- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

Remember the war in Kosovo? The United States launched an 11-week aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999 to help the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, who were under attack by their Serbian countrymen. So you may be surprised to find that, two years later, our soldiers are fighting the Albanians and welcoming help from the Serbs. In the Balkans, you see, a friend is merely someone who isn't your enemy just yet.

NATO's reward for winning the war over Kosovo was the opportunity to administer Kosovo, which is plagued by religious strife and ethnic hatred. Peacekeeping troops have been able to keep the peace, more or less. But the divisions that brought on the war haven't evaporated — they've merely been suppressed.

It's getting harder to keep the lid on the cauldron. Besides harassing Serbs in Kosovo, Albanian insurgents have been launching attacks from a narrow buffer zone inside Yugoslavia where Serbian troops have been banned. They have also expanded their war into neighboring Macedonia. Last week, the Bush administration refused to go along with European demands that NATO move into the buffer zone to take on the rebels, which would have been the equivalent of diving into quicksand.

The militants' chief goal is independence for Kosovo, which was compelled to remain part of Yugoslavia even after Belgrade had proved itself an unfit parent. One of the curiosities of the war is that before it began, the allies insisted that Kosovars be allowed to decide for themselves whether to become independent. But after the war was won and Belgrade had capitulated, we agreed that Kosovo should stay regardless of what its people preferred.

The current result is a low-level conflict that can be contained only by the presence of thousands of outside troops. The next result promises to be even worse: Albanian militants may conclude that the only road to self-determination is to start killing NATO soldiers.

George W. Bush and his advisers made clear during last year's campaign that they wanted to extricate the United States from the hazards of pacifying the Balkans. Europeans, however, warn that leaving now would mean letting Kosovo go up in flames and losing everything we accomplished there.

As it happens, they're right: Given existing policy, only the peacekeepers can prevent a renewal of slaughter. Trouble is, that's going to remain true for years — perhaps decades — to come. So we face a doleful choice: Get out now and let the bloodshed resume, or stay forever and risk being drawn into a guerrilla war against an indigenous foe.

But this is a false dilemma. As the old saying goes, when you're up to your neck in alligators, it's hard to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp. The allies are so preoccupied with their immediate problem — keeping the peace without taking casualties — that they are ignoring the need for a long-term solution.

The source of the ongoing conflict is simple: Most Kosovars don't want to be part of Yugoslavia, now or ever. So why make them? When ethnic groups regard each other as sworn enemies, on the basis of abundant experience, the only realistic remedy is to send them on their separate ways. “The history of Yugoslavia since 1991,” writes University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, “shows that ethnic separation breeds peace, while failure to separate breeds war.”

This arresting fact argues for partition of Kosovo. Albanians, who are upwards of 90 percent of the population, should get most of the province. Serbs, who are most numerous in the northeast, should be allowed to break off a slice of territory and remain in Yugoslavia. Albanians would not have to live under Serb rule; Serbs wouldn't have to live under Albanian rule; neither would have any compelling reason to keep fighting; and our troops could come home.

That doesn't solve the problem in Macedonia. But Macedonia's Albanians are less radicalized than their cousins, and they also have a share of power in the government. Besides, anything that serves to quell fighting in Kosovo and Serbia reduces the chance it will engulf Macedonia.

Independence for Kosovo shouldn't happen overnight. Rand Corp. scholar F. Stephen Larrabee suggests a 10-year transition period that would give democratic institutions a chance to emerge. But unless Kosovars can look forward to self-government through nonviolent means, gun-toting extremists will always find followers.

It's entirely possible to establish peace in Kosovo without making it a permanent ward of the United States Army. All it requires is recognizing that the current approach is not serving the long-term needs of either the West or the warring parties. Our experience in Kosovo suggests that Yogi Berra was right: If you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there.

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