The Washington Post

More Time in Macedonia

NATO may be about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Macedonia. So far the small operation has been a success. Fighting has largely subsided. The Albanian rebels are surrendering many of their weapons. And the Macedonian parliament is beginning to implement the constitutional and other reforms mandated by the framework agreement signed by all major political parties in Ohrid on Aug. 13.

But rather than continuing the effort to stabilize the security situation in Macedonia, NATO plans to withdraw its forces by the end of the month. That would be a fatal error, risking not only the minor progress that has been achieved to date but also a likely intensification of the conflict if not an actual civil war.

Six months of bitter conflict cannot be erased by a paper agreement and the 30-day presence of foreign soldiers. The vast majority of Macedonian Slavs fear that ethnic Albanians are still intent on partitioning their country. The vast majority of ethnic Albanians fear that the Macedonian authorities are still intent on treating them as second-class citizens. Extremists in both communities still believe violence will offer the quickest route to success.

At this point, what Macedonia needs most is time—time for stabilizing the security situation in the country; time for heated tempers to cool; time for the parliament to adopt the constitutional changes and other reforms agreed to in Ohrid; time for the ethnic Albanians to begin enjoying their new rights; time for the legitimate security authorities to reestablish control over the entire country; time, in short, to give peace a chance to take root.

And such time will be available only if an outside presence can help provide it. Recognizing this, the Ohrid accords called for the deployment of international monitors to assist in implementing the accords' varied provisions. But as Ambassador James Pardew, the U.S. negotiator of the Ohrid accords, and EU foreign ministers have rightly warned, the security situation in Macedonia is so fragile that monitors will require protection by NATO or other forces.

We have tried deploying unarmed monitors in the Balkans before—including European monitors in Croatia and Bosnia and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitors in Kosovo. None ever got the job done. Instead, NATO countries must bite the bullet and agree to deploy a larger force for a more extended period in order to get the job done right. Some have suggested the European Union should be given that task. But while Europe should continue to take the lead in any operation, only NATO has the credibility and muscle to ensure success. Working together with the government in Skopje, alliance leaders should negotiate a new mandate giving NATO primary responsibility for stabilizing the situation in Macedonia.

This would involve five specific tasks. First, NATO should monitor Macedonia's borders, both to reaffirm the country's territorial integrity and to actively interdict illicit arms trafficking. Second, allied troops must ensure freedom of movement for everyone, including returning refugees and security forces. Third, NATO should supervise disbanding of the National Liberation Army. Fourth, it should monitor the reintroduction of Macedonian security forces into NLA-held areas, both to ensure Macedonian authorities can reestablish control over their entire territory and to reassure the local population against abuse by these forces. Finally, NATO must be prepared to respond to any renewal of hostilities, by standing ready to defeat any violence, no matter its source.

These tasks will require deployment of additional NATO forces—perhaps 15,000 in all—and will be possible only if the United States agrees to deploy 15 to 20 percent of the total force. Indeed, the Europeans are unlikely to accept a new mandate unless Washington is prepared to push for one. It will also require a NATO commitment to remain at least through next spring to ensure that stability in Macedonia becomes self-sustaining.

Contrary to fears of many, this is not likely to be an open-ended mission on a par with NATO's other Balkan operations. In contrast to Bosnia and Kosovo, there is in Macedonia a viable governing infrastructure and civil society, which must now be given the confidence to initiate needed reforms. Nor need a NATO presence solidify the partition of the country, as many Slavs fear and many Albanians hope. To the contrary, NATO's goal must be to ensure Macedonia's territorial integrity, while assisting in the reintegration of its diverse communities.

Having already deployed its forces, NATO cannot now afford to see peace fail in Macedonia. Too much is at stake—for Macedonia, for regional stability and for the alliance. In the end, NATO will have no choice but to stay and get the job done.