Kosovo – what role will US combat troops play in the north?
While sending US combat troops to Kosovo may be just a benefit of drawdowns elsewhere, the Germans, Americans and Austrians – the three largest national elements of KFOR – have, in the past, dependably carried out their orders to confront unarmed civilians. Would they try again? One hopes not.
(Gerard M. Gallucci, Transconflict) Wednesday, May 29, 2013
For the first time in ten years, the US is sending to Kosovo active duty army troops that formerly would have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. According to press reports, the troops have been in Germany preparing - with Armenian soldiers - to take over KFOR's Multinational Battle Group-East. Their mission will reportedly include combat planning, preventing and putting down public unrest, evacuation of wounded and interaction with civil officials. With EULEX, it will be tasked with guaranteeing freedom of movement including removing Kosovo Serb barricades placed in the way of Kosovo police and special units in order to deny them access to the north.
One element of the US troop deployment will be the 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade. One soldier in training noted the mission would be different from the combat roles his unit has been filling in Afghanistan. Crowd control, for instance "[brings] us to a different mental task, teaching the leaders and soldiers to be a little flexible and alter our main focus to something a little different." He said the troops are also aware that they must be status neutral so as not to "influence the Serbian or Kosovo government to change its position on its current agreements."
NATO's record - especially the American and German troops - has not left the northern Kosovo Serbs with much confidence in its status neutrality. From September 2011 through November of that year, KFOR sought to impose Pristina's control by forcing the northerners to submit to Kosovo-Albanian customs and police. It did not go well for anyone, though ultimately the northerners prevailed by simply not surrendering. There were injuries - including some KFOR members, possibly by friendly fire - and the July death of a Kosovo Albanian special police member shot (in a small Serbian village) during the initial push into the north. (None of these incidents led to independent investigations.)
The actions by NATO - in Kosovo under UNSCR 1244 - were illegal and counterproductive. Under 1244, NATO is in Kosovo to support implementation of the peacekeeping mandate of the UN and not to impose the political agenda of any one side. KFOR seemed to have learned from its 2011 experience that the use of force would not, in any case, be clean. Confronting an entire local community and seeking to impose upon it the control of a power perceived as its enemy would either fail or "succeed" at the cost of considerable bloodshed. This hard-won understanding led the Quint capitals - namely Washington, Brussels and Berlin - to seek to gain their political end by subjecting Belgrade to blackmail over EU membership. Now the Quint is sitting back and waiting for Serbia to subject the north to "Kosovo sovereignty."
But maybe not just sitting back? While sending US combat troops to Kosovo may be just a benefit of drawdowns elsewhere, the Germans, Americans and Austrians (the three largest national elements of KFOR) have, in the past, dependably carried out their orders to confront unarmed civilians. Would they try again? One hopes not. As an American, I believe in the professionalism of US army personnel. But I am not so sanguine about those who may give the political orders. With the ability now to claim they are only enforcing an agreement accepted by both Pristina and Belgrade, perhaps the Quint feels it will have greater justification for using force against northern holdouts?
The two sides have now agreed to an "implementation" plan. But the devil is in the details and both Belgrade and Pristina will continue to maneuver around what it means. Meanwhile, the northern Kosovo Serbs remain unconvinced that anyone really has their welfare in mind. US policy on Kosovo remains a zombie, stumbling forward under the control of a small group of "Europeanists" who have never understood the zero-sum nature of the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans. Sure hope they don't get our troops into trouble while President Obama is otherwise occupied.