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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Rebel Force May Prove to Be a Difficult Ally

Kosovo: Any aid to KLA, which reportedly has ties to organized crime and Islamic militants, could backfire, critics warn.

April 01, 1999|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As recently as a few months ago, senior U.S. officials were dismissing the Kosovo Liberation Army as little more than a band of terrorists.

But the ragtag guerrilla force provides the only armed resistance on the ground to Serbia's brutal campaign of "ethnic cleansing." As such, in recent days the KLA has become a de facto ally of the United States and NATO in Operation Allied Force. Legislation is pending in Congress to provide $25 million worth of U.S. arms and training.

But if it survives the current Serbian onslaught, administration and nongovernment experts say, over the long term the KLA could prove to be a difficult ally.

The KLA is led by hardened guerrilla leaders unsuited to diplomacy and, according to persistent reports, has connections to European organized crime groups. There also have been reports of ties to Iranian and other Islamic fundamentalist groups.

"If what we are proposing here is starting a major guerrilla campaign to regain Kosovo, that is the Afghanistan syndrome," said Ivo Daalder, until recently the National Security Council's top expert on the Balkans in the Clinton administration.

Afghanistan, where the United States aided anti-Soviet guerrillas in the 1980s, is now almost totally under the control of the radical Islamic Taliban movement.

"We won't be able to control these guys," Daalder said of the KLA. "They may turn out to be a force that is not in our interest."

Although the Clinton administration says that arming and training the KLA would take far too long to have any real impact on the current fighting, the idea has garnered at least some grudging support within the U.S. government.

The campaign to aid the KLA is winning converts primarily because it appears to offer a way to protect Kosovo's embattled ethnic Albanian majority without the deployment of U.S. or NATO ground troops.

Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) have introduced the legislation to arm and train the KLA.

"If the NATO airstrikes fail to produce results, then we need a strategy which doesn't involve the deployment of American troops," McConnell said.

But many political and military analysts in Washington say the KLA is a chimera. It would take months to train the rebels in modern warfare, critics say. Moreover, it is difficult to see how the training could be done without sending at least some NATO troops into Kosovo.

"It is a proposal that makes us feel good but has absolutely no effect on the situation on the ground," said Daalder, now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "We can't get the arms in there. They won't know how to use them without advisors. Nothing will get there until it is too late. It is a well-intentioned proposal to avoid the hard question of sending NATO ground troops."

Arming the KLA "is a bad idea right now," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. He said providing weapons to the guerrillas would upset some NATO members and would produce few results on the ground for months or longer.

According to a report in the Times of London last year, Islamic fighters allied with exiled Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden had arrived in Kosovo to join the KLA. Although the KLA has never made Islam a significant part of its ideology, most ethnic Albanians are Muslims.

The Times of London also reported that the KLA receives much of its money from narcotics trafficking.

U.S. officials say they have no confirmation of the newspaper's accounts. But they acknowledge that the KLA's attraction to the West comes from its opposition to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said an insurgency strategy "would require NATO air support over not just months but years."

"As we learned in Afghanistan, the people who tend to come to the fore in insurgencies do not necessarily share our ideals," said Haass, a former National Security Council expert. "Whatever the KLA looks like now, I think you have to assume it will become radicalized. We may not be comfortable with this association."

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Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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