This article appears in the April 1999 edition of
Jane's Intelligence Review

The KLA: braced to defend and control

Over the last year, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) has transformed itself from a band of guerrillas to a structured force capable of running political and internal affairs. Zoran Kusovac reports how they did it.

When, in late February 1998, the Serbian police decided to put an end to a budding pro-independence movement of armed Kosovo Albanian fighters in the Drenica region, they were confident that their opponents would be easily dealt with. Their sources indicated that behind the pompous name, Ushtria Çlirimtare ë Kosovës (Kosovo Liberation Army - UÇK or KLA), hid just a couple of hundred hard-line ethnic Albanians who would be wiped out in one decisive attack. The planning for the operation, however, revealed the very dilemmas which were to plague Serbian operations in Kosovo from that moment onwards. The Serbs needed to decide whether to use adequately sized specialised anti-guerrilla units and run the risk of granting the KLA importance - something they wanted to avoid at all costs - or whether to play down the KLA's importance by just using regular police and Federal Army units.

The Serbs opted for a politically safer option, but the only tactics regular troops knew was 'scorched earth' - hitting any suspected 'terrorist resistance' with all means available. Such indiscriminate force met with fierce opposition from the Jashari family compound in Prekaz, and it took more than 48 hours to end all resistance there. The results showed that to silence less than 10 armed males the forces of the Serbian Interior Ministry (Ministarstvo Unutrasnjih Poslova - MUP) killed more than 40 civilians, including women and children.

A call to arms
While the Serbian side claimed that the 'terrorists have been anihilated once for all', pictures from Drenica of destruction and grief served as an unexpected impetus for KLA recruitment. Thousands of young Albanians left their jobs, both in Kosovo and all across Western Europe where they had been working, to go and join the force fighting for the independence of their homeland: Kosovo. So rapid and unexpected was the inflow of recruits that the KLA initially was unable to cope. Many made their way into Drenica, which, despite the bitter defeats of February and March, was seen as the centre of the resistance.

The creation of the KLA
It is still not easy to understand how it was possible to bring together, organise and arm the 30,000 fighters that the KLA mustered between the spring and summer of 1998. A key factor in explaining the unexpectedly rapid growth of the KLA, however, is the nature of Albanian society. Closely knit, with strong family, clan and regional affiliances, Albanians have always been regarded as inpenetrable to outsiders and loyal to their own sense of unity. This helped them to rally behind the non-violent resistance advocated by the grass-roots ethnic-Albanian Democratic League of Kosovo (Lidhja Demokratike ë Kosovës - LDK) and its leader, Ibrahim Rugova. However, with the appearance of the KLA and an upsurge of armed actions against the MUP and 'loyal Albanians' (those who continued to work for the state or directly co-operated with its executive bodies in Kosovo), the determination to pursue the ultimate aim - independence for Kosovo - by non-violent means was undermined. The KLA appeared in public on 28 November 1997. The fact that the Jasharis were just ordinary farmers and not professional soldiers reinforced the belief that an armed uprising had a chance.

The would-be fighters approached the former political prisoners in their respective regions with offers to fight. Most Albanian political prisoners were former students arrested in the 1980s for their participation in the movement demanding a Republic of Kosovo within Federal Yugoslavia. The movement itself was quite idealistic, but a heavy-handed response by the government, long prison sentences and the impossibility of finding employment upon release had radicalised the youths to the point that they were now ready to lead the armed struggle. Other leaders included the younger generation of students (dismissed from the universities when Kosovo autonomy was forcibly abolished in the early 1990s), teachers, doctors, members of influential families and known local rogues. Army officers and police inspectors who were purged in the early 1990s were the only ones with any military knowledge. As soon as rumour spread that there was a core of resistance in a particular area, potential recruits were directed there by word of mouth.

The self-proclaimed government of the 'Republic of Kosovo' collected a 3 per cent income tax on all exiles working in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, but much more important for the financing of the KLA were the funds sent by family members who worked abroad. Before the beginning of mass resistance they simply served to sustain the large families and clans, but once a decision was taken to fight those funds were further augmented by additional donations and re-directed towards the procurement of arms.

An important role in the collection of funds was played by a Swiss-based fund, 'Homeland Calls' (Vendlindhja Therrët), which organised large-scale collections, first across Europe and later in the USA, where the Albanian community in the New York area alone numbers over 200,000.
Arms were procured from all sources, but the single most important early channel was from the Serbs themselves. Worried that the break-up of former Yugoslavia might prompt an early uprising of Kosovo Albanians, the Serbian government distributed an estimated 75,000 rifles to Kosovo Serbs. Albanians, traditionally people with a gun-culture, kept as many weapons as they could and kept buying Kalashnikovs from their Serb neighbours. The Serbs were quite happy to sell, relying on the might of the Yugoslav Army (Vojska Jugoslavije - VJ) to protect them. An important channel was Albania, where the disintegration of the central government in the spring of 1997 and subsequent looting of military depots put more than half a million small arms on the market. The price for a Kalashnikov in northern Albania was as low as $100; in Kosovo it was double. Supplies started flowing across the mountains, first in small groups, but then convoys quickly grew to up to 200 mountain ponies and a thousand men.

The gun-culture of the Albanians, the need for concealment and the lack of trained officers created a propensity for individual weapons. At first the only weapons apart from the usual rifles were shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons, usually of the early generations, and limited numbers of small-calibre mortars. To the surprise of many, land-mines were barely used, not even for perimeter defence, but this also reflects the Albanians' heroic system of values, where the only worthy way to fight was deemed as being with a gun.

Over-confidence, near disaster
As the KLA grew, the Serbian security forces stood mesmerised and uncertain what to do. The MUP simply stopped patrolling large swaths of the country and the VJ, until then not directly involved in the fighting, chose to co-exist with the KLA - the two entities practically ignoring each other's presence. Growing overconfident, the KLA proclaimed 'free territories' and blocked the main roads. The government kept control of larger towns, but it was denied safe communications and the western town of Pec had to be supplied in a roundabout way through Montenegro.

At this stage the KLA still had little central co-ordination and no unified command structure. Each operational area cared only about itself, attracting funds and weapons through its own channels and recruiting local villagers. There was no training, and logistics consisted mostly of providing enough ammunition to all troops. Food was provided mainly by requisitioning supplies available locally and comanders hardly cared to take any advice from the few with military knowledge. The amateurishness of the organisation was reflected in the fact that in July 1998 there were only three field hospitals. The total number of fighters had reached 30,000 by mid-June, but a large number of those were just locals carrying guns in their own villages.

The government finally acted in the early summer, when the KLA attempted to take a major town, Orahovac, which was practically surrounded by guerrilla-controlled areas. The KLA failed to properly plan and execute the attack, however, displaying a tactical incompetence and a lack of proper command and fighting discipline.

By mid-summer the MUP was applying all the lessons it had learned, firstly removing all roadblocks by force and freeing up communications. It was aided by heavy-arms support from the VJ, but its main allies were incompetent - often competing - KLA commanders, who did not use their mobility to their benefit but defended roadblocks, canyons and mountain passes with no attempt at surprise or flanking actions.

In July the VJ officially extended the border belt to 5km, allowing it to strike at a whole string of villages between Djakovica and Prizren, which were the main collection points for arms from Albania and centres of resistance. The KLA was thus broken into isolated pockets of resistance.

What, in turn, saved the KLA from ultimate military defeat was the incompetence of the Serbian security forces: in destroying not just the fighters, but whole villages as potential KLA bases, they sent the entire population fleeing in the woods and hills. When the number of displaced civilians passed 100,000, the international community had to react, and in the face of the threat of NATO airstrikes Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic reached a deal with US envoy Richard Holbrooke that ended the offensive, allowing refugees to return.

The real army
The deal also introduced unarmed Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) 'compliance verifiers', whose task was to monitor the truce. That truce, uneasy as it was, survived the winter - not because of the dubious role of the verifiers, but because the Serbs and Albanians needed a military and political respite.

The KLA used the winter the best way it could, finally establishing a competent central command structure centred around the General Staff (Shtabi i Përgjithshëm - ShP) and dividing Kosovo into operational zones. Initially there were six of these, but OZ No 7 (Karadak) was added in February along the southern flank and the crucial communication lines with Macedonia through Kacanik gorge.

The principle of subordination was reinforced and applied almost fully. Several local commanders who were reluctant to accept central command quietly slipped away. Among those was a former commander of the southwest, Hajdin Abazi (nom de guerre Lum Haxhiu), known for his encounter with Richard Holbrooke in Junik, who returned to civilian life in Germany.

The current KLA
All of the KLA's military and political matters are now run by the ShP, which consists of 16 known members although there may be up to 20 of them. Each member has a specific responsibility, but their relations are not always harmonious. The ShP established at least eight directorates (drejtoria) and several services (sherbimi), some of which are subordinated to the Directorates while others are under direct ShP command.

Contrary to what would be expected, most influence and power lies within the Political Directorate (Drejtoria Politike), led by the rising political star and head of the Kosovo negotiating delegation to France Hashim Thaçi. Many consider his most serious long-term opponent to be Hxavit Haliti, whose several years of political imprisonment are marred by allegations of collaboration with Serbian authorities. Haliti has very close links with the current government in Tirana and is trying to put all the financing of the KLA under his control. Although Sylejman Selimi, 'Sultan', has been named commander-in-chief, the extent of his real influence is not clear. It appears that his surprise nomination during the first round of negotiations in Rambouilet was an attempt by hard-line Kosovo politician Adem Demaçi to explore rifts among ShP members and prevent the acceptance of the Kosovo Interim Agreement. Losing the battle against the Kosovo accord, Demaçi had to exit the political scene, but the ShP decided not to cause internal divisions by replacing Selimi by a more influential and militarily competent member.

It is quite a peculiar feature of the ShP that its Operations Directorate is still feeble, and it is not even known who heads it. This reflects the relative weakness of the ShP in imposing efficient military control over influential OZ commanders. While accepting ShP guidance, the OZ commanders still remain largely independent in the conduct of operations and even maintain their own parallel and independent financing and logistics. It appears that one of the main short-term goals of the ShP is to impose tighter control on OZ commanders. So far most resistance to centralisation seems to come from the commanders of OZs No 5, 'Drini', and No 2, 'Remi'.

One of the main criticisms of the ShP on the ground was its over-representation of the Drenica region and the lack of trained military personnel. The first was addressed by including more members from other regions, while the second cannot be solved in the short term. A system of military education was established, however, where the central Military Academy (Akademia ë Ardhshme Ushtarake) trains higher officers (from just below OZ commanders to battalion commander level), while at least three of the OZs have their own Military Training Schools, which train officers down to squad leader level. Courses, which take an average four to six weeks, are conducted mostly by former Yugoslav Army officers and are said to include elements of tactics, operations, logistics and war and humanitarian law. While the effectiveness of such short, makeshift courses is limited and mainly a morale-building operation, they may serve to bolster the tactical and operational knowledge that have been the KLA's main deficiency. At least 600 officers have completed various courses so far; the Military Academy is currently into its 4th class.

The KLA has not yet learned to fully exploit its mobility and is completely untrained and unskilled in the tactical use of weapons. Units concentrate and use frontal patterns of attack and defence rather than dispersing to cover larger areas and support each other with intersecting arcs of fire. Many weapons are not used to their best advantage: anti-armour weapons are often not given small-arms cover and mortars have little mobility. Villages are defended from inside the houses rather than from perimeter positions, making it easier for Serbian forces to neutralise them with cannon fire. Nevertheless, there are signs that the necessary tactical knowledge is filtering through.

The number of forces available to OZ commanders varies considerably. Two OZs have four confirmed brigades each while another three OZs have three brigades each (typical brigade strength being just over 1,000). The smallest OZ, Karadak, so far consists of just one brigade. Brigades are named after fallen fighters ('martyrs') and reflect a strong sense of regional loyalty, but transfers of forces between brigades to bolster other OZs are still relatively common, although units do not disband when their fighters are detached. The main operational unit appears to be the company, typically 50-60 strong, which includes supporting mortars, heavy machine-guns and an anti-tank detachment.

As far as it can be estimated from past performance, the KLA does not yet possess any heavy artillery nor a significant anti-aircraft capability. Insider sources claim this is a conscious decision as heavy weapons would mar mobility, but at least 50 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (mostly SA-7/14s but including several Stingers) have been confirmed in use. Small arms reflect the multitude of sources of procurement; the Kalashnikov family still predominates, but exotic weapons such as Barrett .50in sniping rifles, Steyr AUG and Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifles have been sighted. There is a limited amount of night-vision equipment.

Operational mobility is best reflected in the nature of various headquarters and field commands, which are often moved according to necessity. Communications are still rudimentary, with satellite telephones forming the backbone of OZ HQs and field radios still being in short supply. In areas covered by cellular telephone networks, mobile phones are used.
One of the weakest points of the KLA is the coverage and extent of the medical services. As far as it is known, there are less than half a dozen field hospitals, but even those are ill-equipped and understaffed. Medical evacuation and first-aid posts are virtually non-existent, and to encounter a fighter with a field dressing - let alone one who would know how to use it - would be extremely rare. However, it seems that the determination of the fighters is so high that this does not preclude them from earnestly engaging in combat.

On the political side, the KLA is highly aware of its responsibilities in the running of civilian affairs in the areas it controls. Civil affairs were first the responsibility of the Political Directorate, but when it was realised that those tasks were numerous and specific a Public Order and Civil Administration Directorate (Drejtoria për Marrëdhënie Publike dhe Administrim Civil) was formed in late 1998. The fact that it was entrusted to one of the most veteran ShP members and the first KLA spokesman, Jakup Krasniqi, indicates the degree of importance attached to civilian affairs. This might prove important if the KLA were to be transformed into an internationally controlled internal-security organisation as foreseen by the Interim Agreement, which the Kosovo Albanians unilaterally accepted in Paris on 18 March. Similar civil administration bodies have been formed in all local communities under KLA control; these would form the backbone of the future civilian government.

The successful transformation of the KLA during the winter indicates it has overcome internal difficulties following last summer's string of defeats and has consolidated. It is now also the one and only force on the Kosovo Albanian side; an attempt by the 'prime minister' of the self-proclaimed Kosovo government, Bujar Bukoshi, to raise a parallel fighting force under his command - the Armed Force of the Republic of Kosovo (Forcave Armatosure ë Republikes ë Kosoves - FARK) - ended in failure following the disbandment of the only FARK brigade and the flight to Albania of its commander, Colonel Tahir Zema.

Having raised the awareness of the Albanians in Kosovo and largely unified the hitherto undecided population, the KLA also realised the importance of political means. With some 24,000 fighters and a recruitment potential for at least as many again within a matter of weeks, it is now a much stronger fighting force than in 1998, although definitely not capable of successfully tackling the MUP and VJ. It is neither yet a proper army nor has it managed to expel the much stronger Serbian police and military forces, but its status has been raised by its acceptance by the international community as the rightful participant in the negotiating process.

Despite all Serbian efforts to treat it as a terrorist group, the KLA is now the strongest player on the Kosovo Albanian political scene and fully aware of its current status and responsibilities. All signs indicate that, should the Serbian authorities accept the Kosovo Interim Agreement, the political arm of the KLA would transform into the Kosovo Liberation Party (Partia Çlirimtare ë Kosovës - PÇK). The requisite political wisdom and resources to take on a civilian role without surrenduring its position to the previous civilian structures of the Kosovo Albanians are already in evidence.

Zoran Kusovac
Zoran Kusovac is a South-Eastern Europe analyst and consultant who has covered the Balkan affairs for over 10 years.

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