Reply to John Pilger on Kosova
By Michael Karadjis
John Pilger’s “How Silent Are The 'humanitarian' Invaders Of Kosovo?” (New Staesman, December 9, 2004) forces me to reluctantly respond to someone I have great admiration for. John Pilger has been a great asset to the international left and that he has often done important work in exposing imperialism's machinations throughout the world. What he writes here is has the outward appearance of arising from that same point of view. However, in reality what we are seeing is Pilger joining a long line of former left luminaries who have abandoned all pretence about class analysis, who instrumentalise class-free "anti-imperialism" and who thereby throw out the very essence of what being "on the left" is supposed to be about - the struggle for human emancipation. Shilling for tyrants, oppressors and genocidaires is the opposite of the politics of liberation. While Pilger has had these tendencies for a while now, in the past he, like Chomsky, has been better than the outright apologists for Milosevic and Serbian fascism, such as Ed Herman, Diana Johnstone and Michael Parenti. But this article, full of fake lines about "fake" massacres of Kosovar Albanians, represents a new level of degeneration.
First let's clarify what the discussion is about. The discussion is about whether we should gloss over massive crimes committed by some local despot when that despot happens to come into some conjunctural conflict with US imperialism. When we put our energies into opposing an imperialist war, do we advance our case by pretending that the local despot was not really as bad as many people think, that the regime is simply misunderstood etc? If we choose that road, we come across a number of problems. First, no-one will believe us, and they will be quite right. So there will be no anti-war movement, as for example there was no significant movement against the NATO attack on Serbia, because anti-war groups allowed Chetniks, Serbian royalists and Serbian Orthodox fanatics to lead the campaigns, and a number of leftists even bent to their views. Naturally they could not mobilise anyone on the basis of being apologists for the actions of the Serbian regime which was driving 850,000 Albanians from their country. People rightly believed this was an enormous crime. The left needs to know how to oppose imperialist war for good traditional anti-imperialist reasons and respond to other real concerns that normal people rightly have. Second, by using such arguments, we in fact take the focus off the nature of imperialism. We weaken our ability to expose the nature of imperialism. In fact, we end up in reverse liberalism. For example, if the reason to oppose NATO's war was that Milosevic wasn't really doing all those things he was accused of, that he wasn't driving the Kosovar population from their country, that it was all an invention of the media, that he wasn't killing large numbers of people, that the lightly armed village-based guerillas of the KLA were just as responsible as the massively armed Serbian conventional forces, then the reverse logic also becomes true: in that case, what if it turns out that these crimes really are being committed, if not in that case then in another case, does this mean we should support imperialist war?
Third, as socialists, our solidarity must always be with the oppressed and terrorised. That is the nature of our being. We can oppose NATO's bombing precisely out of solidarity with Serb civilians being terrorised by NATO bombs. If at the same time, we become apologists for the enormous terror, on a similarly disproportionate scale, being carried out against the Albanians by Milosevic, directly as a further result of the NATO attack by the way, then we expose ourselves as hypocrites. Moreover, we cut ourselves off from the struggling people themselves. It would be somewhat difficult to have a discussion with an Albanian arguing against support for NATO if you were trying to tell that Albanian that they should submit to the brutal oppressor they had been fighting to be rid of since 1913, or that they should not resist when a good "anti-imperialist" like Milosevic was trying to drive the whole population out. Our program is international - we need to advocate what is in the interests of all the oppressed of the world - Albanians included. If virtually all Albanians hate the western left, it is very well deserved, but does not advance the socialist cause, only that of imperialism trying to divide and rule.
Pilger has never been an apologist for brutal regimes just because they don't have rosy relations with imperialism. For example, he produced an excellent documentary on the brutal SLORC military dictatorship in Burma. This is a regime that the US has had sanctions on since 1990, that Bush recently spoke of as a member of an expanded 'axis of evil', and whose opposition leader is wildly feted by western leaders. If the US ever felt the need for a "humanitarian liberation" war in southeast Asia, the Burmese junta would be the target of convenience. We should strongly oppose such a war, but that would not make anything Pilger said about it incorrect. Similarly, Pilger launched into docos with some superb work on the monstrous Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, where he rightly gave support to the Vietnamese intervention to rid the country of the KR, and exposed western hypocrisy in punishing Vietnam. However, before Vietnam intervened, many prominent voices in the US government were calling for a US "liberation" of Cambodia from the KR "genocide". If that had happened we would have opposed it, yet it wouldn't alter the fact that the term "genocide" used widely by Pilger was correct. Most of the left in the 1980s was strongly opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein for its invasion of Iran, growing alliance with the west, its slaughter of the Iraqi Communists, its chemical genocide against the Kurds etc. To the point that, when Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the initial reaction of some left journals was that US imperialism will probably let him get away with it! Since them Hussein has been enemy Number One. Yet that does not alter the validity any of the condemnation the left made of his regime. And in opposing the invasion of Iraq, very few on the left chose the rationale that Saddam was actually just a misunderstood guy who was not all that bad after all, that the anti-Kurdish genocide was all fiction, that he didn't kill many people etc. We would have been laughed off the stage. Pilger in fact stresses the use by the current US-backed puppet regime of elements of Hussein’s repressive forces. That is a good thing to emphasise. Of course we can say the same for the Taliban, when we opposed imperialist invasion, we did not pretend that the barbaric oppression of women did not exist, that the Hazara were not brutally oppressed, that the Taliban did not really blow up ancient Buddha statues etc. Or the Argentine junta in 1982, which had slaughtered thousands of leftists, but which was then condemned by Thatcher as a "Nazi" regime which the UK had to fight against for "freedom" etc, and many more cases.
What does this have to do with Pilger's article? Unlike some on the left, Pilger is not a lover of the Milosevic regime. In the article sent, he asserts rightly that Milosevic was a "thug" and that he was the original choice of western leaders because he was a pro-capitalist politician bringing in "market" reforms in the late 1980s. Absolutely correct. Elsewhere, Pilger wrote during the Bosnian war that the west should end its criminal arms embargo on Bosnia's government which was confronted, he said rightly, by "fascism on two fronts", ie the allied Serbian-Croatian genocidal offensive to partition the country. Excellent.
However, in making his case against NATO, Pilger in fact makes a number of statements which tend to underestimate the level of this "thuggery", and others which tend to suggest he was not so pro-capitalist after all and maybe that's why the west had a problem. I believe that both are incorrect, but also, that they do not add to a coherent argument against imperialist war for the reasons given above.
Pilger begins: “Just as Iraq is being torn apart by the forces of empire, so was Yugoslavia, the multi-ethnic state that uniquely rejected both sides in the cold war.” However, multi-ethnic Yugoslavia was torn apart in 1988-91 by the Milosevic regime raising the banner of chauvinism of the dominant Serb nation in Yugoslavia, a virulently anti-Titoist thing to do, and something that was assured to rip any multi-ethnic federation apart. This was the era when the west had chosen Milosevic, as Pilger rightly points out. Despite persistent myths, the west in fact strongly opposed the attempts by other republics to escape from the increasingly Serb-dominated prison, and I can back this statement with a rich documentary record. On the other hand, if Pilger is referring to NATO's terror in 1999, then this is a decade after Yugoslavia was ripped apart. There was nothing "multi-national" about the rump "New Yugoslavia" by then - it was a chauvinist Serb state with an oppressed Albanian colony in Kosova which had never wanted to be there at any time since 1913.
Pilger: “Lies as great as those of Bush and Blair were deployed by Clinton and Blair in their grooming of public opinion for an illegal, unprovoked attack on a European country. Like the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the media coverage in the spring of 1999 was a series of fraudulent justifications, beginning with US Defence Secretary William Cohen's claim that "we've now seen about 100,000 military-aged [Albanian] men missing... they may have been murdered." David Scheffer, the US ambassador at large for war crimes, announced that as many as "225,000 ethnic Albanian men aged between 14 and 59" may have been killed. Such claims are obvious nonsense, and it is fine for Pilger to expose such grotesque exaggerations. However, they were few and far between. Even the Cohen quote, while obviously a piece of meaningless propaganda (how do you know who are "missing" in conditions of such terrible war?), was immediately followed, in Cohen's very next sentence, with the estimate of about 4,600 killed - so I'm not sure what value there is in playing up the 100,000 quote. Scheffer's quote is perhaps more useful. But overwhelmingly, imperialist leaders claimed around 10,000 dead, a very realistic figure.
The reason the wilder exaggerations which Pilger dishonestly highlights were rare was that this propaganda was not at all aimed at winning public opinion to support an oncoming war, but was propaganda regarding the war after NATO had attacked. NATO leaders, and many others, had widely claimed about 2000 dead in the whole year before the NATO attack. If within a few weeks after the NATO attack, Milosevic had been facilitated in killing 100s of 1000s of people, this is hardly good propaganda for NATO's great work - this would have been an unmitigated disaster that NATO would never have recovered from. That is why I believe NATO did not have an interest in exaggerations that were too ridiculous.
Regarding the actual number of deaths during the war, Pilger writes the following:
“Several weeks later, having not found a single mass grave, the FBI went home. The Spanish forensic team also returned home, its leader complaining angrily that he and his colleagues had become part of "a semantic pirouette by the war propaganda machines, because we did not find one - not one - mass grave." In November 1999, the Wall Street Journal published the results of its own investigation, dismissing "the mass grave obsession". Instead of "the huge killing fields some investigators were led to expect ... the pattern is of scattered killings [mostly] in areas where the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army had been active." The Journal concluded "The war in Kosovo was "cruel, bitter, savage; genocide it wasn't." One year later, the International War Crimes Tribunal announced that the final count of bodies found in Kosovo's "mass graves" was 2,788. This included combatants on both sides and Serbs and Roma murdered by the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army.”
How sad to see Pilger indulge in such crude propaganda. Yes, the Spanish team went home after finding "only" 187 bodies, but they were only one of twenty teams. Some 2000 bodies had been found by the time work had to stop for winter, and the following year a similar number were found. Pilger claims their final count was 2,788 - if this were true it would certainly be higher than the usual count given for the number of Timorese slaughtered by Indonesian troops in mid-1999, and if this were the number of dead in 11 weeks, it is only a little less than the number of Palestinians killed in the last three years. So assuming that Albanians should have the same level of human rights as we demand for Timorese and Palestinians, this would already be a terrible figure. But my own look into the IWCT records suggest around 4000 bodies uncovered, not as a total figure, but in, specifically, 529 grave sites called “mass” graves (I suspect Pilger accidentally put '2' rather than '3' in his "total" 2,788 figure). Whether these were "mass graves" or not I think depends on the definition of how many bodies make up a "mass grave". However, this figure did not include individual graves or for that matter those who remained unburied until their relatives returned from exile and buried them. Moreover, another 836 bodies of Albanian men, women and children were later found in graves in Serbia itself, where they had been taken during the war, and this number before the search was called off by the embarrassed Serbian government. Looking more like 5000 bodies now. Then there are 3000 Albanians still missing. Looking like 8000. Add those not in any of these particular sites - perhaps up to 10,000 is not unreasonable.
Is this genocide? No. But no-one says it was, though it is a vast massacre that ought not be whitewashed by the likes of Pilger. However, was the expulsion of 850,000 Albanians - nearly half their entire population - from their country not a form of genocide? Depends on the definition. It is more or less equivalent to the expulsion of about 750,000 Palestinians in 1948. The attempt to wipe a people off the map is genocide, it doesn't have to mean killing them all, that's a different level of genocide. It is surprising that few seem to want to deal with this reality. Chomsky very correctly makes this comparison of 1999 and 1948 in his 'New Military Humanism', a book devoted to condemning NATO's war while avoiding underestimating the terror against Albanians: "By the time of the peace accord of June 3, the UNHCR reported 671,500 refugees beyond the borders of the FRY, in addition to 70,000 in Montenegro and 75,000 who went to other countries. To these we may add the unknown number displaced within Kosovo, perhaps some 2-300,000 in the year before the bombing, far more afterwards. The numbers reported from Kosovo are, unfortunately, all too familiar ... the UNHCR totals at the war’s end are about the same as the number of Palestinians who fled or were expelled in 1948 … in that case, refugees numbered about 750,000, 85% of the population, with over 40 villages levelled, and ample violence. The comparison was not overlooked in the Israeli press, which described Kosovo as Palestine 1948 with TV cameras (Gideon Levi). Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon warned that if “NATO’s aggression” is “legitimised” the next step might be a call for autonomy and links to the Palestinian Authority for Galilee.” Well done Chomsky.
As for the assertion that the bodies were not all Albanians but included "combatants on both sides and Serbs and Roma murdered by the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army," I think we need a sense of dimensions. Of the 37,000 killed in south-east Turkey in the war between the massively armed Turkish conventional forces and the PKK, there would no doubt be many Turkish troops killed. There would also be Turkish civilians killed, as the PKK was no more scrupulous than the KLA, many Palestinian factions, the IRA and most liberation movements the world over, in only attacking military targets. No doubt dead bodies in Timor would include a few Indonesian troops. However, it is unusual for leftists to put this kind of equals sign between the enormous massively armed conventional forces of a state like Serbia, which had 400 tanks, thousands of artillery pieces, fighter aircraft and other advanced weaponry, and the lightly armed guerrillas, armed with Kalshnikovs looted from Albanian armouries during the 1997 uprising.
There should be no guesses about who the overwhelming majority of bodies would be. Of course, some could be Serbian troops killed by NATO bombs, who targeted them in the last two weeks of the 11-week war (nearly all the total of 13 Serbian tanks hit by NATO were in the last 2 weeks - NATO's terror concentrated on Serb civilians far from the battle inside Serbia proper). The Serbian government claims some 576 troops were killed, however, I am not aware of any claims of missing. The very orderly retreat of the Serbian army in June 1999, when NATO counted out 476 tanks and 40,000 troops, more than at the beginning of the war, would suggest they would have taken their dead, or at least not buried them in the same collective grave sites as Albanians. And finally, Serbs and Roma killed by the "KLA" was mainly, though not entirely, something that occurred after the Serbian troop withdrawal, whether by the "KLA" or by vengeful returning relatives of the slaughtered or criminals etc - appalling to be sure, but again unlikely to be in the same collective grave sites with Albanians - it was usually individuals hit by a molotov or an odd bullet, there were no "KLA" marches on Serb towns to evict the population and carry out collective slaughters etc.
For a full refutation of this persistent underestimation of the terror against the Kosovars during 1999, see my refutation of an Ed Herman article at: http://mihalisk.blogspot.com/2004/12/reply-to-ed-herman-on-body-counts-in.html
Pilger: “Nato's clients were the Kosovo Liberation Army. Seven years earlier, the KLA had been designated by the State Department as a terrorist organisation in league with Al Qaida. (later) KLA thugs were feted; Foreign Secretary Robin Cook allowed them to call him on his mobile phone.” So NATO called them terrorists, therefore they were? Later they came into contact with them, in late 1998, after they had grown into a mass liberation army of tens of thousands of troops that could no longer be ignored. What was the aim of this contact? To moderate them. To get them to drop their demand for independence, which NATO opposed and still opposes. So that NATO could get into the province and disarm them, with their consent. Chris Hedges, writing in the April 1999 issue of the US foreign policy elite’s ‘Foreign Affairs’ clearly proclaimed this as the aim of US intervention, and there is a further rich documentary record of this.
Pilger: "The Kosovo-Albanians played us like a Stradivarius," wrote the UN Balkans commander, Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, last April. "We have subsidised and indirectly supported their violent campaign for an ethnically pure Kosovo. We have never blamed them for being the perpetrators of the violence in the early 1990s." Why quote a leader of the Canadian imperialist occupation of Bosnia MacKenzie? Especially seeing as he later spent his time touring the US and Canada giving speeches to support the Bosnian Serb Chetnik forces, paid at $10,000 an appearance by the far-right Serb-American group “Serbnet,” (Clayton, M, “UN Peacekeeper Under Fire,” Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 1993). Why quote him saying they were the perpetrators of the violence? Israel says that about the PLO, Turkey says that about the PKK, the US says that about the Iraqi resistance - if the people of Puerto Rico rose up against US rule, the US would say that about them. What about the long-term systematic violence of the oppressor which forces the oppressed to rise up, especially when it was exacerbated by the "thug" Milosevic?
Actually, talking of the KLA, John Pilger signed the petition launched by the DSP in 1999 which opposed “both the US-led NATO war against Serbia/Yugoslavia and the Serbian authorities' genocidal campaign of terror against the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosova” and supported “the right of the Kosovar people to self-determination, which includes their right to independence from Serbia” and therefore demanded “an immediate halt to the NATO military campaign against Serbia, the immediate withdrawal of all Serbian military forces from Kosova and removal of all restrictions imposed on the ability of the Kosova Albanians to defend themselves (including the UN-NATO arms embargo)” http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/1999/359/359p2.htm . The last demand of course gives no political support at all to the KLA or its leadership, let alone its policy of supporting NATO, but it does explicitly say they have a right to arms to defend their own people in the face of Serbia’s “genocidal campaign.” This should actually be straight-forward.
Next, Pilger quotes Neil Clarke, a persistent apologist for the Milosevic regime, who aims to show that Milosevic's Serbia was some socialist hold-out in the Balkans, which contradicts Pilger's own correct statement that he was initially "the west's man who was prepared to implement "economic reforms" in keeping with IMF, World Bank and European Community demands." He quotes Clarke thus: “As the Balkans writer Neil Clark has pointed out, "the rump of Yugoslavia... was the last economy in central-southern Europe to be uncolonised by western capital. 'Socially owned enterprises', the form of worker self-management pioneered under Tito, still predominated. Yugoslavia had publicly owned petroleum, mining, car and tobacco industries, and 75 per cent of industry was state or socially owned." “In the bombing campaign that followed, it was state owned companies, rather than military sites, that were targeted. Nato's destruction of only 14 Yugoslav army tanks compares with its bombing of 372 centres of industry, including the Zastava car factory, leaving hundreds of thousands jobless. "Not one foreign or privately owned factory was bombed.” This description of Serbia's economy by Clarke is entirely fictional, it was carried in a single-A4 grubby piece of “analysis” by Clarke in the Guardian some months ago. For a full, well-referenced refutation of Clarke's piece, see: http://mihalisk.blogspot.com/2004/12/occupation-regime-in-kosova-begins.html
Pilger: “Kosovo today is a violent, criminalised UN-administered "free market" in drugs and prostitution. More than 200,000 Serbs, Roma, Bosniacs, Turks, Croats and Jews have been ethnically cleansed by the KLA with Nato forces standing by. KLA hit squads have burned, looted or demolished 85 Orthodox churches and monasteries, according to the UN.” I hope Pilger is aware that the Serbian armed forces destroyed 200 mosques in 1999, which of course does not alter the similarly appalling later destruction of churches. Though the violence Pilger describes is true enough, the "KLA" ceased to exist nearly five years ago, and former KLA leaders went out into the streets to calm the crowds in March 2004 and often got them to disperse, this is all well-documented. In some cases, the Serbian orthodox church thanked former KLA leaders, I have it all on record. This violence will certainly not be resolved as long as Kosova remains a western colony with absolutely no self-determination and thus no economy. Whether NATO forces "stand by" is another question; the 19 people who were killed in March 2004 were 8 Serbs killed by Albanian mobs, and 11 Albanian mobsters shot dead by NATO. Moreover, NATO has also carved out a Serb mini-state in northern Kosova, a kind of Serb Ulster, for them the easiest way to protect the minority, far easier than in more mixed areas. It is true that a foreign occupation force are not very effective in a country where they have no roots, no interest, don't speak the language etc, though they shoot a few Albanians here and there, and arrest large numbers, including sending them to the Hague. NATO demands that all Serbs be able to return and live in security and have freedom of movement and a host of other rights, including equal representation in the Kosovar Protection Force etc, before it will even discuss the issue of Kosova's final status.
This is all another discussion, but it is time to get away from these alleged numbers of Serb refugees. Funny how the number of Albanians expelled or killed is systematically downgraded, while the above number of Serbs expelled, as claimed by Belgrade, is always accepted. The problem with the idea of 200,000 Serbs expelled is that this is the total number of Serbs who lived in Kosova pre-war. Of course Pilger adds that this figure includes Roma, Turks, Croats, Bosniaks, Jews etc - it is true that such minorities were also attacked and many expelled (the entire Croat population was expelled), but then we would need to ask, if this is all the doing of the "KLA", or if this all fits with NATO's secret intentions, then why would the "KLA" want to alienate the governments of Croatia, Bosnia, Turkey etc, and for that matter, why would NATO? This actually tells us something more about the criminal nature of violent attacks in this country where the international occupation does not allow an independent state – the number of murders of Albanians by Albanian criminals is also a very high figure. However, Serbian sources and those of their apologists regularly claim the number of *Serb* refugees alone is over 200,000 or even as high as 250,000. Time to get over it. According to the Yugoslav government's own census, there were about 200,000 Serbs in Kosova in 1991, their population had been steadily declining, and no-one suggests their numbers rose in the 1990s. However, the Serbian government's own Kosovo Coordination Center published a detailed report in January 2003 which gives a figure of 129,474 Serbs in Kosova in 2002 (Kosovo Coordination Centre (Government of Serbia), Prinzipi organizovanja samouprave nacionalnih zajednica na Kosovo i Metohiji, Belgrade, January 2003). This figure also fits very closely to the results of a study done by the EU based on Serb primary school attendance in Kosova. Thus the number of Kosova Serb refugees is about 70,000. I don't think that should mean we say it is not important. They should all have the right to return and live in security (though of course this figure includes a certain number of hated cops and others who committed crimes who are unlikely to show their faces). But let's stop saying there are more Kosovar Serb refugees than their entire original numbers.
In conclusion, I would like to stress again my strong admiration for John Pilger's work in the past. I would also like to quote from another left luminary, the late great Edward Said, who, perhaps because he was Palestinian, had a strong sense of justice and solidarity with the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians sadly lacking among certain leftists, such as Herman and Parenti. If you want to argue with me, argue with Said. This is how he approached the onset of NATO bombing in 1999 - note how he describes the Milosevic regime in the same breath as condemning NATO. For him there was no contradiction: "ONCE again, and led by the United States as usual, a war is being conducted - this time in Europe - against an unprincipled and racist dictator who will almost certainly survive the onslaught even though thousands of innocents will pay the actual price. The pretext this time is of course the persecution, ethnic cleansing and continued oppression of Albanians in the province of Kosovo by the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic. "No one at all doubts that horrible things have been done to the Albanians under Serbian domination, but the question is whether US/NATO policy will alleviate things or whether they will in fact be made worse by a bombing campaign whose supposed goal is to make Milosevic give up his policies." Full: Protecting the Kosovars, by Edward Said http://www.soc.qc.edu/ssc/said.html