Army secretary talks with US soldiers in Kosovo as mission continues into 20th year
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 3, 2019
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo — The U.S. Army’s top civilian met with troops here Sunday to take the pulse of a peacekeeping campaign now in its 20th year, as allies continue with NATO’s longest-running mission in history.
Army Secretary Mark Esper, who met with U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Philip Kosnett for closed-door talks ahead of his stop at NATO’s Camp Bondsteel, said his focus during the trip was to get feedback from soldiers rather than delve into the fraught political situation in the country.
During a base tour, Esper was briefed on the mission by soldiers and talked about the latest developments in Army training for deployments.
There are roughly 600 Americans deployed as part of Multinational Battlegroup East, one of two battlegroups that make up NATO’s Kosovo Force, or KFOR.
Battlegroup East is led by Col. Roy Macaraeg of the Hawaii National Guard’s 29th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which is nearing the end of a nine-month tour. The Guard has carried the bulk of the deployment load for the U.S. in Kosovo over the years. The Guard and Reserve also are key to supplementing the Army’s mission more broadly in Europe.
As the Army expands missions, Esper said one of his concerns is that units could get stretched thin. Effectively managing troop rotations will be crucial going forward, he said.
“We try to manage that pretty carefully so we don’t break our deployment guidelines,” Esper said. “Particularly with the Guard, my concern is making sure we maintain support by the Guard, by the leadership, by the employers. We watch them (the Guard) especially carefully.”
Still, Esper said his impression after meeting with troops in Kosovo was that enthusiasm for the mission as high.
The ethnically charged atmosphere in Kosovo is an area of growing concern — U.S. European Command has repeatedly identified potential unrest in the Balkans and Russian interference in the region.
“At the ground level, when you go outside it is very safe,” Macaraeg said. “A lot of the tensions go up to the political level.”
The NATO peacekeeping campaign began in Kosovo after a 1999 intervention to stop a series of atrocities by Serbian forces against Kosovo’s majority Albanian population. Following a 78-day bombing campaign, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic pulled his forces out of Kosovo, leaving NATO in control. In 2008, Kosovo’s government unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, which more than a decade later still fiercely opposes the move and considers Kosovo its territory.
KFOR has dwindled from a high of 50,000 troops in 1999 to about 3,500 today. Although NATO has considered disengaging from Kosovo — especially when its troops were needed in Afghanistan — Serbia has always insisted that the mission remain there to provide security. Ethnic Serbs account for about 10% of the population of about 2 million people.
Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have flared up recently. Just last week, Serbian troops were put on alert along the border after Kosovo police rounded up Albanian and ethnic Serb police officers and customs agents accused of corruption. Tensions with Russia also ratcheted up after Kosovo expelled a Russian national working for the U.N. in Kosovo after the anti-crime operation.
“There’s a lot of players on the ground here ... groups below the surface,” said Macaraeg, speaking generally about the operating environment. “Yes, there is a grey zone.”
But for all the political murkiness, the job for soldiers has proven safe and straightforward. “The core mission here is just presence,” he said.
During the past 20 years and 25 different NATO troop rotations, the situation has “improved a lot at the tactical level,” he said.
“I think there is still work to be done,” Macaraeg said. “It has to be a political solution. It has to be between Kosovo and Serbia.”