New York's Kosovo Kingpin

Outspoken Ex­Westchester Congressman Heads U.S. Ethnic Albanian Lobby

Washington, D.C.—Though he hasn't been on the floor of the House of Representatives since he left in 1988, Joseph DioGuardi, Republican of Westchester and president of the Albanian American Civic League, is fully into an erudite rant that, were he still a congressman, would have C-SPAN junkies rapt with attention.

"Slobodan Milosevic is the most egregious human rights violator, and he's right in the middle of Europe! I put out a release in 1991 calling him the Saddam Hussein of Europe. He's the worst of all worlds!" The exclamation is the closest thing in DioGuardi's staccato tirade to a pause; the voice on the phone is earnest but not loud, and clearly (though just barely) reigned in. "He's a Stalinist Communist who controls media, and a Nazi like Adolf Hitler because he's an ultra-nationalist. He's inflicted a litany of horrors on the Albanian people, but nothing has been done, or it's been done wrong or too late."

DioGuardi then goes into a rapidly paced discourse that sticks it to the past two presidential administrations, slamming bipartisan foreign policy makers whose sum of total failures, he says, is Kosovo: "In 1990, when James Baker said we must keep Yugoslavia together at all costs, it was a green light for Milosevic to go into Slovenia. The next blunder was at Dayton, where [U.S. negotiator Richard] Holbrooke allowed Milosevic to keep Kosovo off the table. Every other republic of Yugoslavia got consideration, except for Kosovo," he seethes. "The next major blunder was [U.S. envoy Robert] Gelbard's statement, which was a green light for Milosevic to step up what he called a 'fight against terrorism.' Then we negotiate another false peace we know he's going to break. And now he's sent in a huge force to blitzkrieg Kosovo, and we give him the greatest gift— not only don't we roll out ground troops, we tellhim we're not going to."

Joseph DioGuardi: Arm the KLA.
AP/Wideworld
Joseph DioGuardi: Arm the KLA.

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Whatever one's politics, it's hard to poke holes in DioGuardi's thumbnail sketch of the past 10 years of U.S. Yugolslavia policy— especially now, as bombs rain down on the Balkans. What is not hard for some interested observers (including the Senate's Republican Policy Committee) to do is to cast a dubious eye on DioGuardi's proposed solution: have the U.S. arm the Kosovo Liberation Army.

While it might seem a bit odd for a conservative Republican with an Italian name to get so worked up about Kosovo, DioGuardi's ethnicity isn't as clear-cut as his surname would seem to indicate: though he was born in the Bronx in 1940, he's the descendant of Albanians who went first to Italy and later, America. As such, even though some in his party aren't enthusiastic about intervening in Kosovo, even before the end of the Cold War, DioGuardi was a forceful Kosovan advocate in Congress. After losing his seat to Nita Lowey in 1988, he decided to dedicate most of his time to lobbying on behalf of ethnic Albanians, and set up the Albanian American Civic League to that end.

Since then, he's been a quiet but influential presence on Capitol Hill, doing everything from convincing then senator Bob Dole and other legislators to visit Kosovo in 1990 to pushing for a memorable House International Relations Committee hearing in which now retired Democratic representative Lee Hamilton hammered Robert Gelbard, the Clinton administration's Balkan envoy, for publicly (and, in the estimation of many, wrongly) characterizing the KLA as "terrorists." Some under the dome, however, weren't so receptive to DioGuardi, but he says that in light of recent events, they seem more inclined to listen to him. He recalls that at the Senate hearing in 1991 at which he described Milosevic as the Saddam Hussein of Europe, "Joe Biden, who chaired the hearing, was kind of incredulous. But almost 10 years later, he's one of our biggest supporters."

When Congress reconvenes this week, three of DioGuardi's biggest allies, Mitch McConnell (Republican of Kentucky) and Joe Lieberman (Democrat of Connecticut) in the Senate and James Traficant (Democrat of Ohio) in the House, intend to introduce legislation calling for the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic as a war criminal, recognition of Kosovo as an independent country, and, perhaps most crucially, arming the KLA. As NATO's bombings have clearly failed either to protect the Kosovars or (at least, to date) to "degrade" Milosevic's ability to significantly depopulate a swath of land about the size of Connecticut, the proposed resolutions have the appeal of strong symbolic gestures with limited practical value that both citizens and legislators can support. Besides, says DioGuardi, it's only fair. "We finally did arm the Croats— why not do that now?" he asks plaintively. "We need to arm the KLA because they're the ones on the ground, they know where [the Serbs] are hiding tanks and SAMs. They need the heavy artillery to take those targets out, and we should let them do that dirty work."

However, though some observers of this latest Balkan crisis are not unsympathetic to DioGuardi's argument, they're skeptical— in part because they're not sure the KLA survived the recent Serb onslaught. DioGuardi asserts that reports of the KLA's demise are "Serb propaganda." While defense and intelligence sources report that the KLA's ranks have mushroomed with raw refugee recruits thanks to the Serb offensive, problems with supporting the KLA remain, of most immediate practical concern the KLA's military competence.

According to a veteran U.S. intelligence officer with experience in revolutionary operations, despite the leadership of some ex­ Yugoslav army generals, the KLA still has to prove itself as a truly effective guerrilla fighting force. Unlike the Afghan muhjahedeen, he says, who engaged an invading army, the KLA has done little more than attack police units, and its track record in seizing territory isn't inspiring. As Zoran Kusovac notes in the current issue of Jane's Intelligence Review, when the KLA tried to seize the town of Orahovac last summer, it "display[ed] a tactical incompetence and a lack of proper command and fighting discipline." Indeed, says Kusovac, the Serb forces' main allies last summer were "incompetent [and] often competing KLA commanders" who failed to utilize simple flanking maneuvers or exploit the element of surprise. To the KLA's credit, it has improved its officer training and its command and communication structure, and "there are signs that the necessary tactical knowledge is filtering through" to volunteers. But the fact remains, writes Kusovac, that "the KLA has not yet learned to fully exploit its mobility and is completely untrained and unskilled in the tactical use of weapons."

DioGuardi, however, brushes off concerns about training, saying matériel is the real issue. In the ongoing propaganda war between Serbs and Kosovars, this is exactly the kind of statement that lends itself to twisted interpretation. Despite DioGuardi's insistence that the KLA is acting without outside Islamist support for fear of alienating the West, a staple of Serb propaganda is that the KLA is a tool of Muslim terrorist fanatics hell-bent on establishing an Islamist foothold in central Europe, with Iranians and other Muslim mercenaries backing it with arms, troops, and training.

There have been plausible reports that some non-Albanian Muslims are fighting with the KLA. If they are, however, they don't seem to be seasoned military instructors nor do they seem to be bringing necessary weaponry with them; Kusovac reports that the KLA is severely hampered by an absence of heavy artillery. ("One would think they'd have done better if they were getting all this help," says one Pentagon official.)

And not only has the open-source intelligence group Stratfor persuasively reported that the Iranians are split over what to do about Kosovo, but as an unnamed diplomat told The New York Times, the KLA's ideologies apparently are as conflicted as its command structure. "We really don't know what they are," the diplomat said. "There is an Islamic component, a left-wing component, and there are those who are just guerrillas."

While reports have appeared in the Timesof London and elsewhere linking members of the Albanian Mafia to the KLA, as Stacy Sullivan demonstrated in her examination of the group in the November 22, 1998, New York Times Magazine, a substantial amount of the KLA's money comes from the worldwide Albananian diaspora. (In one unforgettable scene, she witnessed Albanians from Alaska arriving in the remote village of Bajram Curri "with a briefcase of cash they raised among Alaska's 300-strong Albanian community.") Indeed, New York is a KLA cash cow. "The KLA keeps getting more money," says DioGuardi, noting that contributions from New York's Albanian community have run into the millions. "Albanians work hard, work together, and are good at raising capital," he adds, noting that recently $385,000 was collected in in one night in Dallas.

While it's too early to say just how the proposal to arm the KLA will fare in Congress, the administration seems at best lukewarm to the idea. As Tomas Valasek of the Center for Defense Information observes, arming the KLA to fight for independence could lay the groundwork for another Balkan conflict as it might inspire Albanians in Macedonia and Montenegro to take up the standard of a new "Greater Albania."

"It would be opening a Pandora's box, not just for the region, but for the world," says Valasek. "It would set a terrible example— if you're an ethnic group, all you need to do is take up arms, start a rebellion, get the U.S. and world opinion on your side, and you're free, even though you may take heavy casualties."

Research: Ginger Adams Otis

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