Op-Ed

Staying the Course in Kosovo

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Michael O’Hanlon is co-author of the forthcoming book, Winning Ugly: NATO’s War to Save Kosovo.

Having won the war against Serbia last year, is NATO now losing the peace in Kosovo? Based on February’s violence in the divided city of Mitrovica, one might easily think so. In fact, that is not the case: Overall trends in Kosovo are positive, and recent events in Mitrovica are not a fair referendum on the state of affairs there.

On the other hand, the US and other NATO countries have made some bad decisions in recent weeks—and if they keep it up, the favorable prognosis could change. Countries on both sides of the Atlantic need to get back to military basics to make sure their victory last year is fully consolidated.

First, though, how can one say that life is getting better in Kosovo today? After all, about 150 Serbs have been killed there since the June peace accord. Largely as a result of the violence, the province has been divided into two almost completely segregated ethnic communities—and half of the population of Serbs has left Kosovo altogether. In February, two more Serbs were killed in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica when an ethnic Albanian fired a rocket at a bus; Serb reprisals raised the overall death toll to 11.

It’s true that these developments are regrettable. But it would be remiss to forget that this was a land at war less than a year ago. Nor was this just any war. It was a systematic violation of ethnic Albanians by an organized Serb campaign of violence.

Expecting people to forgive and forget within months, when many ethnic Albanians are still mourning the loss of loved ones and the rape and abuse of many who did survive, is unrealistic.

At least in terms of physical security, life in Kosovo has improved a good deal in recent months. According to NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark, the province’s monthly murder rate declined from roughly 200 last summer to about 35 this winter. Even if the recent tragedies in Mitrovica have bumped the murder rate up somewhat, it remains at least four times less than six months ago—and lower than the per capita murder rate in Washington, D.C. Part of the reason, admittedly, is ethnic segregation—Albanians no longer have as easy access to Serbs as they once did. (In fact, the preponderance of violence in Kosovo today is Albanian on Albanian). But it is better to be segregated and alive than intermingled and at risk of death—particularly in the immediate aftermath of an ethnic war.

Another major, positive development is that the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which fought Serbian forces last spring, has surrendered large caches of weapons to international forces and demilitarized its activities. Even if pockets of KLA-related forces remain active, they pose only a limited threat to the peace at present.

That said, there have been troubling developments in recent weeks in the peacekeeping efforts of the NATO-led force in Kosovo. Last week, the New York Times reported that American troops were directed to stay out of Mitrovica by the Pentagon, out of concern for their safety after Serbs in that city threw snowballs, stones, and bricks at them. Other recent reports from Kosovo have described how other countries, including Britain, have drastically curtailed their military strength in Kosovo, leaving commanders worried they may not have enough forces to carry out required missions.

The US is wrong not to send its troops into towns like Mitrovica out of concern for their safety, and should change its policy. It’s right for the US to expect its allies to provide most troops in Kosovo, given its role in the air war and other military responsibilities from the Persian Gulf to Korea. But whatever troops it has there should not have—and probably do not want—special treatment. That is unfair to the armed forces of other countries in KFOR, the NATO-led protection operation. And it is dangerous. If the US telegraphs to the world that it is terrified of suffering casualties, as it did in Somalia in 1993, it puts a bull’s-eye on the chest of American troops around the world and severely hamstrings foreign policy.

US troops are not cowards. Tens of thousands sleep near their gas masks in Korea, maintaining a still-tense cease-fire. Thousands patrol the Persian Gulf, where war and terrorist attacks have claimed American lives on several occasions in the last decade. Dozens lose their lives every year in training and operational accidents simply because they are using dangerous equipment or carrying out other risky activities in difficult environments. They are capable of facing down stone-throwing Serbs and Albanians, and if they’re needed for that mission, they should be sent.

That does not mean troops should be asked to do the impossible, or to take unnecessary risks. Some want NATO troops to do whatever it takes to allow Albanians and Serbs to live together peacefully, protecting isolated pockets of citizens wherever they are in the ethnic minority, or searching house-to-house for weapons in a massive disarmament effort. These ideas are unrealistic.

Kosovo, for all the distance it has come since June, is a recent combat zone in a war that stoked ethnic passions and left many thousands dead. Neither US troops, nor UN police, nor any other external assistance can change these facts overnight. But even if international forces cannot make Kosovo a harmonious multiethnic society, they must continue to keep it stable.

That is where the allies come in, too. Their recent troop cutbacks—12,000 out of a total KFOR force of 50,000—are a bad idea. KFOR must remain strong enough that extremists within Kosovo aren’t tempted to test it. It also needs to remain strong enough to deter Serbia. After all, Slobodan Milosevic’s military and police forces outnumber NATO troops—three to one—even when KFOR is at full strength. Given KFOR’s superior forces, and Serbia’s awareness that NATO would send reinforcements if trouble began, KFOR’s numerical disadvantage is acceptable—but that doesn’t mean we should cut forces further.

Recent problems aside, things are going reasonably well in Kosovo. But that’s no reason to get careless, or tempt fate.