Operation u2018Survivor' in Macedonia?

by Daniel McAdams

Here's the scenario: 3,500 participants from 12 countries are given 30 days to collect 3,000 weapons from a remote corner of the Balkans. No, it's not the story-line for a new reality-based television program. It is "Operation Essential Harvest," NATO's weirdest mission to date.

Consider this: Essential Harvest is said to be a follow-up to a peace deal negotiated between the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. The only problem is that the group which has been doing the shooting, the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army, didn't bother to show up to the negotiations. They were represented by? NATO itself, apparently without a hint of irony.

The Macedonian side, which agreed to the long list of Albanian demands without much fuss, warned that the agreement wouldn't even be presented to parliament for approval until Albanian violence halted. And it hasn't. The Albanians have warned, at the same time, that they would not hand in weapons until the Macedonian government begins implementing the agreement. Round and round we go.

It appears that the highly politicized atmosphere in which the "agreement "was forced – the document was prepared elsewhere by French and American diplomats and presented to the Macedonian government as a fait accompli – likewise forced a Western political decision to "do something" to support the "agreement." If NATO really hoped to see the insurgents disarm in any kind of substantive manner, the Alliance at the very least intervened much to soon.

As for the weapons themselves, though Macedonian officials estimate the ethnic Albanian insurgents have something on the order of 80,000 weapons, the Albanians claim to have only 2,000. NATO figures the truth to be somewhere in-between, but has announced that it will only seek to collect 3,000 weapons. Even if the Macedonian government has grossly inflated the numbers, which considering the strength of rebel offensives in western Macedonia is not likely the case, NATO's determined low-balling of the mission goals only serves to bolster Macedonian government arguments that the Alliance favors the Albanian insurgents.

The Essential Harvesters are themselves hamstrung by elaborate guidelines set by the political leadership. They will have no peacekeeping role and a very restricted ability to engage any challenge. They are not permitted to seek out weapons, as the collection is to be entirely voluntary. The rebels bring in what they wish, and NATO packs it into trucks for shipment to Greece. If the post-Kosovo weapons collection is any indication, the majority of the 3,000 Albanian weapons will be of World War II vintage. Sufficient evidence of this is the ease with which the KLA trans-shipped supposedly turned-in weapons to the fighters in Macedonia. With the porous borders and Albanian control of Kosovo-Macedonia supply lines, even the weapons turned in can be replaced in short order.

Though citizens who foot the bill for NATO's Balkan adventures were promised that this time would be different – 30 days and 3,500 troops, period – this mission began to creep practically before it started. Britain, which heads up the operation, announced last week that if would need to double its level of troop participation – the European allies were apparently reluctant to put their troops where their mouths were. So much for the vaunted "Euro Army." Then Germany, which has set aside 500 troops and 55 million dollars for the mission, hinted soon after approval that the mission may well go over the promised 30 days. German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder said that Germany must be prepared for the operation taking longer than promised. Like Kosovo and Bosnia before it.

To his credit, President Bush appears to have appreciated the inadvisability of this mission from the start: thus far the United States has only pledged technical and intelligence support, though U.S. troops have been in Macedonia for nearly a decade and could conceivably be brought in. The president is to be commended.

NATO's strangest mission will likely have one of two outcomes, neither of which should reassure those wary of the Cold War alliance's expanding role in the post Cold War world. If the 3,000 or 4,000 troops in Operation Essential Harvest actually mean to do any harvesting, and attempt to actively divest the armed Albanian insurgents of their means to grab Macedonian land, there will likely be bloodshed on NATO's side – avoidance of which has been the Alliance's primary concern. NATO's fresh young peacekeepers will face a battle-hardened and well-armed force with no single chain of command and nothing to lose. A force which has gained all it demanded through the use of arms is highly unlikely to relinquish those arms.

If, on the other hand – and this appears most likely – the entire exercise is for show, when the CNN cameras go home and the fighting begins again in earnest, taxpayers in NATO member countries should begin to ask themselves exactly why they are being forced to pay for this kind of theatre-posing-as-policy.

Considering the real danger to the participants in Operation Essential Harvest – the murder of a British soldier this week should remind us all of this – and the very questionable benefits of even a "success," "Operation Survivor" may indeed be a more appropriate name for the mission. And that's a shame.

August 29, 2001

McAdams has served as an elections and human rights monitor in the Balkans for the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, though the views here are his own. He writes from Northern Virginia.