Security and Defense: Taking a cue from Kosovo

A region once plagued by ethnic violence and war has now been pacified. Could the Mideast be next?

kosovo rally 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
kosovo rally 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Xhavit Gashi personifies what the new Kosovo is all about. Just a decade ago, Gashi was commander of a Kosovo Liberation Army platoon called the "Illyrian Wolves," named after a legendary pack of wolves in ancient Illyria that refused to let other wolves live in their territory. Gashi and his "wolves" were responsible for KLA operations in western Kosovo, where they fought against Serbian forces in the run up to the war. Military intervention by Serbian forces prompted UN and NATO action in March 1999, amid reports of massive Albanian displacement and ethnic cleansing. Today, 10 years after the war ended, Gashi symbolizes the transformation that Kosovo has undergone. Gashi was not always a soldier. Before the war he was an English student in Pristina, and later owned a pub. But in 1998, when the Serbian attacks intensified against Kosovo - which was seeking its independence - he enlisted in the KLA, and quickly climbed the ranks. Today, he is a colonel and the head of security cooperation in the newly-formed Kosovo Security Force (KSF), a demilitarized force which will eventually consist of 2,500 soldiers, in addition to 800 reservists. The KSF is currently trained and managed by NATO's 15,000-strong force in Kosovo, called KFOR. It is allowed to have light weapons - pistols and machine guns - but no tanks, artillery or grenade launchers. Sound familiar? The reason is that it is. The KSF is in many ways similar to the Palestinian security forces currently being trained by US Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton in Jordan, 2,100 of whom have already deployed throughout the West Bank. They, too, are something of a demilitarized military force, and are not allowed to have grenade launchers, explosives training, tanks, artillery or air capabilities. This is not the only similarity between the self-declared republic of Kosovo, which Serbia still refuses to recognize, and the Palestinians. Another organization that operates in Kosovo is called EULEX, a European Union force consisting of police officers and civilian contractors who are helping the new government establish a Western-style police force, a judiciary system and prisons service. Sound familiar? The reason is that in the West Bank the EU is doing the same thing for the Palestinian Authority, although with a different name - EUCOPPS. It therefore comes as no surprise that some PA officials have viewed Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008 as a potential precedent for their own unilateral establishment of an independent state in the West Bank. "If things are not going in the direction of actually halting settlement activities, if things are not going in the direction of continuous and serious negotiations, then we should take the step and announce our independence unilaterally," President Mahmoud Abbas's senior aide Yasser Abed Rabbo told Reuters in 2008. "Kosovo is not better than us. We deserve independence even before Kosovo, and we ask for the backing of the United States and the European Union for our independence." And last week, PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad announced a plan to unilaterally establish a de facto state by 2011. While Abbas immediately distanced himself from Abed Rabbo's threat, it was enough to get Israel scared, and since then Jerusalem has refused to recognize Kosovo's independence, something that is made clear when landing at Pristina International Airport, where the flags of all 62 countries that have recognized Kosovo stand proudly. The issue of recognition is important for Kosovars, many of whom asked that The Jerusalem Post use its influence to get Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to recognize their year-old country. DESPITE THE vague similarities, Kosovo is a lifetime away from the Arab-Israeli conflict, and is currently considered a major success for NATO, particularly in light of the difficulties the Western military alliance is facing in Afghanistan. That is why on a visit to Kosovo last month, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that KFOR will be downsized to just over 1,000 soldiers within five years. This is not to say that things are completely calm in Kosovo. Last week, seven people were wounded when minority Serbs clashed with Kosovar Albanians in the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica. Gunshots were reported and a grenade was detonated near the clashes, which made their way to the capital city where dozens of protesters damaged 24 EULEX vehicles. This is not the first time since the war that the usually below-the-surface tension has erupted. In March 2004, KFOR forces came under attack as violence broke out between Albanians and Serbs, prompting NATO to rapidly deploy an additional 2,500 troops. The tension between Serbs and Albanians can still be felt on the streets in Kosovo. Villages remain mostly segregated. On the main drag in Pristina, pictures of missing Albanians from the war are glued to walls and fences as a memorial. The persecution of Kosovar Albanians by Serbia peaked in March 1999 when ethnic cleansing was initiated. According to Kosovo, hundreds of thousands of Albanians - mostly secular Muslims - fled to nearby Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, and some 10,000 people were killed. In return, the Albanians evicted Serbian Kosovars from their homes. According to NATO estimates, there are still some 70,000 so-called refugees, mostly in Serbia. One Serbian village near the town of Kamencia, located along the border with Serbia, is still completely desolate after all the inhabitants fled following the war, fearing retaliation. KFOR forces patrol these areas daily with the aim of preventing inter-ethnic violence from flaring up. "Our job is to sense what people feel and how they are doing," explains Sgt. Emmanuel Botello of the US Army. A 22-year-old Californian, Botello is halfway through his one-year tour in Kosovo. Every day, with four other soldiers and two interpreters Botello drives a civilian jeep from Camp Bondsteel - a massive US Army base in eastern Kosovo - through the villages and towns in his sector, sits in coffee shops, talks to regular Kosovars and tries to solve problems and prevent a renewal of violence. An example of the tension can be seen in the makeup of the KSF. Of the 1,400 soldiers that have currently enlisted, only seven are minority Serbs. The Kosovo government has said that it wants more Serbs in the ranks, and has even established a high-ranking position that needs to be filled by a Serbian Kosovar. It is still empty. The force's main training base is located north of Pristina, in a military compound that used to belong to the Yugoslav military but was completely destroyed during NATO's air campaign in 1999. Most of the buildings have been rebuilt, and are filled with cadets and soldiers from around the world who are serving as instructors. One still lays in ruins, with unexploded ordinance buried below. Most of the KSF soldiers are like Gashi and come from the KLA, which, after the war, was transformed into the Kosovo Protection Corps. The KSF was established last year to replace the KPC, in conjunction with the declaration of independence, and as part of an effort to start a clean slate by dissolving the previous military forces. At the moment, Kosovo is not allowed to have a military, and is considered a demilitarized state. Serbia, its adversary, has a large military with more than 40,000 troops. While the KLA was at one point in the 1990s defined as a terrorist group by the United States, its former members like Gashi were allowed to join the KSF. Tension between Serbians and Albanians is not the only problem NATO is facing. Until recently, Botello used to drive only one jeep on his patrols. Since earlier this summer, another jeep - carrying armed soldiers - accompanies him for protection. The catalyst for the security upgrades is concern in NATO of a radicalization process that is sweeping Albanian Muslims in Kosovo. The extremism, US Army intelligence officials say, originated in Saudi Arabia, which is funding various NGOs in Kosovo aimed at influencing local Albanians to be more observant. "The traditionally Albanian, moderate, Turkish-oriented version of Kosovo Islam is rapidly changing, as it is significantly influenced by fundamental and extreme versions of Arab-based Islam that poses both a long and near-term threat," one official says. According to the official, a growing number of Kosovars are training in terrorist camps in the Middle East. A recent example was the arrest in July of a Kosovar Albanian in North Carolina for allegedly planning to attack targets in several countries, including Israel. Despite the Islamic trend, the operation's success is comforting for NATO officials looking for a way out of other conflicts, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Kosovo is a success," explains one senior NATO official in Brussels. "The key operation in stabilizing Kosovo is over and now is the time to start to transfer responsibility to the government and the European Union."