This op-ed was written by George Bogdanich in 2004. He offered it first to the New York Times. It was subsequently printed by The Chicago Tribune. More than 15 years later, it remains a powerful critique of international intervention.
Entangling Alliance Doomed Kosovo
By George Bogdanich, 2004
After the recent brutal violence in Kosovo and the abrupt resignation of the UN’s administrator Harry Holkeri, official deception and denial can no longer mask the extent of the policy failure in Kosovo. Five years after having bombed their way into the region, NATO and the post war UN mission have utterly failed to protect the most vulnerable inhabitants of the region. More than four thousand recorded attacks by Albanian extremists allied with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and its successors have driven out two thirds of the non-Albanian population. Some 250,000 Serbs and another 100,000 Gorani Muslims, gypsies, Turks and Jews have fled since NATO arrived and installed the KLA as the real power in what is now a thoroughly ravaged province.
The nightmarish conditions for minorities have been well documented by the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Jiri Dienstbier who makes it clear that Kosovo is an infinitely more dangerous place than it was before March 24, 1999, when NATO began it campaign of cruise missiles and cluster bombs. Even the pro-intervention International Crisis Group (ICG) acknowledges the policy failure in its recent report noting that “mobs of Albanian youths, extremists and criminals exposed the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) as very weak..”
Over forty thousand ethnic Serbs lived in Pristina when NATO began its occupation. Today only a few dozen Serbs remain, sheltered in military barracks. The entire small Jewish community of Pristina fled KLA attacks in September 1999. At a time when New Yorkers are flocking to see Byzantine artifacts of Christian Orthodoxy, eight hundred year old churches, irreplaceable icons are being systematically destroyed. During the first year of NATO occupation, more Serbian churches and monasteries were destroyed than in the 500 year occupation by the Turkish Ottomans. In March, during two days of pogroms against Serbs which Dienstbier called “Kristallnacht in Kosovo,” thirty more churches were destroyed or damaged bringing the total to 150 that have been firebombed or vandalized since 40,000 NATO troops arrived, but were rarely used to protect minorities. Withdrawals by the US and other countries have reduced the number of troops to 18,000, which is not in a position to challenge Albanian extremists.
Two photographs help illustrate the reality of Kosovo. One is a news photo of an Albanian rioter gleefully recording a digital snapshot of a burning Orthodox church on a high end cellphone. In an area where 90 percent of Serbs and 50 percent of Albanians are unemployed, profits from the heroin trade have enriched the KLA and its supporters according numerous law enforcement organizations from the DEA to Interpol. Testimony before the House Judiciary Committee states that belated attempts by the UNMIK to crack down on the de facto leaders of the “republic of heroin” led to large demonstrations on March 16. These demonstrations turned into a violent pogrom against Serbs and their churches the next two days when Albanian language newspapers and the public television station RTK carried false and inflammatory stories that three Albanian children were chased into a river and drowned. All of this is well documented in a strongly worded report by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE.)
The second photo that helps to explain how “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo became a humanitarian nightmare was taken immediately after the NATO intervention. It shows former NATO Commander Wesley Clark, British General Michael Jackson and UNMIK administrator Bernard Kouchner joining hands with Hashim Thaci and Agim Ceku, leaders of the KLA whom Robert Gelbard, US envoy to the Balkans had correctly described as “terrorists” the previous year. The photo appeared on the website of KFOR, when Ceku was appointed leader of a UN security force known as the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC). Canadian diplomat James Bissett, observed that the “US war on terrorism skipped the KLA” which was incorporated into the UN’s KPC. But a UN paycheck and uniform did not change the behavior or goals of a terrorist organization committed to an ethnically pure Albanian state, which would include not only parts of Serbia, but also Albanian inhabited parts of Macedonia, Montenegro and Greece.
The US was aware that Ceku, an ethnic Albania was linked to war crimes previously as a commander in the Croatian Army. Jane’s Intelligence Review describes him as a planner of massacres against Serb civilians living in the UN protected areas in 1993 and 1995. In the later atrocity, Ceku worked closely with a group of retired US generals who advised the Croatian army in Operation Storm, a massive ethnic cleansing campaign that even the NATO-friendly Tribunal on Yugoslavia declared a war crime. When the Tribunal announced that it was investigating Ceku, however, there was strong US pressure to prevent an indictment of the new head of the UN’s new KPC. “If we lose him (Ceku) it will be a disaster,” a Western diplomat close to the UN mission told the London Sunday Times . “When you get down to the second level of the KPC, you are down to a bunch of thugs.”
Hashim “The Snake” Thaci, as he calls himself, has, if that is possible, an even more unsavory background. Times reporter Chris Hedges examined his bloody consolidation of power through the assassination of rivals as well as the murder of moderate Albanian politicians who failed to support the KLA’s goal of an ethnically pure Kosovo.
Thaci’s reputation did not prevent him from receiving weapons and logistical support the US intelligence or the public embrace of senior Clinton administration figures, including UN Representative Richard Holbrooke and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Hawkish foreign policy maven Morton Abramowitz served as adviser to the KLA during negotiations at Rambouillet near Paris. Thaci and members of the KLA were physically escorted from Kosovo to France by operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency according to veteran British journalist Tim Marshall in his book “Shadowplay” who quotes an American agent saying: “We gave the KLA both military, technical officers as directors, logistical support, we smuggled drugs, ran prostitution rackets and murdered civilians, and blamed all this on the Serbs.” During this period, the KLA’s director of elite services was al-Qaeda’s top operative in the Balkans, Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of Bin-Ladin’s military chief of staff Ayman al-Zawahiri according to Interpol and Bin Ladin’s biographer Yossef Bodansky, chief of staff of the Congressional Subcommittee on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare.
American support for the KLA is a classic example of the “entangling alliances” that our first president, George Washington, warned against in his farewell address. Arming these extremists in 1998 guaranteed that war would follow. KLA terrorist attacks on civilians and government workers were guaranteed to generate a harsh response from Belgrade and thus provide a rationale for NATO intervention. Equally important, American political support for the KLA fatally undermined Albanian moderate leaders who have been rendered powerless figureheads who risk assassination if they fall out of step with the extremists who traffic in drugs arms, refugees and women. “If NATO and the UN can’t defeat terrorism in an area the size of one eight of the Czech Republic,” Dienstbier asks, “how do they expect to confront global terrorism?”
It was bad enough to utilize the KLA in a war they helped provoke, but placing their leaders in a position of UN responsibilities was truly reckless. The only hope of gaining stability is if NATO is willing to arrest the leaders of this violent organization. Instead, the same US diplomatic players — Holbrooke, Albright, Abramowitz — who placed the prestige of the US and the UN on the side of the KLA –are now advocating an independent Kosovo. Recognizing independence, however, would legitimize what is being called a “monoethnic mafia state,” by Alice Mahon of Tony Blair’s British Labor Party. It would encourage extremists determined to use similar methods to acquire Albanian inhabited regions in Macedonia, Montenegro, southern Serbia and northern Greece. As we watch with trepidation the Bush administration’s misadventure in Iraq, a troubling reckoning with our previous intervention awaits us back in the Balkans.