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Kosovo Situation ‘Stable, But Fragile,’ Commander Says

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 29, 2007 – The situation in Kosovo is “stable, but potentially fragile,” the commander of U.S. forces there said.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Brig. Gen. Douglas B. Earhart, commander of the American contingent in Kosovo, displays a painting done by the two schoolchildren accompanying him. Earhart's unit will complete its tour of duty in Kosovo Nov. 2. Courtesy photo
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Army Brig. Gen. Douglas B. Earhart, commander of the American contingent in the NATO-led Kosovo Force, said he is proud of the job that his 1,500-member force has done and believes the province is ready for several key events.

Earhart commands a multinational force based around the National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division. The 35th Infantry Division will take over the command Nov. 2.

The first event Earhart referenced is Kosovo-wide elections scheduled for Nov. 17, followed by the end of the 120-day supplemental negotiation process that Serbia, Kosovo and a team of international negotiators have been holding on the status of the province.

“Things are calm, but underneath the surface people are anxious, and they are not sure of what the outcome is going to be,” the general told American Forces Press Service. “People are tired of waiting; they just want this thing resolved. It doesn’t matter if you are Kosovar Albanian or Kosovar Serbian; you just want it over so you can get on with normal life.”

The NATO-led Kosovo Force is keeping the province stable, but there are challenges, he said. Reports of paramilitary groups operating on both sides of the provincial border add to the fragility of the situation. “When the media report on those groups, we see the population getting anxious about that,” Earhart said.

The general discounts these organizations. “They operate on the fringe and have no legitimacy,” he said, adding that these groups are more like gangs than any type of organized political movement.

“They are rogue criminals living in the hills with nothing better to do than to stir up trouble,” he said. “They stir up trouble because it serves their purposes to have a lawless area.”

The criminal elements want uncertainty; they want disruption, because this allows them to operate. The government needs to get into these areas and establish control, Earhart said. “Where you don’t have a lot of tax collection, you don’t have a lot of police activity,” he said.

The bottom line is that there are pockets of these criminals in the province, but nothing widespread, he added.

Kosovo police are getting better, and they are extending the government’s control. NATO forces are working with them to improve their capabilities, the general said.

He also noted a lot of rebuilding is going on in the province. “In one sense, economically, there is something going on. Someone is doing better,” he said. “I think there is a more entrepreneurial spirit today than there was two or three years ago.

“There is still money coming in from the diaspora -- Kosovars who moved to Switzerland, Italy and Germany -- and that fuels a lot of the economy here,” he continued, adding that such income cannot fuel an economy for long.

Unemployment in the province still is very high; officials estimate that it is around 70 percent. “We have a very large population of people between 18 and 30 years old, and those folks are not working, and that is troublesome,” Earhart said.

Building employment opportunities is important to the security situation. “With people sitting around, it’s more likely that folks get involved in activities that are not productive,” he said.

Earhart said members of the Kosovo Force want a quick resolution to the diplomatic process so economic development offered by the international community can flow into the province.

“I think that’s something that most people on the ground here wish for,” he said. “They hope for a situation stable enough so that international investors will come in here and really start to get things going here.”

Earhart said the task force works with soldiers from five other countries: Greece, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and Romania. “This relationship has been gong since 2003, and it gets better every year,” he said.

He said he is working to transfer responsibility to the men and women of the 35th Infantry Division. “When the KFOR 9 soldiers arrive, we walk through every task that’s required of soldiers on the ground here,” he said. “We do that in three weeks, then we give our successors an opportunity to lead that same activity. At the end of that period, we feel confident that replacements are set.”

Officials intend for Kosovars to see no difference in competence in the soldiers. “That’s important, because we’ve done a lot of good work in building up the trust and confidence in KFOR, and so we obviously want to maintain that,” he said.

The general also discussed how experiences that National Guardsmen have in their civilian lives help them in Kosovo. “I see it every day,” he said. “The only way you can really successfully engage the civilian population is by getting out and walking among the people and talking with them. If you’ve been a teacher, if you’ve been a police officer, if you’ve been a nurse, if you’ve had any kind of civilian job where you have to deal with people, then you generally know how to communicate. Just from that basic standpoint, you can tell there’s a difference there.

“The other part is, we have soldiers that have specialty skills; we have a lot of police officers and teachers on the task force. They can sense when things are not quite normal,” he continued. “We have plumbers who have worked on schools’ bathrooms; we’ve had water hydrologists look at well systems; we’ve had firefighters go to fire stations to help the Kosovars improve their training and update their equipment. We’ve had people here who have a direct influence on the community due to their civilian experiences.”

When his unit first got to Kosovo, the general said, he immediately was struck by the reception the Kosovars gave his unit. “I was instantly struck by the friendliness with which I was greeted,” he said. “From that moment to today, I considered myself to be a member of the Kosovo family, and I’ve been treated with respect and friendship from all segments of the society: Kosovars and Serbs.”

Specifically, Earhart said, he remembers a visit he made to a local school, which teaches more than 5,000 children in three shifts. He was met by 300 children singing an American song. “I thanked them for their song and told them that they are the hope for the future of Kosovo,” he said. “At the end of that, two 5th grade girls gave me a beautiful picture. It has an American flag in the foreground and a picture of the globe. Around the globe are children holding hands and above that is the NATO cross.

“I was so struck by that. It’s a beautiful piece of art, and the message is tremendous.”

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