A Republican-sponsored bill currently moving through the U.S. House of Representatives asks for U.S. military aid to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA, or Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosove — UCK, in Albanian). Despite the bill’s prominent supporters— including Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, both usually lucid observers of the international scene— it is misguided and dangerous.
“Arming” the KLA (as if they are not already armed) would be far more than a mere mistake. It would display both American ignorance of the true nature of the KLA and despair at the failure of NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia. It would also mean that foreign policy would be guided not by the defense of national interest, but by the emotionalism now masquerading as news on CNN.
Some politicians have apparently confused the KLA with the Nicaraguan contras or the Afghan mujaheddin of the 1980s. This author was an enthusiastic supporter of both of those groups, but the KLA is far from the same. Any confusion reflects a bad reading of history— both of the “Reagan Doctrine” and Nixon’s “Vietnamization” — for the KLA is a group with distinctly dubious origins, goals and methods.
To its credit, the Clinton administration has thus far distanced itself from the idea of arming that organization, but its position may be wavering, and it seems prepared to use the growing support for that notion as an additional form of pressure on Belgrade.
Slobodan Milosevic’s rather crude, Bolshevik-style propaganda has succeeded in marshalling Serb opinion against all Albanians rather than just the KLA. The Clinton administration, however, should be able to deflect American calls to aid the KLA by presenting the facts about the group it declared a “terrorist organization” last year.
The KLA: Terrorist, Authoritarian Guerrillas
The KLA is, briefly put, a secessionist and irredentist guerrilla organization seeking a Greater Albania carved from territories now belonging to Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Greece. Equally disturbing, some of its founders and leading cadres were associated with the Yugoslavian communist secret police or even the late Enver Hoxha’s Sigurimi, a group which made the KGB, at its Stalinist worst, look good by comparison. Moreover, reports have traced KLA support to Iranian, Afghan, and other unsavory sources, including Ossama Bin Laden.
The KLA leadership is largely made up of Albanians from the diaspora (including Switzerland, Germany, and the United States, among others), Albania proper — particularly northern Albania, the area controlled by former president and present warlord Sali Berisha and his Tropoje clans, as well as Kosovo groups. According to the Times of London (see its March 24th edition) and other European publications, the KLA is heavily involved in trafficking heroin, cigarettes and illegal aliens throughout Europe. Supplementing that income are “contributions” often extorted from Albanian emigres. In conjunction with Albanian criminal organizations, the KLA also controls arms smuggling from Europe into Albania, Macedonia and Yugoslavia.
Beyond those facts, the KLA’s tactics and treatment of Kosovo Albanians should make American aid to the organization unthinkable. Currently, the KLA is recruiting— often forcibly, and even at gunpoint— men of fighting age from among those in flight to the Albanian border, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post. Other reports, too numerous to dismiss simply as Serbian propaganda, indicate that the KLA fighters were trained by veterans of the Afghan war, all of them anti-democratic and anti-American Islamic fundamentalists.
The KLA has in fact never shown regard for democracy. When the Kosovo Democratic League of Ibrahim Rugova— the only democratically elected Kosovo Albanian leader ever— tried to establish its own armed branch (the Armed Force of the Kosovo Republic [FARK]) with bases in Albania, the KLA promptly killed its leader. Nor did the KLA have any qualms about murdering Rugova’s collaborators, whom it accused of the “crime” of moderation. Most recently, although Rugova’s recent meeting with Milosevic may well have been under duress, the KLA declared Rugova a “traitor”— yet another step toward eliminating any competitors for political power within Kosovo.
Victimhood as Strength
Worse still is the KLA’s systematic, insidious use of civilians for its own narrow and cynical purposes. For all its bluster, the KLA does not pose a serious military threat to Belgrade. It is disorganized, fragmented and clan-based, and has lost every attempt to control specific areas of Kosovo. More shrewd than strong, however, the KLA’s leaders realized that atrocities against civilians would provoke not only Western indignation but also action. To that end, in contrast to most guerrilla organizations, the KLA concentrated its operations in populated areas, confident that the typically brutal Serbian forces, especially the irregular paramilitary groups, would eventually retaliate against civilians. A good example is the February 28 KLA murder of Bogoljub Staletovic, the Serbian police chief in Kachanik. His “sin” was that he was one of the few Serbian police chiefs who did his job well and impartially— and was popular with both Serbs and Albanians. His murder radicalized the Serbs and provoked indiscriminate retaliation— a fresh supply of victims for KLA propaganda. Now, military intervention to protect noncombatants has effectively turned NATO into the KLA’s air force. Thus, where the KLA could not gain an advantage with its own might, it finessed one with propaganda.
Propaganda will thrive precisely where knowledge is scarce and emotion fills the void— and here the KLA has found a powerful ally in CNN. It was that network’s excitable Christiane Amanpour who reported that “adult men are missing from among the refugees,” the implication being that they had been murdered by the Serbs. The appearance of many such men among those at the borders— in footage from CNN itself as well as other news organizations — disproved any such notion, and indicated, if anything, that threatening recruiters from the KLA were themselves to blame for the dearth of young men in the crowds.
It was also CNN that claimed that Kosovo Albanian leaders in Pristina, such as Rambouillet negotiator Fehmi Agani and journalist Baton Haxhiu, had been killed, and that Ibrahim Rugova had fled from his burnt out house and was in hiding. Other Western media outlets later found that those “dead” may in fact be alive, and Rugova, his house apparently intact, turned up with Milosevic on Belgrade TV. Whether any of those individuals are well, or free, is another issue, but the more significant point is that this sort of “coverage” paints an inaccurate picture, and heightens the anti-Serbian sentiment that the KLA depends on.
The Dangers of Despair
In the face of mounting evidence of the inadequacy and costs of the NATO aerial campaign, which has not spared Kosovo but has united Serbs behind Milosevic, NATO’s leaders are casting about for alternatives. Whatever the merits of a ground campaign, providing military aid to the KLA, however, is patently wrong-headed. The only reliable outcome of such a policy would be to turn Kosovo into a permanent battleground— because Serbian nationalism will always support attacks against the KLA’s objective of a “Greater Albania.”
Furthermore, none of the Balkan states around Kosovo would support a KLA-led Greater Albania. Macedonia and Greece justifiably fear the prospect of an independent Kosovo as a precursor to a Greater Albania. Bulgaria, Slovakia and Romania likewise see that concept as a direct threat to their own national integrity — given their large and geographically concentrated Turkish and Hungarian minorities respectively.
To sum up: the cruelty of the Serbs should not convert us into supporters of an equally cruel and violent KLA.