NATO in Macedonia: Giving Peacekeeping a Bad Name

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

November 1, 2001

On its own terms, NATO’s third Balkan adventure in six years is turning out to be a success. In late August, some 3,500 new NATO troops joined over 1,000 others already in Macedonia to undertake a limited mission for a limited period of time. NATO was invited in by the government in Skopje to oversee the voluntary disarmament of the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) and ensure the destruction of all weapons freely handed over to NATO soldiers. In the first week of the operation, the NLA handed over to NATO more than a third of the 3,300 weapons—ranging from aging Kalishnikov rifles to advanced anti-tank mortars—it had agreed to deliver to NATO forces. Given this propitious start, there was no reason to believe the Alliance would need more than the thirty days it had originally planned for the entire operation.

Once this limited mission is accomplished, NATO is set to leave Macedonia. Its contribution in helping to stabilize the situation inside this Balkan nation, while not insignificant, will therefore be shortlived. And this raises a fundamental question—in view of the deep divisions that have emerged within Macedonian society since the NLA rebellion first violently challenged the Macedonian state last February, is NATO’s limited contribution to stability sufficient to give peace a real chance to succeed?

The answer, many fear, is very likely to be negative. The removal of 3,300 weapons from the area is nothing to scoff at—but in a region awash with both weapons and the cash to buy more, this represents only a temporary and easily reversible dent in the ability of anyone to resort to arms. At the same time, even the 30-plus days of relative calm that will likely accompany the NATO presence are not enough to overcome the scarring wounds that the recent conflict has inflicted on Macedonian society.

Deep distrust remains on all sides of the conflict-with Macedonian Slavs still fearful that the real objective of the NLA is to partition the country and ethnic Albanians still worried that the rights they have gained on paper in the August 13 framework agreement will remain promises unfulfilled. As a result, the more than 100,000 displaced persons are not returning to their homes, fearing for their safety in areas where they constitute a distinct minority and where public order has not yet returned.

There can be little doubt that both sides will at least keep in reserve the option of resorting to renewed hostilities. Neither is yet prepared to put its future in the hands of the other.

NATO nevertheless hopes it can turn over to unarmed observers and others in the international community the task of assisting in the continued stabilization of Macedonia. It may work. Every day without violence will represent a small increment in mutual confidence. Refugees may slowly return home to their communities. Ethnic Albanians may gain greater rights and a larger voice in local and national affairs. Macedonian authorities, including the police and security forces, may regain control over all of the country’s territory—including that now held by the NLA.

All this may come to pass without a foreign security presence inside Macedonia. But the chance is equally great, if not much greater, that any positive trends will be reversed as soon as NATO withdraws its forces. Previous efforts to substitute unarmed observers for an armed security presence—be it in Bosnia or Kosovo—have not proven effective. In all likelihood, once NATO withdraws, refugees will not return, implementation of the August 13 agreement will stall, the NLA will continue to control large swaths of territory in the north and west, sporadic fighting will escalate, and war may even result.

Everyone knows that there is a real risk of this scenario coming to pass if NATO leaves. Why, then, did NATO decide to limit its involvement in Macedonia to a mission that at best will influence the situation on the ground only at the margins? The answer has little to do with Macedonia and everything to do with the domestic politics in the member countries.

There was very little appetite in any NATO country for yet another Balkan adventure. Some NATO members (like Britain, France, Italy, and Spain) have been militarily involved in the region for a full ten years—others (like Germany and the U.S.) have made substantial military contributions over the past six years. Two (in some cases three) major peacekeeping operations and one major war is widely seen as enough attention to a region that for most remains very much on the periphery of daily life. Political leaders in NATO were prepared to give peace a little chance in Macedonia—but none was prepared to do more than that.

Nowhere is Balkans fatigue more evident than in the United States, where a new administration came to power on an explicit promise to pull U.S. troops out of the Balkans. Such nation-building and peacekeeping activities—”escorting children to kindergarten,” as Condoleezza Rice condescendingly put it—might be all right for European militaries, but not for U.S. forces, which bore responsibility for maintaining security around the globe. Although Bush has stepped back from his campaign pledge since coming to power, assuring Europe that the U.S. will pull out its troops from Bosnia and Kosovo only when the rest of NATO does, his administration has no interest in seeing NATO embark on a new, large, and open-ended mission in Macedonia.

And what about Europe? Is not a stabilization mission of the kind required in Macedonia precisely the sort of operation the European Union envisaged it would undertake as part of its European Security and Defense Policy? Of course it is. But this ESDP is still no more than a paper construct-there are no new capabilities or real concepts that would enable the EU today to launch an operation of even the limited size necessary in Macedonia. So even if the EU members were prepared to do what needs to be done (and outside Britain there is no evidence that this is the case), they lack the capacity to do so.

At the same time, it was clear that NATO could not do nothing. Its promise of limited involvement was crucial to convincing the sides to negotiate the August 13 framework agreement and vital to convincing the NLA to give up its weapons. So NATO was on the hook to deploy at least some troops. And it has. But only in the kind of minimal way that threatens to give peacekeeping a bad name.

Rather than doing what is necessary to ensure success in Macedonia, NATO has deployed a small force to do even a smaller mission. Its officials express the hope that NATO’s limited and time-bound involvement will somehow turn the situation from incipient war to one in which peace will gradually prevail. But other than collecting weapons freely handed over to its forces, NATO will do nothing to encourage such a change. It will not break down roadblocks to ensure freedom of movement for all Macedonians. It will not patrol villages so refugees can return. It will not monitor the return of Macedonian security forces to areas now held by the NLA. It will not intervene if the shooting starts again. It will do none of these things. Instead, by expressing fealty only to the narrowest of missions, NATO wants to be in a position to declare success even if peace in Macedonia fails. The latter is not its responsibility.

Such an attitude is likely to have major consequences not only for the prospects of peace in Macedonia, but for NATO’s very own credibility in conducting peacekeeping operations in the future. In the past six years, NATO has established a model for peacekeeping in the Balkans that works: set precise missions, deploy sufficient forces, and stay until the job is done. In contrast to the United Nations, which had a bitter experience of failure in the region prior to NATO’s entry in 1995, NATO always deployed sufficient troops to ensure the mission would succeed. It never relied on hope, but only on the certainty of success. So it send 60,000 troops to ensure the fighting in Bosnia would not resume, and another 50,000 to allow the nearly one million ethnic Albanian refugees to return home to Kosovo.

But now the Alliance may throw all of this away in Macedonia. It has set a mission that is nonsensical given what needs to be done—and deployed forces on a timetable that are only sufficient to accomplish that very limited mission, not the wider stabilization of the country that is so clearly required. But if peace fails in Macedonia, as seems probable without a continued international military presence, will NATO be in a position to claim that its mission was a success—an example for others to follow? Of course not. Everyone will know the operation was a failure, And so will NATO. That, surely, is sufficient proof that the current weapons collection mission is both frivolous and unbecoming a great Alliance.

It is not too late to reverse course, however. There would be nothing wrong about admitting that early assessments of the situation were overly optimistic, and that even after the NLA’s weapons have been collected and destroyed a longer and more robust NATO presence will be required. A new mandate should be agreed with the government in Skopje, giving NATO primary responsibility for stabilizing the situation in Macedonia. This would involve patrolling Macedonia’s border to interdict illicit arms trafficking ensuring freedom of movement, supervising the dismantlement of the NLA, monitoring the reintroduction of Macedonian security forces in the north and west, and being prepared to respond to any renewal of hostilities. It would take additional NATO forces-perhaps 15,000 in all-including deployment of more U.S. combat troops, to fulfill this larger mission. And it would require a commitment to remain at least through next spring to ensure stability within the country becomes self-sustaining.

Many will oppose such a larger, more expansive, and longer mission. The interests at stake do not warrant the investment. The risks of getting bogged down in yet another open-ended operation are too great. The possibility of casualties is real. These and other reasons will once again be voiced. But NATO cannot afford to fail in Macedonia—and with a little more investment it won’t. That success will surely silence critics.