PRISTINA, Kosovo — Nearly five years after Kosovo declared independence, its international backers are encouraging the tiny Balkan nation to walk on its own.
One of its next steps may be to form a small army from an existing 2,500-strong civil protection force — a difficult task for a young nation that still has not secured full international recognition and is deeply distrusted by its northern neighbor, Serbia, from which it declared independence in 2008.
Nearly 5,600 NATO troops, including close to 800 Americans, remain stationed in Kosovo to help keep the peace with ethnic Serbs who refuse to recognize the government of the former Serbian province, where 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian.
“We have to produce security, not consume security,” said Rexhep Selimi, a member of the Kosovo assembly committee that oversees the current force. “That’s why we want to finish our job as soon as possible, so we can join NATO.”
While the U.S. backs Kosovo’s nationhood, embassy officials in Pristina declined to comment on Kosovo’s push for a military, saying only that the U.S. supports the current Kosovo Security Force and a security sector review, guided by U.S. military advisers.
“It’s what we think is a great opportunity for them to take a hard look at where they’re going,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ray Wojcik, head of the embassy’s Office of Defense Cooperation.
Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 came nearly nine years after a NATO bombing campaign to end Serbia’s use of force against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority. It continues to divide world opinion.
Russia, which as an ally of Serbia has refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence, has veto power on the U.N. Security Council to keep Kosovo out of the world body. Five members of the European Union, including four NATO members, don’t recognize Kosovo, putting any aspirations Kosovo has for membership in those organizations on hold.
Nonetheless, NATO’s Kosovo force helped stand up the civilian-controlled Kosovo Security Force, despite the alliance’s internal divisions over Kosovo’s status. The KSF specializes in demining, search and rescue and IED-defeat, among other tasks.
“It is not absolutely clear if all allies are going to participate in those new tasks, but NATO as an alliance will do it,” then-NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters in June 2008.
And indeed, individual nations were left to shoulder much of the burden for training and equipping the force. Chief among them was the U.S., which remains Kosovo’s biggest supporter, according to Wojcik. It provides between $5.5 MILLION and $7 million in annual training and military sales, among other forms of assistance, according to the U.S. Embassy. The KSF budget hovers around $35 million.
The U.S. provided uniforms and radios, and it opened its schools to KSF members, including the Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas, and the service’s Command and General Staff College. It paired Kosovo with the Iowa National Guard for a mentor relationship, and sent members to Grafenwöhr, Germany, for NCO training.
Such training is now being incorporated into the KSF structure with U.S. military help. At a September ceremony on a KSF base in the southern Kosovo city of Ferizaj, U.S. Army advisers looked on as some two dozen senior NCOs graduated a course run within the country, and largely by KSF trainers.
“The U.S. is our strategic partner, and it will forever be our strategic partner,” KSF commander Lt. Gen. Kadri Kastrati said. “Everything that we are doing we do in coordination with [the] U.S. military attaché in Pristina and our colleagues who work here in NATO Advisory Team or Office of Defense Cooperation.”
The U.S. military is also instrumental in the next phase of Kosovo’s force. The Defense Institution Reform Initiative within the Department of Defense is guiding the Kosovo government’s security sector review, which began in March as a rethink of Kosovo’s security structure.
The review is significant in light of a recent change in the country. In September, Kosovo’s international backers stepped aside to grant the country full sovereignty over its laws. One, the law on the KSF, opens to restructuring in June 2013.
Agim Ceku, the current minister of the KSF, and former prime minister, says a defense force is a necessity.
“We are now not only building [a] state, but we are building society here,” Ceku said in a recent interview.
“And I think military force is [an] important factor of national identity for us.,” said Ceku, who fought in Croatia’s war of independence from the former Yugoslavia and served as a general in the Kosovo Liberation Army, which took up arms against Serbia in the late 1990s in a push for independence. He is considered a war criminal by Serbia. “Military force is [a] very good instrument for modernizing society. Here we can serve as [an] example, good example, of discipline, service to a nation, commitment to duty.”
Both Ceku and Kastrati, the commander of KSF, envision a small force developed to NATO standards and deployable for specialized capabilities such as demining or search and rescue, similar to what the KSF does now.
“We are not looking to be balanced with any other country, just to meet our security need and to be affordable to our budget,” Ceku said. “And not to represent — especially this — not to represent a threat to anyone.”
Many Kosovo leaders and some analysts envision a future within NATO. In the meantime, how the alliance would view a Kosovo military is unclear.
Even the status of the KSF remains contentious. NATO member nations are still considering whether to approve a largely technical designation of the force — that it reached its “Full Operational Capability” — granted by NATO’s own Kosovo Forces commander last November. The U.S. supports it.
“It’s something that we try to build broader consensus around and moving it in a positive direction,” said Michael Kreidler, political-military officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo. “But the consensus-building process in Brussels, it’s agonizing.”
Another international concern about Kosovo standing up an army is the tense security situation in Kosovo’s north, where ethnic Serbs refuse any representation of the Kosovo government. Rioting erupted last year after Kosovo police entered the territory to impose customs offices on the border with Serbia.
Ilir Deda, chief of staff to Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga through this past January and current director of the Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development, believes that even with a settlement over the north, countries in NATO that don’t recognize Kosovo may not come around to the idea of a Kosovo military. He said Kosovo needs to focus on its most influential supporters.
“If it happens, it has the (U.S.) support and U.K. support,” he said.
It’s a feeling repeated by Kosovo officials like Ceku.
“They are now supporting the process here,” he said. “And this process we are going to do together. I said I will not come up with any recommendation that it is not coordinated with the U.S. and accepted by the U.S.”