. For example, they own a grand total of just over half a dozen helicopters to provide mobility in the mountainous terrain where the rebels operate.

All these considerations suggest the likelihood of a prolonged rebellion and perhaps even for civil war in Macedonia. Unless NATO intervenes forcefully, all it can do is hope that a couple of Macedonian military victories followed by a government offer of political concessions to the Albanian minority will suffice to defuse the rebellion.

But that seems doubtful - both because the Macedonian military seems unlikely to prevail on the battlefield, and because the ethnic Albanian extremists are unlikely to stop fighting even if a fair political deal is offered. The history of the Balkans in general, and the recent history of Kosovo in particular, does not provide much reason for optimism.

Last year, President Bush's national security advisor, Condeleeza Rice, asked why the Clinton administration deployed combat units like the 82nd airborne division to a place like Kosovo. Seeing peacekeeping as a distraction for American soldiers, she and then-Governor Bush wanted to end such missions.

Now Ms. Rice has her answer. The same troops who walk Kosovar children to school by day may have to raid arms caches or even fight ethnic Albanian extremists by night. We are starting to do these things now, and we should do more.

Critics have noted the irony of NATO, which went to war for the first time in its history in 1999 to rescue the Kosovar Albanian population, joining now with Serbia to suppress ethnic Albanian extremists.

But Western policy in the region has never been to take the side of one group or another; it has been to oppose certain types of behavior, and most of all to prevent violence. That philosophy now calls for clamping down on the very people we aided two years ago.

Fearing further entanglement in the Balkans, Mr. Bush apparently plans to ignore this problem and hope that it will solve itself. Alas, it probably will not. NATO has the means to contain this latest challenge to Balkan peace with only modest effort and risk to its own forces. But it will not prevail if it signals weakness and indifference.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number II in the Spring of 2001.