The Making Of A Quagmire?

Here's a quick primer to the conflict in Macedonia. One side praises NATO to the skies and hopes they'll stay forever. They're the ones who are widely referred to as "terrorists," or, as NATO Secretary-General Lord Robinson put it a couple months ago, "murderous thugs." Even now NATO spokesmen insist on referring to the Albanian guerrillas as the "so-called National Liberation Army."

The other side, the Slavic majority, invited NATO to come to Macedonia in the first place-in fact, practically begged NATO to come, and now many of the political leaders on the Slav side regularly denounce NATO for having come. Some young people on the Slav side want NATO to go home so much that they dropped a slab of concrete onto a British Army jeep from an overpass, killing one of the soldiers inside.

It gets more twisted still. NATO is now in the country on a 30-day mission to disarm the NLA, and it has already collected perhaps a third of the 3,300 arms that it reckons the NLA's 3,000 fighters have. In three more weeks or so, if all goes well, they should have them all. Seeing their enemy disarmed really infuriates some of the Macedonian Slavs, especially hard-line leaders like the interior minister, Ljube Boskovski. Officially Boskovski and his party have signed on to the Ohrid peace plan, reached earlier this month, of which the NLA disarmament is the first step.

But with friends like Boskovski, NATO doesn't need any enemies. After the NATO soldier was killed, the police, whom Boskovski controls, denounced NATO for not telling them about it. That omission was understandable, since the two police guards assigned to that bridge did nothing to intervene-even when the mob of teenagers stoned the stricken vehicle in which the British soldier lay dying.

Operation Essential Harvest is, to hear the NATO spokesmen spin it, off to a roaring great start and going terribly well. That is a position that NATO seems determined to cleave to, despite any evidence to the contrary. Never mind that Antonio Milososki, the spokesman for hard-line prime minister Ljubco Georgievski, today publicly derided the effort as "Operation Museum Harvest," claiming the rebels are only turning in antique pieces-something NATO officers say is not true (and the pooled TV footage of the weapon-collection points seems to bear that out.)

The death of British sapper Ian Collins, of the 9th Parachute Squadron of the Royal Engineers, was a "regrettable incident," in the words of Brigadier Barney White-Spunner, the British commander. But rock throwing on bridge overpasses was a common occurrence, and anyway they were kids-or that was the spin.

This is, whatever the spin, an operation that has mission creep written all over it. First the mission was slated to last only 30 days; now it's going to be more like 60 days from the arrival of the first reconnaissance units to the departure of the last clean-up details. Thirty days, the spinmeisters explain, applies to the actual weapons-collection phase, which began Aug. 27. NLA fighters, and other Albanian leaders, say they hope they'll stay a lot longer even than that.

At first the mission was to involve 3,500 NATO troops. But it turned out that this number did not count a lot of support elements that would also be sent to Macedonia; by now the total is looking a lot closer to 5,000. This sort of creeping number game does not, however, apply to the American contingent-except perhaps in reverse. Their contribution of 200 or so, the smallest of the 14 NATO nations involved, is very much not in evidence. The only exception to this is Maj. Barry Johnson, an American who is the official NATO spokesman on the scene. Even this is a bit of spin; having all but absented U.S. troops from the operation, the Pentagon nonetheless has an American soldier doing the public news briefings-thereby creating the impression, at least on television, that they are really involved.

For several days Maj. Johnson was repeating, in his patient and unflappable way, that NATO troops were here for one reason and one reason only: to collect weapons voluntarily turned in by the NLA. But on Tuesday, British troops escorted a convoy of Macedonian families back to their village of Lesok, deep in NLA territory. When my colleague, Zoran Cirjakovic, asked Johnson about that at the briefing tonight, Johnson insisted the British forces had actually been on a mission to check out a future weapons-collection site-and the commander on the scene thought it would be a good idea to "lead them [the Macedonians] to where they believe the destination was." Huh? "Whether you think that that was mission creep or not, it was within our mandate and was within our ability in order to insure the collection site is conducted properly." Got that?

To be fair, some things are going well. The NLA released the Macedonian hostages it was holding, or at least those who survived captivity. The ceasefire-a precondition for NATO's presence-is holding, more or less. While it's less than a complete ceasefire, it's a lot more of a ceasefire than most have been in the past seven months of the conflict.

Some Slav politicians have even said they're willing to take the next step as envisaged in the framework agreement. The deal was this: by Friday, NATO is supposed to certify that it had a third of the weapons collected; then the parliament is supposed to set in motion modifications of the Constitution that eventually would give the minority Albanians greater rights. Then the NLA would turn in more weapons, and so forth. The problem is, a lot of other Macedonian politicians say they will vote against parliament's approval. Their beef: they claim the rebels have as many as 85,000 weapons (which, even by government figures, would be 10 pieces each), not 3,300. But if parliament doesn't do its bit, that would dash the Ohrid peace deal, and presumably require NATO to leave.

Somehow, I doubt that will happen, at least not precipitously. "The idea that, 'oh, we'll walk away if it goes bad.' Well, NATO's reputation is at stake here. Now that they have deployed they have a larger responsibility for insuring stability, and they will not escape that," says Ed Joseph, a veteran of peacekeeping missions in the Balkans who is now the Macedonian representative of the International Crisis Group.

In the end, spin only gets you so far. NATO Ambassador Peter Feith, the Dutch diplomat who has been laboring behind the scenes, first in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia and now here in Macedonia, didn't seem to be spinning when I talked to him tonight. He sounded like a deeply worried man. "We have made a very encouraging start with the collection of weapons," he said. "What is needed now, and we don't see enough of, is confidence building. Security for disarmed NLA fighters, for instance. Practical measures giving support to the mission. We can't have paramilitary groups operating in the country. If the current mindset continues to prevail, of confrontation rather than reconciliation, we may have a problem." He was too diplomatic to say which side was the problem, but here's a hint: he wasn't talking about the "terrorists."