In the five months since the US and its allies claimed victory in Kosovo by returning ethnic Albanian refugees to their homes, the region has continued to be haunted by ethnic intolerance, authoritarian power struggles, and murder almost as regularly as it was before the NATO airstrikes. (See story, page 8.)
The inability of United Nations peacekeepers to stop the violence raises questions about whether the intervention has been a success or a failure - even as President Clinton today makes a Thanksgiving visit to 7,000 US soldiers stationed in Kosovo.
The answer will help shape the legacy of the president, as well as determine whether NATO troops will need to stay in the Balkans for years, as officials initially said, or for decades, as some observers now predict.
"[Nobody] thought we could solve the entire Kosovo problem," says an administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity. "But we did think we could stop the repression and give the people a chance to establish democratic institutions."
Clinton administration officials call the Kosovo mission a success because it met the objectives set at the beginning of the bombing campaign. The forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic withdrew from the province and NATO peacekeepers entered, allowing the speedy return of some 800,000 ethnic Albanians who had been driven from their homes.
And, says Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution here, "The average Kosovar Albanian who is still alive is much better off today than they were on March 23," the day before airstrikes began. Kosovo is now an autonomous province that is technically still part of Serbia. In practice, it is an international protectorate.
Critics of the airstrikes, however, point out that most of the refugees did not leave the region until after the bombing began. Once that happened, Milosevic launched an operation against ethnic Albanians that the Yugoslav Army called "terrain cleansing" and international officials called "ethnic cleansing."
Furthermore, critics say their objections have been vindicated by recent events in Kosovo, which indicate the region is anything but the multiethnic society international planners envisioned.
Violence has continued at about the same pace - some 30 deaths per week - as before the airstrikes began, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, a London-based research group that is chaired by former US Sen. George Mitchell.
Whereas the pre-air-strike victims were predominantly ethnic Albanians, Serbs are now being killed at a rate disproportionate to their population. "Systematic attacks upon the Serb population and, to a lesser degree, upon other minority groups, suggest that at least some elements of the ethnic Albanian majority are determined to rid the province of all non-Albanians," the report says.
Also fueling the debate are new findings by war-crimes investigators about the number of ethnic Albanians killed by Serbian forces during the airstrikes, when objective observers had very little access to the region.
While neither supporters nor objectors to the intervention diminish the significance of even one death, the debate hinges on allegations that Western officials inflated numbers to help build support for a sustained bombing of Yugoslavia - an operation that was accurate but may have led to more than 2,000 unintended deaths of both Serbs and ethnic Albanians, some estimate.
US and NATO officials at times implied that as many as 100,000 ethnic Albanians may have been killed, and they used words like "genocide" to describe the Serbian policy. They later lowered the estimate to 10,000. But preliminary findings from war-crimes investigators indicate that the number of ethnic Albanians killed by Serbian forces during the air strikes was probably closer to 5,000.
"This is not exactly genocide," says Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign-policy expert at the Washington-based Cato Institute, which is soon to release a book titled "NATO's Empty Victory." "It brings up the disturbing reality that [the inaccurate numbers] were part of a propaganda campaign by NATO - and it was a very successful one."
Mr. Carpenter also casts doubt on the US assertion that NATO intervention is leading Kosovo on a path toward democracy. He notes the lingering influence of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) - a group of guerrilla fighters who the US has tried to marginalize over the past two years. One official here recently said the KLA, like the Serbs, had committed war crimes during the conflict. Yet they were not indicted by the international tribunal in The Hague as was Milosevic.
The KLA is blamed for much of the ongoing violence even though they are being transformed into a civilian guard. Their leaders say they will not give up until they achieve full independence from Serbia.
"We intervened in a civil war and helped people come to power who don't reflect our values or interests," says Christopher Lynn, a visiting scholar at the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Another disputed result of the air campaign is the effect it had on US relations with the rest of the international community - and whether that matters at all.
Critics like Mr. Lynn argue that the strikes damaged relations with Russia, which is now using NATO's example to help justify its offensive into Chechnya. Those who support the NATO action, however, say the alliance should not let other countries dictate their policy, especially during an armed conflict.
Some analysts and diplomats also look to Belgrade to assess the results of the intervention. Despite calculations of US officials, Milosevic was not toppled from power after his forces made a retreat from the region, which Serbs regard as their spiritual homeland.
Serbia itself is in shambles with parts of its infrastructure destroyed by the bombing. Neighboring countries are also suffering because they lost a trading partner, and parts of the Danube River are blocked by fallen bridges. Although getting Milosevic out of power was never a stated objective of NATO, it was a motivating force that weighed in the decision to launch air strikes, diplomats said at the time.
And if there is one thing that almost all of the analysts agree upon, it's that while Milosevic is in power, the Balkans will be unstable and peacekeepers will be required in Kosovo - at a cost to the US of about $2 to $3 billion per year, according to Steven Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
"If you ask me 25 years from now if I'm surprised that troops are still in Kosovo, I'll have to say 'no,' " says Mr. Daalder.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society