Response to David Gibbs' "Was Kosovo the Good War?"
By Roger Lippman
August 28, 2009
Ten years ago, Tikkun published a commendable article on Kosovo (Giving Ethnic Cleansing a Chance, July/August 1999), discussing "the Left's abandonment of Kosovo." The authors argued that "critics on the Left should be finding common cause with the [Albanian] victims whose suffering demands action."
Even now, numerous Left intellectuals who ought to know better are still framing the conflict outside of that essential context. This time, unfortunately, their position has made it into a featured position in Tikkun.
David Gibbs ("Was Kosovo the Good War?") acknowledges that "In 1989, the Republic of Serbia ended the autonomous status of Kosovo and placed it under effective martial law. A highly repressive system of rule was imposed that victimized Albanians in the province, while it favored the Serbs. Albanian efforts to escape this repression formed the basis of the armed uprising in the late 1990s, led by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)."
So far, so good, but Gibbs misinterprets the facts in his examination of three "myths" about the Kosovo conflict.
(1) He claims that Milosevic was "open to a diplomatic settlement" to avoid NATO intervention, but the sources he names are decidedly mixed on that question. He cites German General Klaus Naumann, whose 2002 testimony that Yugoslav forces complied with the 1998 cease-fire is presented by Gibbs as "evidence." But Gibbs omits the same general's 2006 testimony that, during three meetings in 1998-1999, Milosevic told Naumann and General Wesley Clark that he would find a "final solution" for Kosovo in the spring of 1999. Milosevic explained that he would use armed forces to solve the problem with Kosovo Albanians, in the same way they were dealt with after the Second World War. When Naumann asked Milosevic what he was referring to, "he replied that "We got them all together and we shot them."
Gibbs' claim is also contradicted by experts such as Alex Bellamy, Tim Judah, and Ivo Daalder and Michael O'Hanlon, who have written in detail about the Rambouillet talks, the breakdown of which led to the NATO intervention. These writers, among others, have demonstrated the degree to which the Serbian participants refused to engage in serious negotiations. Bellamy writes that, late in the negotiations, the Serbs put forth a "counter-proposal" that essentially called for a continuation of the status quo, after weeks of negotiations during which "the FRY [Yugoslavia] had not moved an inch toward compromise," not even offering Kosovo the autonomy it had enjoyed from 1974 to 1989. Judah reports that even the Russian representative was shocked by the counter-proposal and the fact that "whole chapters that had taken months of work were simply crossed out and replaced with other clearly unacceptable paragraphs or nothing at all." This followed the pattern of negotiating in bad faith that Milosevic had followed since 1991.
(2) Backing away from his recognition of the extent of Serbian oppression in Kosovo ("martial law," "highly repressive"), Gibbs asserts that the representatives of the Kosovo Albanians "were not a great deal better" than their Serbian rulers.
As the 1990s wore on, the Serbian occupation of Kosovo, increasingly evocative of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, featured assassinations of Albanians, military incursions, arrests without charges, detention without trial, and torture. In the year before NATO's intervention, Serbian forces had systematically destroyed Kosovo villages, burning over 40,000 houses and flats, looting extensively, and killing over 1900 Albanians. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 460,000 people had been expelled from their towns and villages before NATO intervened.
The KLA was speciously demonized, at various times, by much of the mainstream media and Western government officials, in addition to misguided Leftists who somehow saw Milosevic as the last defender of socialism in Europe. No liberation struggle is pure, of course. But unfortunately, Gibbs has signed up with those who habitually describe people fighting for freedom as "terrorists." He approvingly quotes, among others, British Defense Minister George Robertson, who "suggests that initially it was the Albanians, not the Serbs, who committed the worst violence." (This, after the massacre of Albanians at Drenica early in 1998, which was followed by months of additional Serbian attacks.) Gibbs goes on to note that Tony Blair and his foreign minister believed that "the KLA ... were not much better than the Serbs." Gibbs may wish to believe this, but he needs to distinguish between facts and statements of people who are not known as supporters of the subjugated. And whatever negative can be said about the KLA, the fact remains that it was supported by an overwhelming majority of the people of Kosovo.
Gibbs claims that the KLA had "associations with Al-Qaida." This slur (with no elaboration in Tikkun, and nothing of significance on the subject in the entirely of his book) shows a deep misunderstanding of the heterogeneous nature of the liberation movement in Kosovo, which included Marxists to monarchists. The Albanian people were united in their resistance to the Serbian regime, and militant political Islam was for all practical purposes a nonexistent factor in that movement. The historian Noel Malcolm notes that Islam's "political role in Kosovo was so slight as to be quite invisible." Gibbs is merely replicating the Islamophobic propaganda that emanates from Serbian nationalist circles.
As for Gibbs' claim of KLA connections to "international narcotics networks," there was drug-dealing on all sides of the conflict. The Serbian narco-nationalist Arkan used drugs "to finance his Scorpion gang, which terrorized Kosovo and murdered rival Kosovar drug dealers in the mid-1990s." And after the war, Serbian police and some former KLA commanders battled for control of strategic drug-smuggling corridors. To pick out the KLA without mentioning Serbs or anyone else creates a decontextualized image of the actual situation.
(3) Gibbs blames the NATO bombing campaign for the increased scale of Serbian atrocities. Clearly, the scale of Serbian killing and expulsion of Albanians increased at the time of the NATO intervention (and just before). But an operation of this scope did not happen on short notice, or in a Milosevic fit of pique. (Gibbs claims that the Serbs "took out their frustrations on the relatively defenseless Albanians.")
The expulsion and widespread destruction of Albanian villages was well underway a full year before the NATO intervention. Conflict in the Balkans tended to subside over the harsh winter; "wars start in the spring," as the local saying goes. The winter cease-fire, which was merely tactical on the part of all concerned, was only a pause in the ongoing Serbian assault on Kosovo.
The Serbian campaign was planned months before, and Serbian forces were moving into place for the assault as early as December 1998, infiltrating army units, special police, and paramilitary terrorists. (Tim Judah writes that "As soon as they had begun drawing down their forces in accordance with the [October cease-fire] agreement, they began putting them back in again.") In the final week of December, Serbian forces attacked Podujevo, and the troops used there remained in place, also in violation of the October agreement. Kosovo newspapers reported that much of the city was in flames. Some Serbian attacks began by Christmas Eve. Continued attacks led to increasing numbers of refugees from December 1998 to the middle of March 1999. Gibbs, fond of quoting European generals, could have cited British general John Drewienkiewicz, the former deputy commander of the Kosovo Verification Mission, who testified at The Hague that Serb police and Yugoslav Army troops repeatedly violated the 1998 peace agreement worked out between Western representatives and the Yugoslav government.
Gibbs uses numbers for civilians killed that are not consistent with those of informed sources. Certainly any civilian casualties were a tragedy, but he claims that NATO bombing killed as many civilians as all Serbian actions preceding the intervention. It is generally estimated that Serb forces killed 2000-3000 Albanian civilians in the year starting with the Drenica massacre of February-March 1998. (Gibbs says 2000 total on both sides, civilians and soldiers, and allows for "hundreds" of Albanian civilians murdered by Serbian forces.) By comparison, Human Rights Watch estimates that about 500 civilians, of which about 60% were in Kosovo, were killed by NATO bombing. (Gibbs says 500 to 2000.) So, informed sources estimate that before NATO's intervention, Serb forces killed at least four times as many civilians as were then killed by NATO bombardment.
One could refute Gibbs' misstatements one by one, but the overall point is that he seems determined to blame anyone but the Serbian aggressors for the Albanian plight. The fact that NATO intervened, regardless of the strategic goal of that intervention, provides no justification for the ensuing Serbian escalation of the expulsion and other war crimes: rapes, torture, mass execution, use of human shields, throwing dead bodies down wells, removing massacre victims to be hidden in Serbia.
In conclusion, Gibbs repeats his claim that the intervention "served mainly to increase the scale of atrocities." But he neglects to notice that it also rescued a population of two million from Serbia's intended expulsion or annihilation. Certainly, Western powers are culpable for having tolerated and enabled Milosevic for so long, until there remained no non-military options. But when NATO finally prevailed, hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees were able to return quickly to their ravaged villages and begin to rebuild, finally free of Serbian control. The remaining alternative, which was to let Milosevic have his way with Kosovo, would likely have led to, and was already leading to, an outcome comparable to Bosnia - mass killings and destruction, with hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians ending up in refugee camps in surrounding countries indefinitely, and the attendant regional chaos.
Gibbs articulates lofty principles of international relations using trite misapplied phrases like "first, do no harm." But such principles can always be claimed by the powerful and applied in their interests. Rather, it is more appropriate for progressives to examine the relationship between victims and oppressors, and to support the deserving side, in words and deeds. Unfortunately, Gibbs has a hard time distinguishing the injustice of Serbian oppression from the liberation struggle of Kosovo Albanians.
Roger Lippman is the editor of Balkan Witness. He is a long-time social change activist and was a co-defendant, with Michael Lerner and others, in the Seattle Seven conspiracy trial of anti-Vietnam War activists.
David Watson assisted with research. He is a teacher and writer who is working on a book about the Yugoslav wars.
For David Gibbs' response to this article, go here.
Originally published at http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/20090915174409365
1 General Naumann's testimony to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), December 13, 2006, page 8259. (Also, reported by Aleksandar Roknic, Milosevic's "Final Solution" for Kosovo, December 15, 2006)
2 Alex Bellamy, Reconsidering Rambouillet
3 Tim Judah, Kosovo: War and Revenge
4 Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O'Hanlon, Winning Ugly: NATO's War to Save Kosovo
5 Council for The Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms, Report on the violation of human rights and freedoms in Kosova in the course of 1998, January 22, 1999
6 UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR Kosovo Crisis Update, March 30, 1999
7 Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, page 351.
8 Alfred McCoy, The Costs of Covert Warfare - Airpower, Drugs, and Warlords in the conduct of U.S. Foreign Policy, New England Journal of Public Policy, Fall/Winter 2003
9 See No Peace Without Justice, Report on Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law in Kosovo in 1998, February 1999. See especially sections III-C and IV (pages 25-49), which catalogue Yugoslav military attacks on the Kosovo Albanian civilian population in 1998.
10 Tim Judah, Kosovo: War and Revenge, p. 189
11 Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, preface
- Knight-Ridder News Service, Buildup to Yugoslavia's campaign in Kosovo began as early as December, April 9, 1999
- The Washington Post, The Anatomy of a Purge: Milosevic's Intimate Understanding of His Enemies Facilitates His Campaign of Terror Against the Kosovars, April 11, 1999.
- Report of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, April 23, 1999, page 33
- The assertion that NATO's bombing precipitated the worst of the Serbian atrocities in Kosovo has often been repeated by Noam Chomsky, among others. For further dissection of that claim, see Noam Chomsky and genocidal causality, by the Yugoslavia scholar Marko Hoare, August 2009.
14 The London Observer, Kosovo: the untold story, July 18, 1999. Samantha Power, in "A Problem from Hell," uses the figure of 3000 Albanians killed in the year following Drenica (March 1998) - that is, up to the beginning of the intervention.
15 Human Rights Watch, Under Orders: War Crimes in Kosovo