The North Atlantic Treaty Organization expects to send some 3,500 troops to Macedonia in the next few weeks to collect rebel weapons. This decision, which is scheduled to be made today, is meant to signal that NATO is serious about its commitment to the region.
But sending these troops with such a restricted mandate belies NATO’s commitment. A mission so limited in scope and time risks failure in the decade-long effort to bring peace, stability and multi-ethnic democracy to the Balkans.
If we have learned but one thing in the tragic breakup of the old Yugoslavia, it is the need to act early and robustly in a crisis. The United States, as the leading power in NATO, should know this best of all. In 1991 America stood by as the United Nations and many European nations tried unsuccessfully to cope with devastating war in the Balkans. Some 200,000 casualties and 2 million people made homeless, capped with the gruesome massacre of more than 5,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, finally pushed the United States and NATO into action. In 1995, when the United States pledged to commit American troops to enforce peace alongside European allies, we brought the hostilities to an end.
In 1999, as ethnic cleansing grew in Kosovo, NATO backed up unsuccessful diplomacy with Operation Allied Force, which reversed the Serb violence and ultimately led to Slobodan Milosevic’s being removed from power and delivered to The Hague in June for prosecution.
But NATO’s pallid response to the fighting that began in Macedonia early this year puts all previous efforts at risk. In February the Albanian guerrillas, based in Kosovo, had at most a few hundred fighters and supporters, and their weapons were limited to rifles and a few machine guns.
Macedonian casualties were few, and it was easy to underestimate the threat that the fighting might expand. NATO forces from Kosovo, including roughly 3,000 support troops already in Macedonia, could have quickly reinforced the Macedonian police and military in ending the violence. However, NATO did not authorize action in Macedonia; it just condemned the violence.
When the unprepared Macedonian military responded by firing artillery and rockets against villages, local Albanians quickly joined the ranks of fighters. Some in the Macedonian military distributed weapons to Slavic Macedonians, and the familiar pattern of Balkan warfare emerged – fleeing refugees, gangs of thugs threatening other ethnic groups, charges of torture and murder.
NATO then decided to seek a cease- fire and a political agreement before authorizing military intervention. For weeks the political debate in Macedonia has raged while the fighting has spread and the extremists have strengthened their positions. Swaths of northern Macedonia are now under virtual rebel control.
Now that an agreement to redress Albanian grievances has been achieved, along with a cease-fire, a limited NATO deployment is commencing. But the price has been high: more than 150,000 people have been displaced from their homes, 100 have died and property has been severely damaged. And the agreement notwithstanding, the Albanian and Slav political leaders have been pushed to the extremes; the center has grievously weakened.
No one knows whether the cease-fire will hold. A decade of bitter ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia suggests it will not. Once violence escalates and neighbor fights neighbor, trust, security and cooperation are shattered.
Most likely, Albanian weapons will be hidden and Slav paramilitaries organized while both sides quibble and dispute the implementation of the agreement. Cynicism will undercut lofty rhetoric. Bitterness will undermine moderate leaders. The smallest incident may be cited as proof of the other side’s insincerity.
In such an environment, will NATO’s plan be suffic ient? Will NATO do no more than collect weapons? And if, at the end of the 30-day period for this collection, the cease-fire is shaky and ethnic tensions are rising, can troops simply depart?
The consequences of failure are increasingly clear. If this agreement does not hold, Macedonia is likely to split apart. And this in turn is likely to rejuvenate old aims of establishing ethnically pure states and to the ethnic cleansing that goes along with them. In the peculiar logic of the region, a fractured Macedonia increases the likelihood of a partitioned Kosovo, which in turn strengthens those who seek to unite Serbia with Republika Srpska, the Serbian half of Bosnia.
If NATO is serious about making democracy work in this fractious corner of Europe, then Western forces need to enter as soon as possible, engage as broadly as possible and stay as long as necessary to restore peace. To do otherwise is to reawaken the ghosts of the 1990’s that we have done so much to bury.
Published in the New York Times (Friday, August 17, 2001)
Wesley K. Clark, the commander of NATO forces during the Kosovo campaign, is the author of “Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat.”
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