By Jim HoaglandKosovo is officially at peace, but you might not think so
Paris, Tuesday, March 14, 2000
WASHINGTON - While American generals squabbled over whose stars were bigger, while President Bill Clinton's advisers argued mightily but decided naught, and while European officials sought excuses for reducing their troops in Kosovo as ethnic tensions rose, Jusuf Kamberi was learning to like Rice Krispies.
It was not a natural fit, the 61-year-old retired miner made clear to the beleaguered French soldiers who ferried two boxes of the cereal, some potatoes, milk and a few oranges through a hostile Serbian neighborhood to Mr. Kamberi. "What is this?" he asked, according to Danica Kirka of The Associated Press reporting from Mitrovica. "There is no meat! No bread!"
NATO went to war a year ago to return Mr. Kamberi and hundreds of thousands of other Kosovar Albanians to their homes in Serbia's rebellious southern province, now administered by the United Nations. Most have resettled without incident. Their Serbian neighbors fled into the Serbian heartland ruled by Slobodan Milosevic rather than risk retaliation for the mass murders, pillaging and oppression visited on the Muslim majority.
The UN Security Council insists that Kosovo is part of Mr. Milosevic's realm but guarantees substantial political autonomy to its protectorate. Neither Serbs nor ethnic Albanians have to renounce their conflicting goals of reconquest and full independence.
That is the flaw in the well-intentioned effort to force multiethnic harmony in Mitrovica, the Balkans' latest tinderbox town. Either a policy of extended political limbo, or one of encouraging multiethnicity in a land whose future is clear, probably would work. But the combination is noxious.
The Serbs remain entrenched on the northern bank of the Ibar River, which splits the industrial city in two. NATO peacekeeping troops helped the Kamberis and a handful of other ethnic Albanian families resettle in the Serbian part of town a week ago. Rock-throwing mobs greeted them and have made it impossible for the Albanians to go out of their apartment building since. The families eat only when the French troops who control the sector bring food, Ms. Kirka reported.
Dealing with the symptoms of Kosovo's ethnic strife rather than its causes condemns U.S. and European troops to a long and contentious stay in that shattered land.
The basic cause continues to be Mr. Milosevic's tyrannical rule in Belgrade and his ambition to regain Kosovo if NATO wearies of its strife. He stirs the pot, sending agitators and supplies across the unsealed border between southern Serbia and northern Kosovo.
As tensions rise, Mr. Milosevic reaps a harvest of division in NATO capitals and greater timidity in Washington. The concern here surfaced in a spat between Wesley Clark, the U.S. general who commands NATO, and General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after General Clark dispatched U.S. troops to northern Mitrovica to help the French quell Serbian rioters.
General Shelton harrumphed in a letter that found its way into the press that General Clark in the future would need his approval to commit U.S. troops to that volatile situation. And General Shelton made it clear that his approval was unlikely. Part of the harrumphing was personal. There has been bad blood between the two since General Clark's tour at NATO was slightly but abruptly curtailed by the Pentagon. But it was also political. General Shelton was aware that the White House was nervous over film of GIs confronting the Mitrovica mob. Some believe he moved to ensure there would be no casualties in Kosovo, especially in an election year.
The Clinton administration thus continues the caution that it showed in the 78-day bombing campaign that drove Mr. Milosevic out of Kosovo but left him with most of his military assets intact and able to threaten the future of Kosovo and Montenegro.
U.S. troops have made no effort to seal the border with Serbia in the sector they police. That weakens the effect of any American appeals to the French to shut off northern Mitrovica from Serbian infiltration.
The peacekeeping force is 10,000 soldiers short of its authorized strength, as NATO capitals have withdrawn units and not replaced them. Without a clearer joint vision on Kosovo's future and bolder steps to counter Mr. Milosevic's subversion in the Balkans, NATO could still lose a war it claims to have won.