By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 7, 2008 - Flying over Kosovo, it's hard to believe that this new country was the site of suffering. Livestock graze in the fields, and new construction is building factories, barns and apartment buildings. Farmers run tractors over fields, tilling and fertilizing them in advance of winter. Small fires burn off the chaff from the last corn or wheat crop.
This was not what Kosovo looked like in March 1999. That was when the Serbian military cut through the province and drove more than 100,000 Kosovar Albanians from their homes. NATO – with United Nations approval – launched an air campaign against the Serb military that finally drove the Serbs from the nation in June.
Those flying over Kosovo then saw pillars of smoke from farmhouses and uninhabited towns. Whole portions of cities were emptied. The fields were untended, and houses sported blue roofs – tarps spread over blown-up buildings to protect them from the elements.
The United Nations asked NATO to establish the Kosovo Force to provide security and allow stability to grow. KFOR, as it's called, has been in operation ever since. The current peace in Kosovo is a testament to the force's success.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates toured Camp Bondsteel, met with servicemembers there and in Gjilan and saw for himself the changes KFOR has brought to this nation. He met with members of the 110th Maneuver Enhanced Brigade during his trip.
The Americans are part of the 16th rotation of troops into Kosovo. Part of the Missouri National Guard, the brigade also contains elements from Alabama, Illinois, South Dakota, California, Texas and New Mexico. The medical establishment is from the Army Reserve. All of them come under the command of Multinational Task Force East, based at Camp Bondsteel.
The U.S. unit has responsibility for the eastern part of Kosovo, but is on call if needed anywhere in the country, said the unit's commander, Army Brig. Gen. Larry D. King, during an interview with reporters traveling with Gates. The people of Kosovo believe Americans are their saviors, the general said. The main street in the capital of Pristina is named after President Bill Clinton. Kids seeing Americans in uniform wave, and all ethnicities understand the Americans are in the country for their safety, King said.
The American troops work with those other nationalities and with Kosovo's security forces. The biggest danger the KFOR faces today is the ready availability of weapons, ammunition and explosives in the region. King said his explosive ordnance disposal teams have had to blow up World War I munitions. The emptying of Albania's arsenals in the 1990s put hundreds of thousands of weapons on the street. A large black market weapons business – featuring rocket-propelled grenades, missile systems and hand grenades – operates in Kosovo, officials said. Weapons smuggling has increased over the years, following traditional land routes through the region.
The citizen-soldier background of the American unit helps in accomplishing the mission, King said. "We have a depth of civilian experiences that feed into [mission accomplishment]," he said. "It's a civil-military mission with high-intensity information operations."
Many of the soldiers with the unit do these same jobs in civilian life.
"They are the people back in Missouri launching the campaigns to get people to wear seat belts, not drink and drive or use a child seat," he said. "These types of campaigns are what we use to influence the Kosovars."
Peace and stability have come to Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in February. Keeping the country stable and giving the Kosovars the time to get civilian infrastructure in place is KFOR's mission.
For the most part, the NATO soldiers work in a permissive environment. Maneuver units patrol in Humvees and soft caps. Soldiers patrol the streets carrying only 9 mm pistols. They have interceptor ballistic armor and heavier weapons in their vehicles if they need them, but haven't had to use them during this rotation, said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Mike Lederle, the senior enlisted advisor for the brigade.
"Our troops are absolutely motivated and excited about what they are doing on this mission," Lederle said. "This is really a mission of intellect, because the soldier has to think about everything they do and what the second- or third- or sometimes even the fourth-order effects what they do will have on the population, because this part of the world really doesn't forget."
The unit went through five months of training before deploying. Most of that was hammering home that soldiers have to use common sense and understand the culture before making decisions, Lederle said.
"We know how to escalate," the sergeant major said. "In this situation, with these people, we have to know how to de-escalate."