Flirting with KLA Terrorists: Support Is Building to Arm the KLA to Fight against the Serbs in Kosovo, Though Evidence Suggests It Is a Drug-Smuggling, Leftist Terrorist Group with Plans of Conquest. (World: Kosovo Liberation Army)

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Sanctions failed. Diplomacy failed. Even massive air attacks by nuclear-capable strategic bombers failed. As the Clinton administration's drive to force Yugoslavia to grant autonomy to Kosovar Albanians crumbled amid the bombed-out hulks of government buildings, bridges and factories, Washington seemed primed to try yet another weapon: waging a ground war by arming what a former U.S. special envoy to Kosovo called a "terrorist group." It's an option that, if implemented, will further complicate Operation Allied Force, will risk throwing a monkey wrench into U.S. counterterrorism and counternarcotics policy and could further complicate relations with NATO allies.

With dashed hopes for the Yugoslavian regime's quick surrender, the administration and Congress are considering an initiative to build up a small guerrilla force, the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, into an effective fighting machine. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright openly flirts with the KLA, other officials say the United States wants closer relations with the group. Some Capitol Hill staff following Kosovo are asking if, despite NATO's open nonsupport, the United States already may be providing covert assistance to the KLA.

Bipartisan initiatives in the House and Senate, meanwhile, openly would fund the arming and training of the KLA into a full-scale irregular army. Arming the KLA is attracting an unlikely coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers with ethnic Albanian constituencies; politicians squeamish about using U.S. and NATO ground forces but wanting some sort of on-the-ground military presence against Yugoslavian forces in Kosovo; a smattering of conservative armchair insurgency "experts" who invoke the Reagan Doctrine of supporting anticommunist resistance movements; and Marxist radicals who find the KLA's ideology compatible with their own.

Among the most prominent politicians favoring this scheme are polar opposites, Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes and House Minority Whip David Bonior of Michigan. While Forbes was hastening the collapse of the Soviet empire in the 1980s as head of the board supervising Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in the effort to undermine communist rule, critics say Bonior was so friendly to the comrades that he became a cheerleader for the Marxist-Leninist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and a leading foe of democratic resistance there.

On April 14, six congressmen led by Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, introduced the Kosova Self-Defense Act to allocate $25 million to train and arm the KLA. (The name of the Yugoslavian province itself is in dispute. Kosovo is the Serbian-language name, while Albanians use the term Kosova.) "The KLA is on the ground in Kosova now and, with proper weapons, could defend innocent Kosovars against Serb predation," the hawkish Engel reasons. "When Serb forces do leave, the KLA can serve as a peacekeeping and police force until a government is organized. This would mean fewer NATO troops, including U.S. forces, would be needed in the area." Sponsors include Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina and William Goodling of Pennsylvania, as well as Bonior. Sens. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, and Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, have prepared similar legislation, now under State Department review.

Veteran Reagan Doctrine proponents who have studied the KLA think the proposal is a dangerous idea. "Some politicians have apparently confused the KLA with the Nicaraguan Contras or the Afghan mujahideen of the 1980s," says Michael Radu of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. In a memo circulating on Capitol Hill, Radu argues that arming the KLA "would display both American ignorance of the true nature of the KLA and despair at the failure of the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia."

Not only does the KLA stake territorial claims on other countries, including NATO ally Greece, but Insight's sources say it has roots in the Sigurimi secret police of Albania's late Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who had designs on a Greater Albania carved from Greece and countries that made up Yugoslavia. …