US troops to leave the Balkans?

Last week Defense Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos, after a meeting with US Ambassador Thomas Miller, told reporters that Greece was considering a scenario of replacing US troops in the Balkans as they leave to fight a war elsewhere. No one should prejudge what our contribution will be, he told journalists at the Defense Ministry after the meeting. The minister explained that based on this scenario additional Greek forces could be deployed in the Balkans – namely Bosnia and Kosovo – in case US forces there are to be redeployed in Afghanistan, or elsewhere, as the USA maps its strategy to fight terrorism. This was the first time that the prospect of US troops leaving their peacekeeping posts in the Balkans had been suggested by a defense official from a member country of NATO, which also has a military presence there. This went almost unnoticed amid the global mayhem caused by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the US-led air strikes against Afghanistan that have followed, leaving key questions unanswered. What impact would a possible disengagement of US troops from the Balkans would have on the highly volatile and still-frail region? How ready is Greece to replace US forces in Bosnia and Kosovo? Since he took office, US President George W. Bush, who as a presidential candidate talked of the need to withdraw the nearly 9,000 US peacekeeping troops from the Balkans, has vocally advocated the need for the United States to keep its commitments to the Balkans – including its forces. During the presidential race, President Bush had signaled for the first time to the USA’s NATO allies a growing frustration in the USA over burden-sharing in NATO-led peacekeeping missions, leaving most of its allies – including Greece – fearing a unilateral withdrawal of US troops from those missions. But since that time, President Bush and other US officials have gone to great lengths to ease those fears and reassure their counterparts in the alliance that the USA stands committed to the region, at the same time asking them to improve their capabilities and enhance their participation in future missions. In an interview with Kathimerini’s English Edition last December, Bruce Jackson, president of the US Committee on NATO, had emphatically denied that Bush had made any such statements, contrary to US and European media reports. But he did stress the concerns of the new US administration on burden-sharing in NATO. (George W. Bush) clarified in his platform letter on Europe and subsequently in a telephone call between one of his aides and (NATO) Secretary-General George Robertson that there is no possibility that he will unilaterally redeploy US troops committed to NATO without consultations and agreement with all of our European allies, Jackson said. We don’t want the Europeans, or some Europeans, to become the Hessians of NATO, and we don’t want to be the standoff munitions of NATO. The rhetoric continued with more reassurances up until this summer, when President Bush visited US troops based in Kosovo at Camp Bondsteel on July 24. In his speech during his four-hour visit then, President Bush reiterated once again a pledge not to pull US forces out of the Balkans unilaterally. America has a vital interest in European stability and, therefore, peace in the region. American and allied forces came into Bosnia and Kosovo. We came in together, and we will leave together, Bush declared then. In a separate written statement Bush noted: We understand that America’s contribution is essential, both militarily and politically. We will not draw down our forces in Bosnia and Kosovo precipitously or unilaterally. Now, less then three months later, these pledges seem to belong to a distant past, as the United States revamps its arsenal for a prolonged and sustained all-out war against international terrorism. The scenario of Greece replacing US troops in the Balkans – instead of a forward deployment at the front line in the fight against terrorism – certainly fits the profile of the role that Greece has played traditionally in the NATO alliance, that of support missions. But even this scenario presents a number of obstacles that make it, if not impossible, somewhat formidable. If Greece were to relieve US forces in the region, the first major obstacle is numbers. The United States maintains approximately 9,000 troops in the Balkans, 5,300 of which are stationed at camps in Kosovo as part of the 42,000-strong KFOR, while the rest are in Bosnia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Greece, on the other hand, maintains a strong presence in Kosovo, with 1,676 troops serving under the KFOR flag, while in Bosnia its presence is limited to a transportation unit. So, if Greece considers a possible replacement of US troops in the Balkans – even a partial one – this would lead to a substantial augmentation of Greece’s military presence, along with logistical and support elements. This would make it the largest-ever export of Greek forces in its recent history, raising serious questions about its aptitude to undertake such task. The second hurdle would be in the replacement of specialized units. If the USA were to redeploy some of its forces from the Balkans to a war zone it would most likely be assault units, including attack helicopter and ground troop units, in order to exploit their experience from operating in the field. The 5,300 US troops in Kosovo include three infantry battalions, two cavalry battalions, one armor battalion, one military police battalion, one military intelligence battalion, one field artillery battalion, as well as Abrams battle tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. In the air the US forces operate Blackhawk and Apache attack helicopters. At the same time, the Greek contingent comprises only a mechanized brigade, with one battalion deployed in Urosevac and the second in Mitrovica, while its headquarters are in Pristina. The tasks assigned to the Greek contingent are mainly support missions, such as combat support and combat service support, convoy escorts, response to traffic accidents, and medical exams. So, in deciding on whether to take up this option of sending troops to the more familiar, and slowly stabilizing, region of southeastern Europe instead of Afghanistan, Greece will have to struggle with numbers as well as with a change in its overall role in NATO-led missions.

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