The opening phase of Operation Joint Guardian seems long ago, more so because so much has happened since. Photographs of soldiers wearing woodland-pattern battle dress uniforms (BDUs) look dated. It likely was the last major operation conducted BDUs. Most of the Humvees weren't armored, and Army vehicles were painted green, which also seems dated. The white letters KFOR had been hastily painted on their sides.
It was Kosovo in the summer of 1999. Crowds cheered American convoys. Kids waved. There was a sense of welcome for American soldiers, but the celebrations masked continuing ethnic violence as Albanian Kosovar refugees returned to take revenge on Serbian neighbors who had murdered and driven them out in the preceding months. Fires and killings occurred night after night. It took months to achieve a resigned peace, and it required nearly a decade of effort to maintain it.
In the years since Operation Joint Guardian dominated the headlines, Kosovo has fallen off the edge of the American attention span, supplanted by 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq. It became a dim memory-if remembered at all.
Suddenly, this February, Kosovo surfaced again. Its government declared independence, an act that was swiftly recognized by the United States and several major Western powers. The political leaders of Russia were outraged. The people of the Republic of Serbia were enraged. Mobs marched on the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, broke in and set it afire. Embassy personnel had vacated the building nearly a week beforehand in anticipation of violence, but that did not diminish the crime. Groups of ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo staged protests, and Serbian nationalists marched on Kosovo's border crossings from the Republic of Serbia (Serbia). The Kosovo situation again made headlines; the specter of ethnic strife arose.
Will the unrest continue or expand? No one knows. Conventional wisdom has it that Serbia's government prizes acceptance into the contemporary European economic combine more than its historic ties to Kosovo, and it certainly realizes that a fight over its break is not one it could win. Kosovo had become a de facto independent entity the moment NATO troops intervened under a U.N. Security Council mandate.
Kosovo's formal independence, however, seems destined to be another political wedge hammered into a growing rift in U.S./Russian relations-another conflict we thought was over.
It may surprise some that American soldiers are still deployed to Kosovo and have been all along. Currently, there are approximately 1,400 American troops there, composing the U.S. contingent leading NATO's Multinational Task Force (East), which still carries the original U.S. designation Task Force (TF) Falcon. At the height of the operation, about 7,000 U.S. troops were assigned to TF Falcon.
American troops serving in TF Falcon now are mostly Army National Guard soldiers operating under a command element from the 35th Infantry Division. Two battalions from the 34th Infantry Division are assigned to the task force along with the 1st Battalion, 185th Aviation Regiment, and a large medical task force. TF Falcon remains headquartered at Camp Bondsteel, the sprawling American base that was constructed at the outset of the operation. It began as a rough-hewn collection of tents, and the U.S. flag flew from a crooked tree trunk that was stripped of its limbs and set into one of the higher hills.
The catalyst for U.N./NATO involvement was a heavyhanded general repression of ethnic Albanians that escalated into a massive and violent campaign conducted through the winter of 1998-99 by the then-Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) army, Ministry of Interior police and ethnic Serbian militias to quash the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which had increased attacks against the established government and with which the government had been skirmishing for a number of years.
The culminating event that …