Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The KLA's Intervention Dilemma

By Fron Nazi (Published on February 1, 1999)
By IWPR

Recently the KLA has begun to turn away new volunteers in order to concentrate efforts in organising itself militarily and politically. On the political level, the KLA faces an defiant Belgrade and a disorganised West. On the ground, it faces the reality of a more powerful and better-trained Serbian force. With heavy artillery support, the Serbian forces have launched offensives against the KLA resulting in the burning and killing of ethnic Albanians and their villages and the displacement of 350,000 ethnic Albanians. The KLA also faces internal tensions, over identifying a leader and over finding common ground with the other ethnic Albanian political parties, most notably Ibrahim Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosova (LDK).

At first, the KLA’s mass appeal was based less on its ability to mount any real military offensive capability against the Serbs and more because it provided ethnic Albanians with the only armed defensive organisation. The failure of the West to intervene at the time of the March 1998 Drenica massacre by Serbian security forces left ethnic Albanians to fend for themselves. With arms from neighbouring Albania, the KLA quickly began to arm its new volunteers. At the same time, money traditionally earmarked from the diaspora for the LDK was overnight re-routed by ex-patriots to KLA bank accounts. As reaction to the events at Drenica grew, untrained men quickly took arms under the KLA banner against Serbian security forces.

As the KLA flourished, Belgrade launched a fresh assault against the KLA this past autumn. The KLA quickly found itself overpowered and underprepared. The lack of training and of heavy artillery ensured heavy losses. But with the threat of NATO air strikes, the US brokered the October cease-fire that also forced the Belgrade to pull back its forces. The scale of the KLA’s defeat appeared too great for any comeback. But the withdrawal of Serbian forces and the shaky cease-fire allowed the KLA some manoeuvring space to re-group. Internationally, it intensified its lobbying efforts. From the diaspora, it won greater funding to purchase more powerful arms. With Western governments, it sought to legitimize itself not only as an army but also as a political force in Kosova.

The strategy appeared to bring concrete success. With money from the diaspora, the KLA provided better training and equipment (e.g., armour piercing long-range rifles), to its new recruits. At the same, the West sensing that Rugova and the LDK may no longer be the main players among ethnic Albanians in Kosovo began to meet with KLA representatives in the field and abroad. Yet Western governments made it clear that they would not support an independent Kosovo or the KLA’s armed struggle. They began to use the existence of the KLA as a justification for not calling in NATO air strikes or (a remote possibility) sending in ground troops. Diplomatic excuses for not intervening (such as tensions within the Contact Group) gave way to pointing the finger at the KLA, as NATO declared that it would not become the KLA’s airforce.

The crisis in Kosova has come a boiling point, and the quickly expanding KLA now faces a severe dilemma: how do avoid being used as an excuse for further massacres while not allowing the West to use its presence as an excuse for non-intervention. As rapidly as the KLA was able to re-group and arm in the field, it must now do the same politically, both with the region and internationally.

Fron Nazi is an IWPR senior editor.

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