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One simple question has always hung over the peacekeeping operation in Kosovo: What is the goal? Is it peace at all costs or is it the restoration of the multiethnic communities that existed in Yugoslavia before the country shattered in violence? If the former, then partition may be the solution to Yugoslavia’s ills. But bowing to that objective would give Serb hardliners, including President Slobodan Milosevic, the victory they have sought. They must be denied.

The partition issue has hung over the decade-long conflict that tore Yugoslavia apart. Today, the focus of international attention is the city of Kosovska Mitrovica in the province of Kosovo. The city is divided between Serbs in the north and ethnic Albanians in the south. After NATO’s bombing raids ended the Serb oppression of the city’s Albanians, alliance troops arrived last June to keep the peace.

But the NATO soldiers, under French command, have been passive, allowing the city to be divided in two, along ethnic lines. It is hard to fault the French. They were taking the same line as the Americans, who, when forced to choose between exposing troops to danger or backing away from the force’s mandate, opted for the latter, safer tack. That passivity has permitted rogues from both sides — Serb and Albanian — to do their worst. The violence has claimed at least nine lives.

The situation came to a head last week, when an estimated 75,000 ethnic Albanians staged a five-hour demonstration. They were demanding that some 10,000 ethnic Albanians driven out during the Kosovo War be allowed to return to their homes in the Serb-dominated part of the city. The Serbs have kept the Albanians out in an effort to strengthen their hold over that section of Mitrovica, which includes a valuable mine complex. Mr. Milosevic has been accused of sending paramilitaries into the city and encouraging the expulsion of Albanians. The French, with their desire to avoid casualties, have been an unwitting partner for the Serbs (although less charitable observers note that the Serbs and the French are longtime friends).

Albanian outrage led to an attempt during the demonstration to cross a bridge that divides the city and fight the Serbs on the other side. Demonstrators broke through the initial line of British peacekeepers and were only turned back by French peacekeepers using tear gas. Recognizing the dangers, NATO then called in a multilateral contingent of another 2,000 troops and began house-to-house weapons searches to show everyone that the rules had changed.

A quick show of force is unlikely to be convincing. Despite the unrest, the international peacekeeping force has already been weakened from 50,000 troops when NATO first moved in, to about 37,000 today. International police, which are most needed, have been slow to arrive, and funds for civilian administration and reconstruction have lagged behind needs. At an emergency meeting in Brussels last weekend, NATO members pledged to send more troops to bring KFOR back up to full strength.

That is a start, but NATO has proven unwilling to take casualties, and the United States is especially concerned as its November elections approach. The administration of President Bill Clinton will do what it can to ensure that the Kosovo deployment cannot be used against Democratic candidates. Mr. Milosevic is aware of that, and is likely to step up the violence in an attempt to influence U.S. policy.

That only reveals the real problem in Kosovo, which is the question asked at the outset: What is the goal in Kosovo? Reports of ethnic cleansing prompted NATO to intervene, but stopping the violence is not a long-term strategy. Ethnic Albanians still want independence, and there are no indications that they will be satisfied with some vague promise of autonomy within the remnants of the Yugoslav Federation. But the West has been unwilling to consent, fearing that redrawing borders in the Balkans could trigger conflict elsewhere in the region.

Turning a blind eye to the creation of ethnically pure enclaves is an appealing solution. It might trigger some violence at the outset, but the brutalities of the past have rendered a return to mixed communities impossible — or so the logic goes.

The reasoning is seductive, but it is still wrong. NATO did not fight to sanction — nor did the United Nations endorse — ethnic cleansing by another name. Violence prevails because the peacekeepers have let it flourish. Taking weapons out of the hands of the paramilitaries and restoring the rule of law will permit the recreation of multiethnic communities. That was the goal one year ago in Kosovo, and it is a goal worth keeping.

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