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David Miller: The Widening War in the Balkans

David Miller Online - The Widening War in the Balkans

Last week, this column urged the government to reconsider its plans to scrap the combat role of the navy and air force and as a reason for adopting this stance argued that becoming a force dedicated to peacekeeping only could become more costly and dangerous in the long run. The intractable nature of post Cold War conflict was again reiterated and if the government and those committed to disarming the military needed a reminder of why this is a dangerous path to take, then they only need to look at the unfolding events in the Balkans.

The outbreak of fighting between ethnic Albanian militants and Macedonian forces threatens not only threatens to widen the conflict in the Balkans but also raises questions over whether NATO peacekeeping forces can be withdrawn from the region in the foreseeable future. This is despite President Bush’s pledge that US forces would be pulled out and raising fears that once involved in a situation it is extremely difficult to disengage.

The fighting that has broken out in Macedonia in the past week has ignited fears that this could be the next area for bloodshed in the Balkans. Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and unlike the other republics, such as Croatia and Bosnia, the tiny republic did not experience conflict with Belgrade or its allied forces.

As the conflict widened to include the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, Macedonia was increasingly drawn into the fray. There is a large Albanian minority within its borders and this minority has been calling for increased political rights in the country and there is a belief that Kosovo Albanians are seeking to unite the province and the Albanian speaking part of Macedonia with Albania itself. Hence this is the reason for the armed incursions.

The ironic point to this case is that in this case the trouble has resulted from the ambitions of a people who suffered due to those of Belgrade and were the very people the UN and NATO deployed forces to protect back in 1999. It must not be forgotten that the protection of the Kosovo Albanians was the reason NATO launched its air offensive over Yugoslavia to ensure they received a level of autonomy. Now those who were protected are now the ones who others are protected against and it serves to highlight that in the conflict of the new millennium a friend can easily become and enemy and that once peacekeepers are on the ground it is not that easy to pull them out.

This is a fact that the United States is very much aware of. Having troops on the ground in a war zone such as the Balkans is not something that sits well with the government or the American people. Much has been made of the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, which for over a quarter of a century has seen a reluctance to commit ground forces to a conflict and it remains in evidence today. The fear is that US will get dragged into a war it cannot get out of and will incur large-scale casualties. This view was heightened by the disaster in Somalia and this fear led to a withdrawal from there.

The result of this mindset is that there has been a heavier reliance on air capabilities and economic sanctions, a trend, which has increased over the past two decades but has met with limited success. The problem with the Balkans case is that troops were required on the ground following the withdrawal of the Yugoslav forces from Kosovo as once this occurred a power vacuum was created.

So far NATO has tried to remain above the fray in this latest outbreak of trouble, however whether it can do so is another matter and brings us back to the point about the intractability of ethnic conflict. NATO has said that it is increasing its troop presence in the area and will not tolerate any attacks on its forces in the region or its logistics base in Macedonia. It has also said that it has stepped up its air patrols in the area and is working with the Macedonian government in order to prevent the attacks, however it has stated it will not get directly involved.

It is a good possibility, however, that events will unfold in a way that NATO may not have any choice about its own course of action. Macedonia has called upon the alliance to restore calm and order to the Macedonia- Kosovo border and halt the flow of weapons and material into its territory and it may reach the point that NATO cannot simply stand back and only take half measures. Should this happen then the K-FOR mandate changes and is extended again and once again the risk of casualties and prolonged engagement is heightened.

The events in Macedonia highlight the volatile situation in a region such as the Balkans and the difficulties and dangers faced when an organisation such as NATO or even the UN try to implement a peace. Such conflicts are centuries old and solutions to them are not easily found. Whether they like it or not, the US and NATO are committed to a peace keeping mission that will not end in the immediate future; in fact it may be years before some kind of solution can be found and at what cost? New Zealand must watch this situation carefully given the path it is taking, as one day it could be our forces in the same situation.

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