The dangers of peace in Kosovo may yet equal those of war in that Balkan enclave. The war was waged to defeat a monster. The peace could result in creating one that proudly wears a Made-in-the-USA label.

Derided a year ago as a collection of gangsters on the road to extinction, the Kosovo Liberation Army today seems on the road to political supremacy there. Kosovo's guerrillas turn out to be better politicians than Kosovo's politicians when it comes to winning over the Clinton administration.

If they win in elections next spring, the guerrillas will owe their success first to Slobodan Milosevic, whose butchery made the Kosovar resistance seem heroic to the rest of the world. The first statue to be erected by a KLA government in Pristina should be to Slobo.

The second KLA statue no doubt would be to Bill Clinton. And soon after might be one to James P. Rubin, Madeleine Albright's spokesman and confidant at the State Department, who has played a surprising operational role in elevating the international profile of the KLA's young leadership.

The KLA skillfully used contacts with Rubin to appropriate the image of official U.S. support during NATO's war on Serbia. The guerrillas continue to play the American card in the postwar struggle for control of Kosovo's future -- adding an implied U.S. endorsement to their local monopolies on weapons and on the romance of resistance.

These developments are causing concern for European governments that are more comfortable with the traditional leadership of Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo. Italy and France are Rugova's strongest supporters, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly has an open mind about Rugova's chances in internationally supervised elections.

But Rugova's attempts to negotiate with Milosevic before and during the war make him vulnerable at home to accusations of collaboration. And his still unexplained absence from Pristina while Albright was there at the end of July to meet with KLA self-proclaimed prime minister Hashim Thaqi and other important Kosovar politicians has entrenched questions in Kosovo about his relations with Washington.

Details of the KLA's rapid political rise to respectability in the eyes of official Washington are still emerging. By Rubin's account, Thaqi settled on him as an interlocutor during the failed peace negotiations at Rambouillet, France, last winter.

"Thaqi was the spokesman of the Kosovar delegation, and Secretary Albright was advised that he was the person she needed to work on to get agreement there. We spent a lot of time with him, and I became the person he talked to when he was not talking to her," Rubin told me. "He had probably seen me on television."

The relative youth of the two men -- Rubin is 39, Thaqi 29 -- also may have helped bring them together. "The secretary noticed that we communicated with each other and asked me to stay in touch with him," Rubin continued. Eventually a lengthy lunch in Paris helped him win Thaqi's signature on the autonomy agreement that Milosevic then rejected, triggering NATO's air war.

"Thaqi started calling from inside Kosovo to tell me what was going on in the war," Rubin said. The dialogue was probably militarily useful for NATO. When the war ended, it was Rubin who interceded with Thaqi to get the KLA to accept a demilitarization accord with NATO forces.

"Personal relationships helped throughout this. People here felt I was capable of moving Thaqi. And I was able to arrange for congratulatory calls from President Clinton and Secretary Albright to him when he signed the demilitarization agreement, something he appreciated very much."

Rubin is quick to deny that he made any undisclosed side deals with the KLA or that Albright favors any Kosovar faction, as European critics assert. But he acknowledges the "perception problem" his closeness with Thaqi has created.

In choosing Rubin as his interlocutor, Thaqi knew he was choosing one of the three or four people at State whom Albright trusts and confides in. Rubin also may benefit from this high-profile involvement in diplomatic operations. This is a time when many political appointees are thinking about professional life after service in the Clinton administration.

Despite the progress it has made in turning in arms and accepting at least outwardly a commitment to democratic rules, the KLA remains a shadowy organization with a dark side that runs to criminality and terrorism.

Washington and its NATO allies should avoid choosing sides and becoming too deeply involved in the fate of any one faction -- especially one as untested and unknown as the KLA.