Returned this week from a trip to Kosovo, the commander of NATO and U.S. European Command recognized the 5,000 NATO forces that continue to preserve the peace there and said he hopes to reduce their numbers in 2013 if the situation allows.
Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, writing in his command blog, recalled the 1990s when almost 60,000 NATO troops conducted peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, sometimes engaging in vigorous combat.
More than 100,000 people died during a turbulent decade following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, he noted. In one single incident in Srebrenica in Bosnia, almost 8,000 men and boys were massacred during the worst war crime in Europe since World War II.
The international community rallied to promote peace talks between warring ethnic and religious groups, and under a United Nations mandate NATO contributed forces to help stem the violence.
Today, the NATO presence has dropped from 15,000 in 2009 to the current 5,000, deployed from the United States and 29 other nations.
Most are in Kosovo, Stavridis said, with the mission of maintaining a safe and secure environment and ensuring freedom of movement.
Despite occasional demonstrations, roadblocks and violence, “the situation is largely under control,” he reported.
“We are hoping to reduce [the NATO force] further in the coming year, although that will be very situation-dependent,” he said.
“The key will be steady and sustained international pressure on both Serbia and Kosovo to resolve their difficulties, which range from border disputes to customs arrangements along their extensive and contested border,” he said.
Stavridis praised the European Union’s recent efforts to bring the two prime ministers together to address these differences.
He offered assurance that NATO forces will remain as needed to underpin these initiatives. “NATO will also stay steady,” he said. “We’ll continue performing our U.N.-mandated mission to the best of our ability.”
“As the cold winter approaches, I'm thankful for the 5,000 troops far from their homes,” Stavridis wrote. “They are standing the watch, keeping the peace, and shaping a more peaceful world in the Balkans: something that looked impossible a decade ago.”
NATO’s contribution has helped shape a vastly different security environment in the Balkans over the past decade, he said.
“While tensions remain, Croatia, Albania and Slovenia are members of NATO,” he said. “Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro are all in various stages of applying for NATO membership. Serbia wants in the European Union. Kosovo is recognized by nearly 100 nations.”
In addition, many of these countries have troops deployed to Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force there, Stavridis noted.
Article by Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service