Signs of lessening U.S. presence in Balkans are evident
EAGLE BASE, Bosnia and Herzegovina — This camp is not a ghost town, at least not yet.
The SEAhuts that at one time held up to six troops or more at some points are only half-filled.
The soldiers who occupy them are from National Guard units, not the active-duty military as before.
And the total of U.S. troops, which was 18,500 in 1995, is down to fewer than 1,500 troops today.
In recent months, U.S. European Command commander Marine Gen. James Jones has said repeatedly that in as little as a year, most U.S. troops will be out of Bosnia, and those left behind would essentially be working as policemen.
Kosovo, he has said, is on a similar fast track.
Last week, Army Brig. Gen. Jerry G. Beck Jr., the commander of U.S. troops in Kosovo, said when he landed on the ground a few months ago he had half the number of troops as his predecessor.
Overall, the number of U.S. troops in Kosovo has dropped by 35 percent since 1999, Beck said.
Camp Bondsteel, the largest operating base in Kosovo, is drawing down.
The Chinook helicopters that had been used to ferry supplies and equipment are gone. Many of the barracks are empty. When a new movie theater — one of the most popular diversions for soldiers — was built earlier this year and the old one razed, there were no plans to build anything else new.
“There’s been talk of a pool or tennis courts, but the money just isn’t there,” said Army Lt. Kevin Gingrich, who escorts visitors around the base.
Jones says the change in the number of troops in Bosnia is primarily due to the evolution of the government structures, such as a functioning police department and the election of legislative leaders.
As for Kosovo, Jones said that despite progress with the government, he still foresees a military presence there at least until next September.
Exactly when U.S. forces will be gone completely from the Balkans is unknown, but all signs point to a full exit sooner rather than later.
Their departure would give the United States one fewer deployment for its overtaxed National Guard and Reserve units. But if they do leave, local nationals in Bosnia and Kosovo are unsure what that would do for stability.
“This is a difficult question for us,” said Vladio Terzic, a cafe owner in downtown Tuzla, which is about 10 miles from Eagle Base.
“Security would be OK, I think, but in terms of jobs … that is another story,” he said.
Terzic said unemployment in Bosnia continues to be high — SFOR officials put it as high as 40 percent — and the Americans provide many well-paying jobs. “There are cooks, workers, cleaners, translators … those are all the sorts of jobs with good money that would be gone,” Terzic said.
Already employment opportunities created by the Americans are vanishing. Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, for example, has slashed the salaries and numbers of positions for the translators it provides to the U.S. military because fewer are needed.
In October, Jones, in response to his earlier assertions that the roughly 4,000 American troops in the Balkans will soon return home and not be replaced, said he could not yet talk about a particular date but noted that day is approaching.
“I think the time is right to have those discussions both in a domestic sense and in an international sense,” he said after meeting with NATO officials.
EUCOM officials in charge of plans and operations declined to discuss future troop strengths in the Balkans, citing operational security.
In interviews last week, Beck and Army Brig. Gen. Richard C. Nash, commanding officer of U.S. forces in Bosnia, also said they could not say anything definitive about when the presence of U.S. troops would become negligible.
Beck said that in Kosovo, several recent activities have occurred that show the U.S. forces are becoming less important.
This week, for example, his troops will meet with United Nations Mission and Kosovo police to discuss how more and more of the policing will be shifted to those agencies.
Last month marked the last time British troops would work side by side with the Americans at the hospital on Camp Bondsteel. When they redeployed back to the United Kingdom, they were not replaced.
And while there is still a barbed-wire-surrounded detention center at Bondsteel, Beck said the building is rarely used anymore.
Terzic, who paused outside his Bosnian cafe as a group of American soldiers went by, knows the American presence has helped and wants them to stay because he is unsure if the rest of the NATO peacekeeping force is as committed to their safety.
“The Europeans had forgotten us. It wasn’t until the Americans came that we really felt safe,” he said. “If they go, who will protect us?”