If you have been a dutiful reader of the newspapers then you will know that (1) no one won the war in Yugoslavia, (2) actually, the Serbs did, (3) no, NATO did by sticking together, and (4) Bill Clinton did because he said bombing would do the trick and it did. In fact, all of these propositions are more or less true, but if you want to know who the real winner is, it's the Kosovo Liberation Army. It won the war and, in the bargain, Kosovo itself.

Say what you will about the KLA, it has been the one player in the current Balkan drama that has known from the start precisely what it wanted and how to get it. Back in May 1998, I spoke in Istanbul to a KLA leader. His business card said he was the prime minister of the Republic of Kosovo and he was a physician named Bujar Bukoshi. At the time, Kosovo was under the Serbian boot and hardly anyone's idea of a republic. All that would change, Bukoshi said. He has been true to his word.

The KLA had a simple, but effective, plan. It would kill Serb policemen. The Serbs would retaliate, Balkan style, with widespread reprisals and the occasional massacre. The West would get more and more appalled, until finally it would -- as it did in Bosnia -- take action. In effect, the United States and much of Europe would go to war on the side of the KLA.

It worked.

Now that same KLA is supposed to be demilitarized -- stripped of its weapons -- as the province it fought for is administered by NATO and its juvenile sidekick, the Russians. But NATO lost not a soldier fighting the Serbs. It fought a war against a single man, Slobodan Milosevic, apologizing all the while to the Serb people for the bridges, power plants and other quasi-military targets it was urban renewing. The average Serb -- as opposed to, say, the average German of World War II -- was not our enemy.

The KLA thinks differently. In the first place, it lost men -- plenty of them. It effectively comprised NATO's ground troops. Its fighters were volunteers -- Kosovars and expatriates from all over the world who were animated enough by the hope of independence to risk their very lives. They hate Serbs. They have always hated Serbs. If possible, now they hate them even more.

Consider for a moment Palestine before 1948 and the creation of the state of Israel. That part of the world and that era are often mentioned nowadays because, once again, a war has produced a large Muslim refugee population. But rather than focus on the creation of the Palestinian diaspora, it might be more instructive to talk about the Irgun and the Stern Gang, terrorist Jewish organizations that fought not only the Arabs but also the British who then ruled what became Israel. Jewish terrorists wanted to make it impossible for the Brits to stay. Once they left, the Arabs would be taken care of.

NATO might be in the same position as the British were in Palestine. It will never fully disarm the KLA. The Albanian border, rough and porous, is not all that far away. Handguns and rifles are easy to smuggle, easier still to hide. Even if some KLA leaders agree to be reasonable and patient, there is bound to be a core of dissidents who, through terror, will articulate their dissent. In short order, Kosovo may be for NATO what Palestine once was for Britain -- a place it could not wait to leave.

The nightmare for Europe -- especially for Russia -- is that of breakaway provinces. That's why everyone insists that Kosovo remain within Yugoslavia. To say otherwise produces a diplomatic dilemma, even a crisis. But who's kidding whom? The KLA did not come this far to settle for anything other than independence. Maybe NATO thinks all will be well if and when Milosevic becomes a pensioner or -- such a sweet thought -- an inmate in a prison for war criminals. But the KLA has a different agenda. It wants independence.

If the past is indeed prologue, Kosovo will become independent -- maybe united with Albania, maybe not. The KLA is the one element in the Balkan mix that has had a clear fix on its goal and no reluctance to spill blood to achieve what it wants. If NATO were half as realistic, it would plan how to achieve an independent Kosovo while avoiding yet another Balkan war. Otherwise, it will be -- with apologies to James Baldwin -- the fire next time.