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WASHINGTON — While the world’s eyes were fixed on Hainan Island off the coast of China, Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian rebels were completing a tactical retreat after an offensive by government forces. Some hope that Macedonia’s government will now, as expected, offer greater political rights to its ethnic Albanian minority and that the looming civil war in that country may be defused. In that event, NATO could safely remain on the sidelines of the conflict. There is also hope that peace will finally descend on the Balkans now that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is out of the way.

We should be so lucky. More likely, ethnic Albanian fighters have probably simply chosen to postpone their real fight until the summer, as they had originally planned. The fact that no side suffered many casualties in the recent fighting in Macedonia suggests that the Albanian extremists opted to disengage. It does not mean that they were defeated on the battlefield. Perhaps they will give up the fight if Macedonian Albanians are granted better political treatment, including the right to use their own language for various official purposes. But they may really want war in the belief that in the end they will gain more land for a greater Albania.

If so, that is very bad news. According to the best estimates, there are more than 1,000 ethnic Albanian rebels prepared to fight Macedonia’s military. That is more than Macedonia could probably defeat. Classic counterinsurgency doctrine suggests that a government needs at least 10 times more troops than the guerrillas it wants to beat. Such large numbers are needed in order to maintain patrols and establish human intelligence networks. They are also needed so that the government use of force will be as discriminating as possible. Otherwise, innocents will die and insurgents will find plenty of embittered civilians to recruit. The Macedonian military has only 16,000 troops. Making matters worse, roughly half are poorly trained nine-month conscripts. A sizable percentage are also ethnic Albanian, and their loyalty to the government in a counterinsurgency campaign would be suspect. Very few of these forces are professionals, proficient in infantry and counterinsurgency operations.

Macedonia’s armed forces are also poorly equipped. Although they would need to operate in rugged hills to defeat the ethnic Albanian fighters, they have only half a dozen helicopters in their entire force.

Rather than betting all on diplomacy, therefore, the international community should step up its aid to the Macedonian military. It should provide everything from aerial reconnaissance of guerrilla positions to night-vision technology to more helicopters to training. We should be unambiguous about our position: As long as Macedonia’s government continues to protect noncombatants and makes serious efforts to improve the political treatment of minority Albanians, it deserves our full support — even on the battlefield.

In that light, NATO’s Kosovo force should also assist the Macedonian effort by providing additional troops to monitor the border between Macedonia and Kosovo. Many ethnic Albanian fighters and supplies cross that border into Macedonia; they must be stopped. Given NATO’s current mandate for running Kosovo, it has the resonsibility to clamp down on such movements.

On March 20 , NATO Secretary General George Robertson informally asked member countries to provide an additional 1,400 troops in Kosovo to respond to the Albanian insurgency. That number is insufficient to close the border. In Bosnia in 1996, NATO allocated roughly 60,000 troops for a 1,000-km line of separation between opposing forces. That same logic would require at least 5,000 troops along the Macedonian-Kosovar border, and perhaps additional troops to raid arms caches on either side of the frontier as well.

As NATO’s leader, the United States cannot shirk its responsibilities in this situation. It has more credibility with ethnic Albanians than any other NATO country; they now need to hear that Washington opposes their efforts to stir up trouble in the Balkans and that it will fight them if necessary. The U.S., which provides less than 20 percent of all forces in the Balkans today, need not do it alone. But it must do its fair share, lest Macedonia be carved in two and the region’s recovery further delayed.

U.S. President George W. Bush could add 1,000 Americans to the Kosovo force without violating his campaign pledge to reduce U.S. troops in the Balkans. Last year, the U.S. had roughly 7,000 troops in Bosnia; it is now cutting that total roughly in half. Thus, the U.S. could easily move a modest number of personnel from Bosnia to Kosovo while still reducing the overall size of its Balkans deployment. It is important to get these additional troops in place soon, before Albanian preparations for a summer offensive begin.

There is admittedly an irony in NATO taking sides against the ethnic Albanian fighters in Macedonia. But our Balkans policy has never been to favor one group over another; it has been to insist on certain norms of behavior. Right now, it is the Albanians who are violating those norms — and we need to let them know we will not tolerate it.

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