NATO May Shoot Itself in the Foot in Macedonia

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Kill one person and they'll hang you; kill 100 and they'll make a deal with you.

That's the philosophy of the "dacoit" bandits who maraud across India's impoverished northern plains. And it's a message that finds an unlikely echo in NATO's handling of the Macedonia crisis.

The Western alliance is currently patting itself on the back for acting early, so as to prevent Macedonia becoming another Balkan bloodbath. It has sent in an advance team of 400 soldiers, soon to be accompanied by a further 3,100, on a 30-day mission to collect whatever weapons the ethnic-Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army deign to hand over. Of course many of those guerrillas, particularly the more militant factions based around Tetovo, are still actively using those weapons and it's hard to imagine they'll be ready to hand them over in the next couple of days or weeks when they're still being fired on a daily basis. No matter for NATO, of course, because its spokesmen insist that the alliance's mission is not to disarm anyone, but simply to collect weapons voluntarily handed over. (Indeed, it must be deeply reassuring to all peace-loving Macedonians that the Western military alliance has vowed to simply pack up and go home if the fighting resumes.)

The basis for believing that the guerrillas plan to disarm is a political agreement concluded last week in Skopje between the country's main parliamentary parties to greatly expand ethnic-Albanian cultural rights in Macedonia. But the guerrillas have no direct role in negotiating that agreement, and their compliance is based entirely on goodwill. It is also based, in other words, on accepting at face value the National Liberation Army's claim to have taken up weapons simply to pursue expanded cultural and civil rights within Macedonia's democracy, rather than to create a separate Albanian entity within the country as part of a "Greater Albania" project incorporating Kosovo.

Many of the rank-and-file guerrillas and regional commanders openly express their enthusiasm for a "Greater Albania" — the mirror image of Slobodan Milosevic's "Greater Serbia" campaign, which spawned separatist military campaigns among the Serb minorities of Serbia's neighboring states. But their leaders insist they got most of what they wanted out of the Skopje political agreement, and the time has come to put down their weapons. And those leaders have plenty of reasons to crow about the outcome. Three months ago, NATO leaders were still denouncing the NLA as "terrorists" and "murderers in the hills"; now fresh-faced young British liaison officers come calling to politely inquire, over coffee, when the guerrillas might be ready to hand over their weapons. The Skopje agreement may have been signed with the mainstream ethnic-Albanian political parties, but all eyes are on the rebel commander Ali Ahmeti and what his next move may be. The Macedonians, of course are outraged, insisting that Ahmeti is still the same man once denounced as a terrorist by NATO — a man they'd like to put behind bars or up against a wall, although they've been forced to agree to an amnesty. Instead, the deal brokered by NATO has put him at center stage, made him a kind of raffish darling of the Western media and most importantly, handed him the political initiative in a volatile situation.

So why did NATO decide to turn Ahmeti from a "terrorist" into a respectable citizen? Essentially, because the alliance was never prepared to risk exposing its troops to danger in any confrontation with Albanian nationalists. Although it made limited attempts to seal the Kosovo border, across which all of the NLA's weapons, supplies and personnel initially passed, once the guerrillas had proved their ability to survive the clumsy counterinsurgency efforts of the Macedonian security forces, NATO changed its tack, turning the "terrorists" of three months ago into the key partner of today's peace deal.

NATO may protest that its peace plan requires the disarmament of the ethnic-Albanian guerrillas. Indeed. So did the agreement that ended the Kosovo war two years ago, and NATO failed conspicuously to enforce it there. Perhaps that's why this time the definition of its mission very definitely excludes the term "disarm."

And, of course, Macedonia and Kosovo are hardly unconnected. The Macedonian insurgency originated inside Kosovo, where NATO is supposed to be in charge of security. But the alliance has shown little inclination to effectively police the activities of Albanian nationalist guerrillas there, and it appears to have woken up rather late to the fact that those guerrillas were exporting an insurgency into Macedonia under NATO's very noses. Although it then moved very quickly to press the authorities to address the political grievances on which the insurgency was feeding, it did little to create disincentives for ethnic-Albanian nationalists to choose the path of violence.

So, while NATO may believe that it has acted precipitously to prevent another bloodbath, it has also sent an unfortunate message to separatist movements all over the Balkans: NATO won't tolerate armed separatist movements, but nor will it do anything to stop them. In other words, organize an army of weekend warriors, start shooting at the authorities, don't blink when NATO calls you names, and sooner or later they'll be negotiating with you. Or, to put more succinctly: kill 100, and they make a deal with you…