Kosovo Force Prepares for Political Status Resolution
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo, Nov. 15, 2006 National Guard troops deployed here are preparing to respond to any sudden resurgence of violence as a settlement nears regarding this breakaway republic’s political status, their commander told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff yesterday.
Army Brig. Gen. Darren Owens, commander of the Kosovo Force’s Multinational Task Force (East) and the Texas National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division, told Marine Gen. Peter Pace that the U.N. Contact Group assisting in the status talks hopes for a negotiated settlement by the year’s end. However, they recognize a settlement is more likely in early 2007 after Serbia's elections.
The task force, made up of 2,600 U.S., Greek, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Armenian and Lithuanian troops, is part of the 16,000-member Kosovo Force conducting peace-enforcement operations as that determination is made. Kosovo has been under U.N. and NATO control since 1999, after then-Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic ordered ethnic cleansing that killed about 10,000 Albanians.
Regardless of the outcome -- whether Kosovo becomes independent as the ethnic Albanian majority would like or retain links with Serbia as the Serbs advocate -- one side will be unhappy and violence is likely, Owens told Pace during the chairman’s visit here to assess operations.
Even a delay in reaching agreement, which officials here call likely, could spark new violence. Owens reminded Pace of anti-Serb riots that erupted when talks were delayed in 2004.
“What we’re facing here are 180-degree opposing viewpoints,” Army Lt. Col. Steve Johnston from the task force’s intelligence section. “There’s calm, but tensions are rising about issues surrounding the final status.”
As 1,600 U.S. troops wrap up their year-long deployment here in the seventh KFOR rotation and the first KFOR-8 members begin moving in, some expressed surprise that the long-awaited resolution hasn’t happened on their watch. “We had been expecting it throughout our rotation,” Army Lt. Col. Steve Johnston from MNFT(E)’s intelligence section, told Pace.
Johnston’s assessment echoed that expressed by Gen. James Jones, commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander, during a Pentagon news conference in August.
“We’re approaching an important moment politically that will affect the future of Kosovo,” Jones said. “We’ll have to see what that is and what the decision is, and we’ll also wait and see how the Kosovars accept the will of the international community.”
In the meantime, the departing KFOR-7 troops, mostly National Guardsmen, but also Army Reservists and active Army and Air Force members from 29 states, tallied an impressive list of missions in support of peacekeeping efforts, Army Col. Mark Campsey, MNTF(E) chief of staff, told Pace yesterday. Its members conducted almost 15,700 patrols, flew 8,000 hours and participated in 37 brigade-level operations and 20 multinational operations.
Pace expressed appreciation to the troops who conducted these operations during a town hall meeting here yesterday. “The success here lies squarely on your shoulders,” the chairman told about 500 task force members. He said that the bulk of KFOR is made up of National Guard troops, who he thanked for “putting your lives on hold” to serve here. He also noted the contributions their families, employers and communities are making.
Owens told American Forces Press Service that although this mission dropped off the front-page headlines years ago, troops here recognize the importance of what they’re doing. “They’ve given a year and a half of their lives to make a difference, and they’re doing a job they believe in, and that’s making a difference every single day,” he said.
“This is a place where the United States has an opportunity to stop the spread of terrorism,” Owens said. “People here have been killing each other for years, and our presence here demonstrates that the world won’t stand by and let that happen, while showing the importance of our basic values of treating people with dignity and respect.”
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Boyer of MNTF(E) admits that many of his troops, particularly the younger ones, don’t fully appreciate the importance of their mission here. “They feel that the real fight is in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so that’s where they ought to be,” he said.
“But others understand that this is a critical mission,” Boyer said. “You can go out and see that need that’s here. And when people walk away from this mission, they’ll leave knowing that they made a positive impact and a difference in people’s lives.”
Army Staff Sgt. Julio Martinez, a Puerto Rico National Guardsman serving here as a military policeman, recognizes that impact more than most. Martinez served on one of the first KFOR deployments here, in 2000, and remembers the devastation he saw: displaced people everywhere, homes burned, children on the streets asking for food.
“I see the big difference that’s happened here,” he said. “Now I can have peace of mind that things are going the way they are.”
Army 1st Sgt. Charles Szewczyk, from the Pennsylvania National Guard, witnessed a similar phenomenon during the past year. As the senior NCO for Medical Falcon, Szewczyk works closely with Kosovar officials to provide medical assistance to the region.
“When I first got here, we’d put on a conference and the Albanians and Serbians would refuse to sit on the same bench,” he said. “Now, they’ll sit together and sometimes you’ll even see them joke together. They’re starting to see a goal.”
Szewczyk said he’ll leave Kosovo satisfied that he’s played a role in changing people’s lives. “I feel good already,” he said. “My task force has had a chance to see what most of the other task forces don’t get to see: how much we’ve accomplished.”
But regardless of how immediate their feedback, the KFOR troops agree that with few exceptions the Kosovars are happy the troops are here. “The citizens here really like us and want us to stay,” said Army Spc. John Grissom, from the Texas National Guard.
Grissom said he feels lucky to be part of a mission that he acknowledges most Americans don’t know much about. “We don’t get a whole lot of attention, but that’s okay,” he said. “We’re having an impact on what happens here and doing something that not a lot of people get the opportunity to do.”
Army Sgt. William Smith, also with the Texas Guard, said he was pleased that Pace took time to visit the troops here and recognize their service. “What he said helped a lot,” Smith said. “It tells us we’re not forgotten.
“It also shows that overall, the Guard is important to the armed forces and that people at the highest levels recognize and appreciate that.”