In Kosovo, U.S. Army paratroopers are receiving and returning fire. Our guys are shooting made-in-the-USA M-16 rifles, and their opponents, Albanian extremists, are using ex-Soviet Union AK-47 assault rifles.

So what’s new? M-16s and AK-47s have been blasting each other for decades, and anyone familiar with Albanians and Serbians and the bloody history of ex-Yugoslavia would say, “What do you expect? Those crazies have been going at it with hot lead longer than the Hatfields and McCoys.”

What’s new is that the AK-47s, the ammo and the wherewithal to field the Albanian army of insurgent thugs currently going up against our and other NATO troops were provided not by Russia or Red China or North Korea, but by the USA. Yes, American taxpayers paid for the bullets being used to shoot American soldiers!

For months our CIA has secretly trained, funded and supplied former Kosovo Liberation Army rebels conducting a guerrilla campaign into southern Serbia to undermine former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic — exactly the same kind of operation our spooks supported before and during the war against Serbia over Kosovo.

European commanders in Kosovo are not only charging the CIA with playing footsie with the Albanian rebels. They’re also claiming American commanders in Kosovo have deliberately looked the other way and allowed a steady flow of KLA rebels and CIA-provided arms and war-fighting material to slip across Kosovo’s border.

Last Sunday, Britain’s Observer newspaper reported a European commander in Kosovo as saying: “The CIA has been allowed to run riot in Kosovo with a private army designed to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic. Now he’s gone (and) the U.S. State Department seems incapable of reining in its bastard army.”

The angry NATO commander added: “Most of last year, there was a growing frustration with U.S. support for the radical Albanians. U.S. policy was and still is out of step with the other NATO allies.”

Now — with CIA help — the Kosovo Liberation Army rebels are attacking on two fronts: Southern Serbia and along the Macedonian border, where our paratroopers tangled with them last week.

The attacks into Serbia could bring the Belgrade army back with a vengeance and restart the war in Kosovo. The Macedonian border fighting also could explode into an ethnic civil war inside of that country, which could be even more destructive than the 1999 Kosovo shootout. And meanwhile — right in the middle of the killing field — American soldiers are caught in a cross fire of our own making.

Most military writers familiar with the centuries-old Albanian-Serb conflict predicted it would never go away when President Clinton first began talking about sticking our troops in those swamps. Many warned, “Don’t go there.”

But our government seldom listens — and rarely learns from past hard lessons. In the 1930s, because it was good for business, we sold scrap metal to Japan. The Japanese shot it back at us from 1941 to 1945 at places like Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

We’ve trained, supplied and armed bad guys from Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam to Saddam Hussein in Iraq to the KLA in Kosovo. Young Americans always end up downrange getting hammered by the very stuff we provided, with the folks we trained out there happily pulling the trigger.

During the presidential campaign, George W. Bush questioned our operations in ex-Yugoslavia.

Now that he’s getting the inside scoop, hopefully he’s realized that it’s a mass of endless running sores. Six years after we went to Bosnia for only one year, we’re still there — and Kosovo looks like an even more open-ended and far more dangerous commitment.

The president must put a muzzle on the CIA to stop it from supporting one of the most cutthroat gangs of terrorists in the world.

Next he should turn the Yugoslavian mission over to our European allies. We’ve already spent too many lives and too many dollars on a land that Otto von Bismarck declared was not worth the bones of one Prussian soldier. It’s Europe’s back yard, not ours. And the perfect time to exit that snake pit is now. Our allies are so furious with American duplicity and stupidity, they’d probably be glad to see us go.

Bill Clinton couldn’t have staged a more typical exit strategy.

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