By Terri Lukach
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 15, 2005 – While U.S. forces have been defending freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq, another mission to protect local populations from brutality and oppression has been winding down in the Balkans. That mission holds important lessons for operations currently under way in Iraq, U.S. forces in Kosovo say.
In 1999, 38,000 NATO forces were in Kosovo to establish and maintain a secure environment, enforce compliance with agreements that ended a campaign of ethnic cleansing by former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and provide assistance to the U.N. Mission in Kosovo. Today, there are less than 18,000 multinational troops on the ground, of which 1,800 are Americans.
Maintaining security is still high on the list of mission priorities for the NATO-led Kosovo Force. "We do what we call 'presence patrols,' guard certain fixed locations and conduct vehicle checkpoints, but there are few violent incidents," said Army Maj. Michael Wunn, spokesman for KFOR's Multinational Brigade East. "We also work with community leaders on a regular basis."
Wunn said the people of Kosovo are grateful for U.S. assistance. "I have never been treated as well anyplace else," he said, "particularly by the Kosovar Albanians. They are very respectful, very appreciative that we are here. When we walk down the street, we receive very kind greetings and gestures. It's heartwarming as an American to feel that appreciation."
Sgt. Jason Lembright, a Kansas Army National Guardsman assigned to Task Force Tornado agreed, saying, "All of them -- Albanian, Serb, Kosovar -- they are all friendly and polite. They invite us into their homes; they offer us coffee and are really respectful. They ask about our families back home. They are genuinely good people overall," he said.
Four multinational brigades oversee the Republic of Kosovo: Multinational Brigades East, Southwest, Northeast and Center.
"The 1,800 Americans here are all part of Task Force Falcon, which is part of the Multinational Brigade East," Wunn explained. "Another 100 to 150 (American) personnel are assigned to KFOR headquarters in Pristina."
Task Force Falcon comprises five battalions: Task Force Sidewinder and Task Force Tornado, which are maneuver battalions; Task Force Shadow, an aviation-support battalion; Task Force Med, which runs the hospital, provides a medical evacuation capability and cares for the health of the troops; and Task Force Dragoon, a battalion of military police.
The U.S. has three facilities in Kosovo: a forward operating base, which will close by the end of this month; Camp Bondsteel, one of the largest base camps in Europe, and Camp Montieth.
California's 40th Infantry or "Sunburst" Division is currently in charge of the mission. The unit deployed to Kosovo in March 2005, taking over from the outgoing 38th Infantry Division, based in Indiana. The two maneuver battalions, as well as headquarters personnel, are also part of the 40th ID, which includes include elements from Ohio, Indiana, Kansas and Pennsylvania. All are Army National Guardsmen.
In addition to maintaining security, the unit is helping promote the transfer of increased responsibility to civil authorities and establish conditions necessary for peace and prosperity.
U.S. forces are accomplishing those objectives through liaison and monitoring teams, which identify figures of authority -- mayors or other leaders, or simply community elders -- in communities and facilitate communication between those leaders and residents who have problems or concerns.
"The idea here," said Lembright, who serves with such a team, "is to teach them how to work out differences for themselves so that, eventually, they won't have to rely on KFOR.
"We make contacts, attend meetings, such as security meetings or minority meetings, and work to resolve problems with the local population. Because we wear no body armor and carry only 9 mm weapons, we look more approachable," he added. Army Brig. Gen. William Wade commands all U.S. forces in Kosovo, with the exception of headquarters personnel, and also commanding general of Multinational Brigade East. He is one of a new breed of National Guard generals commanding U.S. forces abroad.
"In many respects, the National Guard is tailor-made for the type of peacekeeping mission currently under way in Kosovo," Wade said. "Here, we are in the business of facilitating a safe and secure environment so government and nongovernmental organizations can build or rebuild the infrastructure in Kosovo. What I've just described is military support to civilian authorities, and that is really the forte of the National Guard of the United States."
He noted that guardsmen fill these roles for state governors throughout the United States. "So when we bring the National Guard and Army Reserve here, with all of our civilian-acquired skill sets, this really is a mission that is perfect for us," Wade said.
"I have a lawyer, a judge, a chief of police, firemen, civil engineers, a deputy attorney general -- you name it -- and we have the skill sets that allow us to talk one on one with people from all walks of life here. And that is something that our (active) Army counterparts could not necessarily do because their experience is strictly military," Wade said.
KFOR also works to promote a shared sense of community between the various ethic populations to lessen the potential for strife.
For example, two American and two Greek soldiers and an interpreter recently took a group of Albanian, Serb, Turkish and other ethnic minority children on a camping trip for two nights. "It was a great bonding experience," Lembright said.
Another example is a completely new community in which Serb and Kosovar families live side by side as neighbors. "In the past, Serbs and Kosovar Albanians were always separated. Here, they are completely intermingled. There is a lot of hope for this project," Lembright said.
Wade had similar stories of his own. "We had a children's choir here the other night to entertain us, a combination of U.S. kids and Kosovar kids. I don't know about anyone else," Wade said, "but when I look into the eyes of these kids, I see same thing that I see when I look into my son's eyes or my granddaughter's eyes -- that yearning, that wanting to know, 'What does the future hold for me?'
"We won't change the way 50- to 60-year-olds feel," he said, "and it will take a while for the 30- to 40-year-olds who went through the conflict, but the real work to be done is with the children of Kosovo. They are future of this region," he said.
Wade said that, as in Iraq, the work America is doing in the Balkans is important.
"We're trying to bring democracy, peace and security to troubled lands. And there is no doubt in my mind that we are making difference. I do believe that if we were not here, this situation would degenerate, go back to what it was. Even though the Serbian population is very small, if the international peacekeeping force pulled out, it would create a vacuum, and extremists would fill that void," Wade said.
"Our mission of providing a safe and secure environment, of helping the transition to civilian authority is meeting with great success. There is a lot to be done, things are still bubbling under the surface. There is still some inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic tension. We're not going to fix in six to 10 years what has been bubbling for decades. But as far as our mission goes, it's definitely been a success.
He said there are many reasons for that success. "One of them is the American flag patch we wear on our shoulders; it garners a great deal of respect," Wade said. "We are well-liked, well-respected, and very much considered saviors here. People know that American forces will do what is right and that we will do it fairly. They might not always get what they want, but they know we will be honest, fair and forthright in dealing with everybody."
The troops under his command seemed to agree. "The mission in Kosovo is important because everyone deserves the opportunity to live in a democratic society, to do more than just survive," Lembright said. "I think it's good that the U.S. wants to help them so that whether they are an Albanian, a Serb, or a Kosovar, they don't have to live in fear, but can just go about their lives."
Wunn agreed, too. "Sometimes we feel like the forgotten mission," he said. "But Kosovo is important because eventually this is where Afghanistan and Iraq will be when they reach the point of stability."