The Kosovo Liberation Army and the Future of Kosovo


The Kosovo Liberation Army and the Future of Kosovo

May 13, 1999 20 min read
Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

The May 6 political agreement regarding the war in Kosovo reached by representatives of Russia and the Group of 7 (G-7) nations in Bonn, Germany, leaves many contentious questions unanswered. The most problematic in the long run could be that the Bonn agreement calls for the "demilitarization" of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). This provision is not only unrealistic; it also would be a mistake. If implemented, at best, this provision could miss an opportunity to reach a more equitable and lasting peace for the Kosovars. At worst, it could involve the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in a military operation against the very people it is supposed to be defending--the Albanian Kosovars.

Since Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic began his repression of the ethnic Albanian majority in the province of Kosovo, the KLA's ranks have swelled rapidly.1 Some estimates place the KLA's strength today at more than 30,000 members, despite the sustained efforts by Yugoslav forces to destroy it.2 Once a marginal player on the fringe of Kosovo's politics, the KLA is now the focal point of ethnic Albanian nationalism in Kosovo. The ferocity of Milosevic's campaign, which intensified after the NATO bombing campaign began on March 24, 1999, has forced more than 700,000 Kosovars to flee across Yugoslavia's borders. This exodus has helped to create a huge pool of uprooted Albanian Kosovars who are determined to fight for independence. Moreover, the continuing attacks by Yugoslavia on Kosovo civilians have discredited the KLA's moderate political rivals, who once enjoyed widespread popular support in the province. The KLA cannot be left out of any political settlement.

The United States has taken sides in Yugoslavia's civil war; by bombing Serb forces, it has aligned itself clearly with the Albanian Kosovars. Although the KLA does not represent every group seeking an end to Milosevic's brutal campaign and is known to have committed some atrocities of its own, it is the most significant force resisting Yugoslav aggression within Kosovo. Moreover, the scale and scope of its crimes have been dwarfed by the systematic campaign of terror unleashed by Yugoslav military, paramilitary, and police forces inside Kosovo.

The fact that the air campaign has failed to end the Yugoslav atrocities means that the United States must make a difficult choice: Should the U.S. harness the KLA's military potential against Milosevic's brutal regime, despite the KLA's unusual ideological roots and apparent ties to organized crime? Or should it shun the KLA and risk allowing Albanian Muslims in Kosovo to become dependent on the support of Iran and other radical Islamic patrons who are eager to exploit this situation?

Even if the United States temporarily dodges this dilemma by deploying U.S. troops, either as part of a NATO ground offensive to liberate Kosovo or as peacekeepers after a negotiated settlement, Washington will be confronted with the thorny question of how to transfer political power to the Albanian Kosovars. Failing to include the KLA in this equation eventually could lead to a Somalia-like debacle in which U.S. troops are attacked by the strongest faction of the beleaguered people they once sought to rescue.

Shunning the KLA now will deprive the United States of the benefits of cooperating with a resistance force that is capable of ratcheting up the pressure on Milosevic to negotiate a settlement. Moreover, ostracizing the KLA may help Islamic radicals to hijack the KLA's nationalist revolution and transform it into a radical Islamic movement.

The issue is how to harness the KLA's political and military potential with an eye to establishing a durable, self-sustaining peace and viable self-government in Kosovo. Before addressing the best way to work with the KLA, it is important to understand this resilient group's leadership, strategy, funding, and military potential.


The brutality of Yugoslavia's attacks on ethnic Albanians has marginalized Ibrahim Rugova, the moderate leader who was elected president of the self-declared Republic of Kosovo in 1992 and who advocates nonviolent resistance. Many of his former supporters have joined the KLA, which stepped into the vacuum left by Rugova. Despite its eclectic ideological roots, which combine elements from the far right and far left of the political spectrum, the KLA leadership is united by its desire for an independent Kosovo. The leadership also has voiced support for a Greater Albania, a pan-Albanian union that would unite the ethnic Albanian populations of Kosovo, Montenegro, and Macedonia with Albania.3

The KLA's Leadership.
The KLA has developed an elaborate organizational structure with a political directorate and military general staff. Many KLA leaders spent time in prison for opposing former President Marshal Josip Broz Tito's communist regime.4 Most of its younger leaders use noms de guerre to mask their identities, and until recently their organization remained shrouded in secrecy. This changed during the February and March 1999 peace talks held at Rambouillet, France, as the KLA leadership coalesced around Hashim Thaci, head of the Kosovo negotiating delegation and the KLA's political director.

Thaci, also known by his nom de guerre "Snake," is a 29-year-old, Swiss-educated leader who operates out of a KLA base camp near Kukes, Albania. In February 1999, another young KLA leader, 29-year-old Sulejman Selimi (alias "Sultan"), was named the KLA's top military commander. Previously, he had led KLA forces in the Drenica region in central Kosovo, long known for its fierce resistance to Yugoslavian rule.

The KLA's Strategy.
In its pursuit of independence, the KLA has mounted a sustained campaign against the primary instrument of President Milosevic's oppression--Serbia's notoriously brutal police force. The first KLA attack on Serbian police occurred in Glogovac, a city in the Drenica region, in May 1993.5 The KLA has since executed numerous hit-and-run attacks on police stations. Uniformed KLA fighters first appeared in public on November 28, 1997, at a funeral service for a schoolteacher slain by Serbs.6

KLA attacks prompted increasingly bloody Serbian reprisals. After the March 1998 Serbian massacre in Prekaz of the Jashari clan, which had been at the epicenter of the ethnic Albanian resistance, the KLA broadened its military activities, hoping to sever communication links between Yugoslav forces and to defend territory, including selected towns, within the province.

The KLA still lacks the combat power either to confront conventional Yugoslav military units directly or to hold key terrain. Although clearly on the defensive in Kosovo, the KLA's command-and-control network remains intact.7 The KLA also has captured and turned over to NATO several Yugoslav military personnel since Operation Allied Force began on March 24.

Apart from isolated instances, the KLA has targeted Yugoslav police and security forces but not Serbian civilians in Kosovo.8 The KLA's actions thus contrast sharply with systematic Yugoslavian efforts to cleanse the province of ethnic Albanians.9 As an outlawed organization, the KLA reportedly has cooperated with Albanian criminal clans who were involved in smuggling cigarettes, immigrants, and drugs. Apparently, the KLA relies on some of these criminal networks to raise money, buy arms, and smuggle supplies into Kosovo. Absent external support, the KLA is likely to remain partially dependent on these links to sustain its operations.

The KLA's Military Potential.
Far from being a ragtag army, as commonly portrayed in the Western press, the KLA has developed a sophisticated organizational structure in a short time--a strong testimony to its resiliency despite relentless Yugoslav attacks. Militarily, the KLA is organized along geographic lines, with seven operational zones.10 The KLA's organized base camps are in northern Albania (see Map 1). Significantly, the KLA also has established directorates, services, and departments that, given sufficient time and support, could mature into civilian agencies necessary for Kosovar self-government.11

Little is known about the scale of the losses inflicted on the KLA in the most recent Yugoslav offensive. Some KLA units reportedly were cut off and surrounded while defending village strongholds. This has fueled speculation that the KLA was nearly destroyed in the latest round of fighting. But the KLA will be difficult to destroy, because it operates amid a largely sympathetic populace. New local commanders are sure to emerge to replace those lost in previous battles.

Another measure of the KLA's military potential involves its ability to attract new recruits. Some assessments of the KLA's strength range as high as 12,000 regular troops and 25,000 irregulars.12 Another 15,000 exiled Albanians are expected to join the KLA's ranks shortly.13 This number includes some 400 Albanian-Americans (the so-called Atlantic Brigade) who have volunteered to join the KLA.14 KLA membership also includes some former Yugoslav army officers, former Albanian army officers, and a smattering of foreign mercenaries.15

Several factors have converged to fuel the KLA's extraordinary growth. First, Kosovo's high unemployment rate has created a large pool of potential recruits; second, Ibrahim Rugova's pacifist approach failed to protect the ethnic Albanian population; and third, the brutality of the Yugoslav ethnic cleansing campaign has galvanized the Albanian Kosovars to take up arms against their oppressors.

Arming for Combat.
The KLA has acquired a wide range of small arms and assault rifles, anti-tank weapons, machine guns, and mortars. These range from World War II-vintage weapons to more modern arms, including the German-designed Armbrust anti-tank weapon and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons. The KLA purchased thousands of automatic weapons at discounted prices after Albania's government collapsed in 1997 and its military arsenals were looted. The ethnic Albanian resistance also was able to buy weapons from Serbs in Kosovo who were confident that the Yugoslav army could protect them.16

With its current stockpile of weapons, the KLA has a limited ability to mount guerrilla strikes in Kosovo. The resistance will need, however, more advanced weapons and training to combat Yugoslavia's conventional forces more effectively. The KLA also suffers from critical shortages of medical supplies, ammunition, and communications equipment.

The KLA receives most of its funding from outside sources. The principal source of revenue has been ethnic Albanian families outside Kosovo, particularly those living in the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia.17 Donations from the Albanian diaspora appear to be funneled through a Swiss-based fund, Homeland Calls, which orchestrates collections in Europe and the United States. Reports indicate that the KLA also has received at least some of its funding from narcotics trafficking in Europe.18


It would be unrealistic to expect Albanian Kosovars to accept Serbian rule in the aftermath of Milosevic's ethnic cleansing campaign. It also would be wrong for an international security force to disarm the ethnic Albanian resistance in Kosovo, as called for by the Bonn agreement. Milosevic's previous ethnic cleansing campaigns in Bosnia and Croatia were halted only when Milosevic was confronted with the combined impact of NATO air strikes, a Croatian ground offensive, and U.S. efforts to arm and train the Bosnian army.

By itself, a limited air war is unlikely to force Milosevic to halt his ethnic cleansing campaign and withdraw all Yugoslav military, paramilitary, and internal security forces from Kosovo. To halt Milosevic's latest round of ethnic cleansing, the United States should complement its bombing campaign with political, military, and economic support for the Kosovar resistance. The KLA has a checkered past, but there does not appear to be a viable alternative force in Kosovo with which to cooperate.

Aiding the KLA will drive up the costs of Milosevic's repression in Kosovo and give him greater incentives to negotiate a settlement acceptable to NATO. Close cooperation with the KLA also would improve NATO intelligence-gathering capabilities regarding potential Yugoslav military targets in Kosovo and improve the chances of rescuing downed NATO pilots.

Much of the KLA activity is supplied from base camps in northern Albania. If the United States turned its back on the KLA, Milosevic might read this as a green light to escalate his cross-border attacks.19 If this were to happen, the calls for a NATO ground intervention in Kosovo likely would increase, as would efforts by radical Islamic elements to gain influence among Albanian Muslims.

A focused U.S.-backed effort to assist the KLA eventually could cost up to $1 billion per year. This would include arms assistance and the operating costs for the NATO forces necessary to protect the training camps from cross-border Yugoslav attacks. But this expense would be far less than the cost of a NATO ground offensive designed to expel Yugoslavia's conventional and paramilitary forces from Kosovo.20

Reforming the KLA.
Another potential benefit of assisting the KLA is that it would give the United States an opportunity to reform the KLA and reduce its alleged dependence on Albanian criminal groups for arms and money. Washington could channel its aid to reform-minded local commanders who refrain from attacking innocent civilians. Working with the KLA would thus help reduce its insular nature and pave the way for cooperation between the KLA and any NATO-led peacekeeping force that might be dispatched to protect the Kosovars from future Yugoslav oppression.

If the United States and NATO turn a cold shoulder to the KLA, it is likely to become increasingly anti-Western, particularly if NATO peacekeeping troops attempt to disarm it. This could prompt tension between Albanian Kosovars and the NATO forces deployed to protect them. The end result could be an aborted peacekeeping mission in which NATO troops, perceived as hostile to Kosovo's independence, are targeted for attack by the KLA and forced to conduct a grueling counterinsurgency campaign against it.


Some opponents of providing the Kosovar resistance with military aid cite the tragic experience of Afghanistan, which has remained locked in a bloody civil war ever since Soviet troops withdrew in 1989. Much of the opposition is based on a misreading of the lessons of the U.S. aid program for the Afghan mujahideen (holy warriors). Afghanistan's continued instability stems not from the fact that the United States provided military aid to the mujahideen, but from the manner in which that aid was provided and the fact that the United States phased out its aid prematurely.

American aid to the Afghans was funneled through Pakistan, which controlled the flow of arms under an agreement with the Carter Administration in 1980. Pakistani President Zia al-Haq sought to keep the Afghan resistance divided into many rival groups to preclude them from unifying against Pakistan. Pakistan doled out the lion's share of U.S.-supplied arms to radical Islamic Afghan groups such as the Hezbi Islami (Party of Islam) because it believed they were easier to control than moderate nationalist groups.

The United States gradually phased out its aid to the Afghans after Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989. This left the United States with little leverage inside Afghanistan when the mujahideen finally overthrew the communist regime in Kabul in April 1992. Today, Pakistan is the chief patron of the ultra-radical Taliban ("Islamic student") movement that dominates roughly 90 percent of Afghanistan.

The mistake the United States made in Afghanistan was not arming the Afghans, for that paid off handsomely by helping to force a Soviet withdrawal. Rather, the mistake initially was letting Pakistan control where U.S. arms went, and then cutting off support for the Afghans (thereby minimizing U.S. influence) just when the mujahideen were poised for victory.21 This allowed Pakistan to tilt the internal Afghan balance of power toward anti-Western Islamic radicals at the expense of more moderate, nationalist Afghan resistance groups.

The Afghan experience suggests that if the United States turns its back on the KLA at this critical juncture, it will probably lose any hope of future leverage over the KLA. Moreover, such neglect could result in the KLA's becoming increasingly dependent and influenced by Iran and foreign Islamic radicals such as Osama bin Laden, the renegade Saudi financier of terrorism who reportedly already has established a foothold in Kosovo. This would increase the likelihood that the Albanian Kosovars would assume a radical anti-Western posture and possibly become a base for exporting terrorism.

Ignoring the KLA, or trying to disarm it as required by the Bonn agreement, is a prescription for disaster, even apart from the danger that radical Islamic elements might try to exploit the situation. If the United States fails to include the KLA in any peace settlement in Kosovo, the KLA could challenge and destabilize that peace. This could lead eventually to a Somalia-like debacle in which U.S. peacekeepers are attacked by the strongest faction of the beleaguered people they are seeking to assist.


The United States cannot afford to ignore the KLA's growing military potential. The KLA will not disappear anytime soon; its ranks are growing stronger. Clearly, this organization will be a force in determining Kosovo's future, regardless of whether the United States attempts to influence its maturation.

The ultimate goal for the United States should be a political settlement acceptable to most Kosovars. The best way to accomplish this is not to shun the KLA, but to engage it and encourage it to evolve from a revolutionary vanguard into a more broad-based, pluralist movement that eventually could form the basis of some form of self-government. To further this end, the United States should:

  • Encourage the KLA to work with other Kosovar political groups to create a united democratic leadership.
    Clearly, the KLA must be part of any political settlement. Building on the ties the United States established with KLA representatives during the Rambouillet peace talks, Washington should engage the KLA to nurture and create a more inclusive and democratic leadership that can act quickly to establish a peaceful civilian government once the conflict has ended.

  • Make U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military aid conditional on KLA behavior.
    U.S. aid should be conditioned on guarantees that the KLA (1) will not undertake terrorist attacks against civilians; (2) will not pursue the goal of a greater Albania, which would threaten the stability of Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro; and (3) will reject any funding from organized crime. Providing conditional assistance along these lines will give the United States and its NATO partners leverage over the KLA that can be used to encourage it to evolve into a more pragmatic, broad-based nationalist movement.

  • Provide the KLA with military assistance.
    The United States should provide the KLA with more advanced anti-tank weapons, mortars, heavy machine guns, ammunition, communications equipment, and medical supplies. This effort should include extensive training classes in small arms and infantry tactics, military law, communications, intelligence, logistics, and medical support. On short notice, U.S. special force instructors could plug into the KLA's fledgling military education system.

  • Deploy forces to protect KLA base camps in northern Albania.
    The United States should encourage its NATO allies to assist in this effort. These deployments will help deter Milosevic from further cross-border attacks.

  • Avoid repeating the mistakes made during the U.S. effort to assist the Afghan resistance.
    Washington should retain control over the flow of arms and supplies to the KLA, and not cede this control to Albania or any other party in the region. The United States also should work with former Albanian President Sali Berisha, who remains an influential force among the clans of northern Albania where several KLA base camps are located. The pro-Western Berisha could be helpful in identifying and grooming more pragmatic KLA leaders.

  • Work with its NATO partners to provide additional humanitarian and economic assistance to Albania and Macedonia.
    Both countries urgently require additional humanitarian assistance and economic support to offset the costs of the burgeoning Kosovar refugee crisis.


The recent Bonn agreement between Russia and the G-7 nations to end the war in Yugoslavia leaves many contentious questions unresolved. The call to disarm the KLA is unrealistic; worse, it would be a mistake. Serbian officials declared the KLA "dead" on several occasions in the past, only to see the ethnic Albanian resistance in Kosovo grow stronger.22 Western military analysts generally have overlooked the KLA's military potential, partly because of their natural bias against unconventional forces and partly because of legitimate concerns over the KLA's ideological roots and apparent ties to organized crime.

The KLA's military potential lies not only in its growing numbers, strategy, weaponry, or organization, but in its potent nationalism and determination to free Kosovo from Yugoslavian rule. Although President Milosevic has driven more than 700,000 ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo since Operation Allied Force began on March 24, 1999, nearly twice that number remains within the province. Today, the ethnic Albanian population both inside and outside of Kosovo is largely sympathetic to the KLA.

Far more than any NATO country, the KLA clearly has a vested interest in the outcome of this conflict and the motivation to fight Yugoslav forces on the ground. It would be naïve to expect that the growing ranks of KLA fighters will be content to remain in their northern Albanian base camps for long, regardless of whether there is a negotiated settlement between NATO and Yugoslavia, or whether the U.S. attempts to assist them militarily. The KLA is clearly prepared for a protracted struggle to oust Yugoslavian forces from Kosovo. This struggle will continue with or without American help.

The United States has a limited window of opportunity to shape the political and military direction of the KLA, an organization that, through either peaceful or violent means, will play a decisive role in determining Kosovo's future.

James H. Anderson, Ph.D., is a former Defense and National Security Analyst and James A. Phillips is Director of Administration in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

1. The KLA also is known as the UCK, for Ushtria Clirimtare E Kosoves.

2. For example, see Joshua Hammer and Rod Nordland, "Behind a Band of Rebels," Newsweek, April 26, 1999, p. 34.

3. Justin Brown, "Balkans Twist: `Greater Albania,'" Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 1998, p. 1.

4. Chris Hedges, "Kosovo's Next Masters?" Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999, p. 26.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., p. 34.

7. The KLA uses varied means to communicate with its forces, including cell phones and messengers.

8. On February 23, 1998, U.S. Special Envoy to the Balkans Robert Gelbard called the KLA a "terrorist group." A few days later, however, he backpedaled away from this assertion. The U.S. Department of State does not consider the KLA a terrorist organization.

9. See R. Jeffrey Smith and William Drozdiak, "Serbs' Offensive Was Meticulously Planned," The Washington Post, April 11, 1999, pp. A1, A26, A27.

10. Zoran Kusovac, "The KLA: Braced to Defend and Control," Jane's Intelligence Review, April 1999, at  

11. Ibid.

12. Hammer and Nordland, "Behind a Band of Rebels," op. cit.

13. Ibid.

14. Peter Finn, "Letter From Albania: Rebel Recruits, Pols, Generals Crowd O'Hare of the Balkans," The Washington Post, April 18, 1999, p. A25.

15. See Federation of American Scientists (FAS) Intelligence Resources Program, Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), at  

16. Kusovac, "The KLA: Braced to Defend and Control," op. cit.

17. David Ruppe, "Waging War from the Bronx,", April 30, 1999, at

18. For example, see Jerry Seper, "KLA Finances War with Heroin Sales," The Washington Times, May 3, 1999, p. A1.

19. See James Rupert, "Serbs Escalate Cross-Border Attacks Into Albania," The Washington Post, May 1, 1999, p. A12.

20. For cost estimates of various ground operations, see James H. Anderson, Ph.D., "Ground Troop Scenarios for Yugoslavia: What Would They Take?" Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1275, April 21, 1999.

21. See James Phillips, "Consolidating Victory in Afghanistan," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 754, February 20, 1990.   (Editors Note: Backgrounder No. 1275 is not available on-line for a copy, please call the publications office at 1-800-544-4843.)

22. For example, after security forces attacked the Jashari clan in March 1998, a police spokesman claimed, "We have struck at their heart and we have dealt terrorists a lethal blow." See "Only One Option: A War for National Liberation, UCK," RFE/RL Newsline, March 9, 1998.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation