With ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan claiming thousands of lives, U.S. and NATO efforts in the Balkans haven’t received a lot of attention lately.
That could change, though, if reports of Kosovo’s impending independence are accurate. Kosovar Albanian leaders are expected to declare a permanent separation from Serbia in the coming days, despite opposition in Belgrade and from its staunch ally, Russia.
The 1,400 U.S. soldiers in the Balkan nation are watching the situation carefully.
“We are expecting independence day will be quite interesting,” said Col. Richard Hayes, deputy commander of Task Force Falcon, the U.S. contingent in the 15,000-strong Kosovo Force. “We don’t expect it to get crazy, though.”
The vast majority of U.S. troops are stationed outside of Urosevac at Camp Bondsteel. A company-size element is based at Camp Nothing Hill, a military compound near the border with Serbia.
Most of those serving in the current rotation are in the National Guard. The 35th Infantry Division from Kansas is the lead element, accompanied by two battalions from the 34th Infantry Division from Minnesota and the 1st Battalion, 185th Aviation Regiment from Mississippi. Hayes said there are also active-duty and Reserve forces as well as some Air Force personnel.
The task force arrived in November, and soldiers spend time with local leaders and interact with the Kosovo Protection Corps and Kosovo Police Service, Hayes said.
He said crime in the province is relatively high — with a lackluster economy contributing to wide-spread black marketing and smuggling — but the task force has seen only a few incidents that it would view as potential ethnic violence.
He recalled one incident of youths throwing Molotov cocktails at a Serbian church.
“But was that ethnic violence or kids just being stupid?” Hayes asked. “We’ve had a couple of instances like that.”
Following the NATO bombing campaign that forced out Serbian forces in 1999, the vast majority of the population is ethnic Albanian. Only small, isolated pockets of ethnic Serbs remain.
Hayes said local leaders have been holding a series of meetings in towns around the U.S. sector, airing views on ways to peacefully celebrate if the province breaks away.
Although he said military officials don’t expect trouble, they’re prepared to deal with anything that comes up.
As for forces outside Kosovo that might be called in to help, the U.S. military isn’t talking. The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team would normally fill such a role in Europe, but it is deployed to Afghanistan through August.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to get into any details about what units would respond,” said Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a public affairs officer for EUCOM. He referred inquiries on troop strength to NATO. Multiple attempts to reach a NATO spokeswoman were not successful Wednesday.