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Pa. troops take over a job thatís more being present and less keeping order.


Inquirer Staff Writer

August 4, 2003

The mission is different now, Capt. Ben Rost explained as he led a platoon of Pennsylvania National Guard troops on a foot patrol around this dusty, decrepit Balkan city.

When Rost served here just after the 1999 NATO bombing campaign drove out the Serbian army, American and other international troops were the only law and order around. Part of the mission was trying to keep Albanian extremists from killing Serbs in revenge for the harsh treatment they received when the Serbian minority controlled the province. The national guardsmen also helped rebuild schools and passed out relief supplies.

These days, Kosovo is teeming with about 4,000 United Nations police officers, including hundreds of retired American officers - along with thousands more local officers from the newly trained Kosovo Police Service. While extortion, smuggling, human trafficking and corruption are still rampant, police say, ethnic murders have become a rarity and the violent-crime rate is far lower than Philadelphia's.

"I have to admit my first experience here was a little more gratifying," said Rost, a Wayne financial adviser in his civilian life, now outfitted in battle fatigues, dark sunglasses and a semiautomatic pistol. "Now, it seems we're trying to take a backseat and say, 'Listen, it's time for you to take care of your own affairs.' "

That's by design. As the Pennsylvania National Guard's 28th Infantry Division takes over command of U.S. peacekeepers in Kosovo this month, they do so at a time when the role of the international peacekeeping force, known as KFOR, has become increasingly symbolic, according to diplomats, U.N. officials, local residents and soldiers.

The main task of American troops in Kosovo at the moment is just to be there. Their most common mission is a "presence patrol" - meaning they leave their heavily fortified bases, walk or drive around for a few hours, and return. If they see a crime, they may intervene, but they will then turn the matter over to the police.

Even so, no one expects U.S. troops to be leaving the Balkans any time soon. Although the situation is better than it has been at any time since the war, many observers believe KFOR's presence is still necessary to ensure that Serbia keeps its forces out of Kosovo. Still technically a part of Serbia, the largely ethnic Albanian enclave of about two million people is being run as a U.N. protectorate.

Others argue that KFOR's firepower is needed, despite the new civilian police, to deter attacks by extremists among Kosovo's Albanian majority against Kosovo's remaining Serbs, Gypsies and other minorities.

There are about 3,000 U.S. troops in Kosovo, down from a peak of about 7,000. KFOR, which has drawn forces from 30 nations, is about 20,000 strong. KFOR divided Kosovo into five sectors, and the Americans are the lead element in one of them. Most American troops live in air conditioned buildings at Camp Bondsteel, a massive complex built from scratch in the middle of rolling hills. There are two gyms, volleyball courts, an Internet cafe, a movie theater, a Burger King, and a cappuccino bar.

Military officials say the Balkans experience has given the Army important lessons - some of them painful - about peacekeeping in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Most of the Army's leaders have been in the Balkans, so they are applying those lessons in Iraq," said Lt. Col. Peter A. Newell, a First Infantry Division battalion commander.

For example, while the first rotations of soldiers into Kosovo received little training in how to deal with the complexities they would face on the ground there, the troops sent there now first conduct role-playing exercises with Albanians and Serbs at Fort Polk, La. They learn to conduct home searches, to do crowd control, and to run traffic checkpoints.

In 2000, a group of 82d Airborne soldiers who served in Kosovo abused their authority by "intimidating, interrogating, abusing, and beating Albanians," according to a subsequent investigation. One of the soldiers raped and murdered an 11-year-old girl and is now serving a life term at Fort Leavenworth. In the aftermath of the incidents, the Army ordered its peacekeepers to undergo training in sensitivity, human rights and respect for local populations.

Some critics argue, though, that the Army hasn't learned enough. They say the main lesson of Kosovo is that the U.S. military needs to change its approach to peacekeeping, perhaps by training a specific force dedicated to the task.

"Twelve years of reluctant nation-building and the United States still hadn't spawned an effective civilian corps of aid workers, agronomists, teachers, engineers - a real peace corps - to take charge of postwar reconstruction in Afghanistan or anywhere else," writes Washington Post reporter Dana Priest in her recent book, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military.

"All of our NATO allies credit the U.S. military with being able to throw a bigger war," said Whitney Mason, an American official in the U.N. mission in Kosovo. "They are masters of logistics. Nobody can do that as quickly and as massively as they can. But the fact is that the Army hasn't adapted to low-intensity conflict."

To cite one small example, until recently, U.S. troops were required to conduct their patrols in Kosovo in "full battle rattle" - Kevlar helmets and body armor - even though most people agree there was and is little threat against them here. That made them stand out even more than they already did, creating a further psychological barrier between them and the locals, critics argued.

They are now allowed to go out in soft caps and fatigues. But U.N. officials complain that most American soldiers seem to understand little of the region's tangled history and are unlikely to learn it, living as they do behind barbed wire, munching on Whoppers and watching Armed Forces Television.

Yet ethnic Albanians here will tell you they like and respect the Americans above all other armies, because they believe they never would have been protected from Serb oppression without U.S. intervention.

"When American KFOR go to someone's house to search it, they'll give them coffee," said Emsal Dardhishta, a Macedonian who works as an interpreter for the U.S. forces.

Teams of U.S. reservists who specialize in what the Army calls "civil affairs" regularly meet with local politicians and provide what help they can, whether it's repairing bridges or smoothing the way for returning refugees.

The template in Kosovo is not being followed in Iraq, where the United States has taken on the burden of everything from providing electricity to setting up an independent judiciary.

Retired Gen. William Nash, a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations who served as the commander of U.S. forces in Bosnia and then as a U.N. civil administrator in Kosovo, says he believes the United States is missing out by excluding the U.N. from a role in Iraq.

"There is a certain benefit in allowing the U.N. to muddle through, because it brings legitimacy and it brings an international presence to bear that can't be matched by anybody else," he said. "There's great strength in what the U.N. does, and we should learn to take advantage of it of it even if overall efficiency is lower."

 

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