Op-Ed

Stop a New War Before It Starts

Micah Zenko and Michael E. O’Hanlon

Macedonia’s government achieved some battlefield success against ethnic Albanian rebels in late March. If it now offers greater political rights to its ethnic Albanian minority, the looming civil war in that country may well be defused. The ethnic Albanian rebels have not been militarily defeated. They have simply undertaken a tactical retreat, probably postponing their real fight for the summer, as they had originally planned. Perhaps they will give up the fight if Macedonian Albanians are granted better rights. But maybe what they really want is war, land and a “greater Albania.”

If so, that’s very bad news, given the basic military facts of the situation. The ethnic Albanian rebels probably number more than 1,000. That’s more than Macedonia could decisively defeat on its own. Classic counterinsurgency doctrine suggests that a government needs at least 10 times as many troops as the guerrillas it is fighting.

The Macedonian military numbers only 16,000 troops. Roughly half of them are poorly trained nine-month conscripts. A sizable percentage are also ethnic Albanians who might not be willing to fight against the rebels. Macedonia’s armed forces are also badly equipped. For example, they have only a half-dozen helicopters.

Rather than hinging all on diplomacy, therefore, the international community should step up its aid to the Macedonian military. It should provide everything from more aerial reconnaissance of guerrilla positions to night-vision technology to more helicopters to training.

We should be unambiguous about our position: assuming Macedonia’s government continues to protect noncombatants, and makes serious efforts to improve the political treatment of minority Albanians, it deserves our full support—even on the battlefield. NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) should also assist the Macedonian effort directly.

Many ethnic Albanian fighters and supplies cross the Kosovo border into Macedonia; they must be stopped. Given NATO’s current mandate for running Kosovo, it has the responsibility to clamp down on such movements.

On March 20, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson informally asked member countries to provide 1,400 more troops in Kosovo to respond to the Albanian insurgency. But that number is insufficient.

In Bosnia in 1996, NATO allocated roughly 60,000 troops for a 650-mile line of separation between opposing forces. That same logic would require at least 5,000 troops along the Macedonian-Kosovo border, and perhaps additional troops to raid arms caches on either side of the frontier as well.

As NATO’s leader, the United States cannot shirk its responsibilities in this situation. It has more credibility than any other NATO country with ethnic Albanians; they now need to hear that Washington opposes their efforts to stir up trouble in the Balkans, and indeed that it will fight them, if necessary.

The United States, which provides less than 20 percent of all forces in the Balkans today, need not do it alone. But it must do its fair share, lest Macedonia be carved in two and the region’s recovery further delayed.

President Bush could add 1,000 Americans to KFOR without violating his campaign pledge to reduce U.S. troops in the Balkans. Last year, the United States had about 7,000 troops in Bosnia. It is cutting that total roughly in half. Thus, the United States easily could move a modest number of personnel from Bosnia to Kosovo while still reducing the overall size of its Balkans deployment.

It is important to act now—and to get these additional troops in place before Albanian preparations for a summer offensive really begin. The Balkans already have suffered four wars in the last decade; we do not need a fifth.

With Slobodan Milosevic and other extreme nationalists now out of power, it should finally be possible to bring peace to the region.