A few thousand troops keep a low-key presence, but with western attention fitful, how long for?
Twenty years after Nato ground troops first entered Kosovo at the end of a 78-day aerial bombardment, 3,500 troops from the military alliance remain on the ground in the fledgling nation where the conflict is still yet to be definitively settled.
Today, the 28-country Kosovo Force (Kfor) acts largely as a “third reserve” after the local police and the EU, although there is one exception where Nato troops guard the 14th-century Serbian Orthodox monastery at Dečani.
Nato troops patrolling the streets are largely unarmed community liaison teams, doing low-key work that involves testing the temperature of the local community in the capital, Pristina, and other main population centres. At Dečani, where the Serbian monks say they need the protection of the soldiers from a hostile municipality, the most recent incident was in 2016, when four armed Islamists were arrested outside the monastery.
It is slow-paced work and prompts questions as to its wider purpose. “Twenty years is a long time for a peacekeeping mission,” a soldier on the ground discreetly observed when asked about their task.
It is not an isolated opinion. The US, which contributes the largest contingent of troops – about 600 – is understood to have seriously considered downgrading its presence.
A senior western official said: “Withdrawal would be crazy. Over in Serbia, they count the troop numbers. This is a country of 1.8 million moderate Muslims. After Afghanistan and Iraq, we need a result. This could be a real strategic win for us.” Confronted by such arguments, the US has decided to leave troop numbers unchanged – for now.
Western attention remains fitful. The UK contributes 30 troops – despite historical engagement in a country where several children are named Tonibler after the then British prime minister, Tony Blair, who with the then US president, Bill Clinton, led what was seen at the time as a popular military intervention. France sends none.
Nato’s intervention in 1999 began with an air campaign against Serbia, only the second time the alliance had been engaged in military action since its inception in 1949 – the first being in Bosnia, also against Serb forces.
It followed a growing period of violence between the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), representing a majority of the local Muslim population, in what was then part of the rump of Yugoslavia, and Serbian forces, representing the majority in the country overall.
The power of the western bombing forced the withdrawal of Serbian forces in June 1999. Fifty thousand troops, led by Britain’s Sir Mike Jackson, entered to the jubilation of Kosovan Albanians.
Yes, I have been there.