NATO's objective in Kosovo is not only the assurance of security and safety for the traumatized population but also the construction of a multiparty democracy.
In effect, whether NATO leaders admit it or not, the alliance is engaged in the process of state-building. But can NATO succeed, given its mandate and experience?
For clues about Kosovo's immediate future under the international umbrella, it's useful to examine NATO's mission in post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Despite some similarities, such as Belgrade's military aggression and popular demands for independence, there are significant differences between the two places.
Bosnia was deliberately ethnically divided and partitioned into three national entities during the 3-1/2-year war. All three ethnic ethnic groups - Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats felt they had a right as a majority in their own portion of Bosnia. Before, during, and after the war, each group became susceptible to nationalist manipulation promoting ethnic separation and "purification" on the pretext of defending their supposedly endangered national interests.
In Kosovo, by contrast, the ethnic Albanian population constitutes the overwhelming majority, while Serbs are a minority. Furthermore, the Belgrade regime has engaged in wholesale expulsion and mass murder rather than resettlement. It has fostered ethnic division at the city level rather than at any territorial level. Hence, Kosovo has not been partitioned into ethnic cantons. With the return of ethnic Albanians, the prewar demographic structure will be largely restored.
The NATO operation in Bosnia failed to ensure the return of the majority of refugees to their pre-war homes.
Only a few thousand out of 2 million expellees have actually ventured across the inter-entity lines drawn up under the Dayton accords. Indeed, Dayton rewarded ethnic division by allowing for the existence of an autonomous Serb republic within Bosnia.
In Kosovo, NATO has been determined to return all refugees to their homes and to prevent any kind of ethnic partition of the territory. This will clearly reassure ethnic Albanians that the international community is committed to an independent territory and opposes ethnic division.
In Bosnia the majority of Serbian war criminals were allowed to roam free and to profit from their crimes. But, now, international bodies must vigorously pursue such criminals whether inside or outside Kosovo.
Political conditions in Kosovo are in many respects simpler.
In Bosnia's autonomous Serb Republic, the perpetrators of genocide remained in control after Dayton was signed, even though a handful of Serb leaders were indicted as war criminals.
By contrast, the Serb armed forces have fled Kosovo and have no base of political power. Even the remaining Serb civilians in Kosovo are unlikely to support President Slobodan Milosevic. The Belgrade clique led them into war and then abandoned them just as it did with Croatia's Krajina Serbs.
Whereas the major nationalist parties sought the partition of Bosnia, in Kosovo a multiplicity of ethnic Albanian political parties already exists and none of them favor ethnic expulsion or partition.
In Bosnia it took more than two years for UN High Representative Carlos Westendorp to enforce the joint institutions and symbols necessary for an integral state. But as a result, Bosnia-Herzegovina has in effect become an international protectorate.
The international community wanted Bosnia to be an independent state separate from Yugoslavia. Paradoxically, it wants Kosovo to be part of Yugoslavia.
How NATO, the UN, and other international organizations steer between Kosovar demands for independence and Belgrade's attempts to dilute Kosovo's emerging institutions will, more than any other factor, determine the future of Kosovo.
There are two possible scenarios. In the most optimistic outcome, a large popular vote, effective political parties, and authoritative governmental institutions become the base of a well-functioning Kosovo administration. Parties and government bodies are open to democratization and minority involvement.
Unlike in Bosnia, the competence of government and parliament in pushing through reform programs, rooting out corruption and cronyism, and subordinating the police to political oversight will provide credibility to self-government and will be positively perceived by the international community.
At the same time, civil society can flourish in the economic, social, informational, educational, and cultural arenas just as it did under a decade of Serbian occupation. Unfortunately, in Bosnia the civic option in political life has been largely stifled by nationalists. Kosovo can therefore provide an alternative and viable model of post-Yugoslav developments, and an alternative for Serbia as well.
A negative second scenario could also materialize in which political and personality clashes, poorly functioning institutions, the exclusion - or self-exclusion - of Serbs, manipulation by Belgrade, and incompetence by outside administrators will make self-government impossible.
Aprevalence of corruption, criminality, privilege, dictatorial or cliquish tendencies, clan-based patronage systems, and waste of reconstruction aid could disqualify Kosovo as a viable entity.
The negative scenario could lead to two probable outcomes. It would encourage calls for stronger international supervision as in Westendorp's Bosnia, thus making Kosovo even more dependent on UN mandated bodies.
Or it would buttress the conviction that Kosovo must remain part of Yugoslavia because the Albanians are evidently unprepared for self-determination and may destabilize the wider region as an independent state.
NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe already face a daunting task in reconstructing Kosovo.
While the institutional forms will be created over the coming months, everything depends on their content. And it will be largely up to the Kosovars to prove that they can effectively and legitimately govern themselves.
*Janusz Bugajski is director of East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington. D.C.