As Kosovo eyes future army, NATO still in for the long haul

07/04/2008

While KFOR continues to guard the peace in Kosovo, plans are under way to help the new country take charge of its own security.

By Blerta Foniqi-Kabashi for Southeast European Times in Pristina – 07/04/08

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A local child walks past Spanish KFOR soldiers as they secure one of three bridges connecting the Albanian and Serbian sections of Mitrovica. [Getty Images]

Within this year, Kosovo expects to launch its own army, to be called the Kosovo Security Force (KSF). Compared to other military forces in Europe, the KSF will be small and lightly equipped; its size will be limited to 2,500 active troops and 800 reserves. It will be primarily responsible for crisis response, explosive ordinance disposal and civil protection.

The plans are to develop the force out of a current emergency response organisation, the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC). Established eight years ago under UNMIK and KFOR supervision, it is involved in activities such as firefighting, search and rescue and medical assistance. Financial support comes from donors such as the United States, United Kingdom, France and the European Commission.

The KPC is essentially unarmed, with only 200 of its members authorized to carry weapons. Many in the KPC, however, came from the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and their military experience could provide the backbone for what will someday be the army of Kosovo.

"Very soon, during the period of transition, Kosovo will have a ministry of defence, which will supervise the process of transforming the KPC into the KSF," Deputy Prime Minister Hajredin Kuci explained to Southeast European Times.

According to Kosovo's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, the KSF is being formed with the long-term goals of NATO integration in mind. "The process is already underway, and within a year the new security force of Kosovo will be established under the NATO standards," he said.

The transformation of the KPC into the KSF is foreseen by the status plan put forward by former UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari. Although the UN Security Council was unable to agree on his proposals, Kosovo's leaders have pledged to use them as the basis for building a multiethnic democracy. Under the Ahtisaari plan, the KSF will be a joint effort between Kosovo and the international community, as funds and resources are made available.

In an interview with Southeast European Times, KPC Commander Sylejman Selimi spoke about the planned evolution of the KSF and its role in an independent Kosovo.

"The government and the parliament of Kosovo are preparing the legal infrastructure. After this period, we will start the implementation phase," Selimi said. "The year 2008 will be one of transition, responsibilities and challenges, and I believe that the government will meet its obligations. We as the KPC have our short-term and long-term duties."

Ensuring security for Kosovo is no easy task. Lingering ethnic hatred tension combined with economic woes remains a volatile mix, and the current standoff with Kosovo Serbs -- who have so far refused to acknowledge Kosovo's independence or the authority of its institutions -- threatens to escalate tensions.

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Members of the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC) stand guard during a ceremony in Pristina. The KPC is to be transformed into a new security force that will one day serve as an army for Kosovo. [Getty Images]

Despite threats of partition, Selimi believes the new force will be able to establish its presence in all areas of Kosovo. "This will not be a challenge," he said. "The KSF will be near NATO troops. I believe that the KSF will operate in the entire territory of Kosovo and this will not be a challenge but a duty."

The current KPC has many members from minority communities and its successor will be no different, Selimi says, adding that in time Serbs will become aware that it is in their interest to be part of the KSF. "Now we have our state. We should work for new Kosovo. Together with all communities, we will establish Kosovo," he said.

For the time being, however, a strong international presence will be required. NATO expects to have troops in Kosovo for many years, until the country is sufficiently stabilised to be able to assume all security roles on its own.

"KFOR has a mandate to maintain the security situation in Kosovo. This is the mission under the Resolution 1244," the commander of the multinational force, Xavier de Marnhac, has said on many occasions.

This means it will be some time before the KSF becomes an actual army of state. Still, Selimi says, there should be no doubt as to the eventual goal -- to create the military force of a sovereign country. "Even though Kosovo's army will be called the 'Kosovo Security Force', it will [nevertheless] be the army of Kosovo," he said.

Meeting in Slovenia during February, European defence ministers agreed that NATO's 16,000 peacekeepers remain the key to preserving stability in the wake of the Kosovo independence declaration. Violent protests in Mitrovica have underscored the need for KFOR, with multinational troops called in to restore order following attacks on UN police.

Still, EU leaders say, Kosovo cannot rely on an outside force indefinitely. "We want to build up the Kosovo Protection Corps and we want to build up the Kosovo Security Force so that Kosovo will be able itself to provide its own security," the AP quoted German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung as saying after the February summit.

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The establishment of a military capability goes hand in hand with efforts to build up the Kosovo institutions and establish the rule of law. All are being undertaken with international community assistance under the aegis of the Ahtisaari plan.

Ahtisaari's blueprint calls for the KPC to be dissolved after a one-year transition period -- a prospect that has triggered some alarm. The new KSF is only expected to be about half the size of its predecessor, which currently employs over 5,000.

Given Kosovo's unemployment woes – joblessness among young people ranges as high as 70% -- nobody is anxious to see thousands of people, many with families to support, thrown out of work.

"It is evident that the members of the KPC are concerned, because it is understood that not all KPC members are going to be members of the KSF," Selimi acknowledged. "We are trying to find a better way," he said. Kosovo's leaders and international officials alike hope that independence will mean progress in rebuilding the Kosovo economy, which most acknowledge as the single most pressing problem affecting the new country's future.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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