Kosovo Lessons Recalled

But Have They Been Learned?


By Dr. Richard Weitz

12/13/2010 – Despite a decade of intense efforts, the December 12, 2010 legislative elections in Kosovo, the first parliamentary ballot in that region since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008, remind us that the international community has yet to cap that longstanding post-conflict stabilization mission with success.

The voters had to choose among 29 political parties, each of which pledged to overcome Kosovo’s enormous problems — widespread criminality and corruption, an unemployment rate estimated at up to 50 percent, restrictions on civil rights, and little prospect of soon joining NATO, the EU, or other international institutions.

Most seriously, many of the 120,000 ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo heeded the call of the Serbian government in Belgrade, which has never reconciled itself to the loss of Kosovo, to boycott the ballot, despite being guaranteed 10 seats in the 120-seat Kosovo parliament. Instead, the 1.5 million ethnic Kosovars decided the results unassisted by their unhappy ethnic Serb compatriots, who live predominately in a ghetto protected by foreign troops in the far north of Kosovo.


The Acting President of Kosovo, Jakup Krasniqi, called for December 12th early parliamentary elections (Credit: http://www.pisqa.com/11/kosovo-parliamentary-elections-called-for-december-12/)The Acting President of Kosovo, Jakup Krasniqi, 
called for December 12th early parliamentary elections
Credit: www.pisqa.com

The post-conflict stabilization operation in Kosovo has involved many of the world’s most important international and regional security institutions: the United Nations (UN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Even though the majority ethnic Albanian community in Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008 through the local political infrastructure developed by these institutions, most U.N. members have declined to recognize this status. The United Nations, NATO, the OSCE have decreased their presence in Kosovo over time, but they remain heavily involved in the region due to the risk of renewed ethnic violence, Kosovo’s severe economic problems, and continuing disputes among the great powers over how to manage this troubled region.

NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) did ensure that Serbian military and police units withdrew from all Kosovo’s territory within the 11-day timeline that had been established in the Military Technical Agreement. It also succeeded in disarming the fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) or incorporated them within the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC). These measures prevented further clashes between Kosovo paramilitary units and Serbian regular forces as well as among the Kosovo factions themselves.

Overall, violence has remained at low levels despite a few occasional outbursts in which the peacekeepers have sometimes been faulted for their inability or unwillingness to intervene.

Although the provisional government of Kosovo declared independence without much further violence, the Serbs remain reconciled to the result, raising the specter that this newly frozen conflict will, like the one in Georgia, thaw at any moment.


(Credit: Dreamstime)

(Credit: Dreamstime)

The United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and KFOR were originally insufficiently staffed and resources to prevent ethnic tensions from escalating following the Serbs’ departure.

Yet, the deeper problem was that centuries of ethnic tensions cannot be dissolved overnight by an international force no matter its effectiveness.

It could take generations to overcome the deep ethnic hostility between the ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. The various U.N. missions and other interventions have also failed to overcome the impasse in the diplomatic talks between Belgrade and Pristina, though their actions—such as the European Union’s dangling before the parties the prospects of tighter ties and eventually possible membership—continue to dampen conflict, if indirectly.

KFOR’s decentralized structure proved simultaneously a major strength and a significant weakness for the mission. KFOR divided Kosovo into 5 zones (a new zone was created in June 2006, adding to the original 4), each under the command of separate multinational brigades (MNB) in which five lead nations commanded peacekeeping, police and nation-building operations (a similar division to that which existed in post-WWII Berlin). Effectively, KFOR was directed by the NATO countries with the largest contingent of soldiers in each multinational task force:

  • Britain (MNB Centre based in Lipijan)
  • France (MNB North based in Novo Selo)
  • Italy (MNB West based in Pec)
  • Germany (MNB South) in Prizren
  • United States (MNB East based in Urosevac)



In theory, NATO had a single chain of command extending from the individual MNBs, which were formally under the authority of the Commander KFOR, who reported directly to the Commander of Joint Force Command Naples (COM JFCN). In practice, each of the MNBs enjoyed considerable autonomy and would often receive orders from their national commands, a problem that has affected NATO operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The decentralized implementation structure aimed to encourage the tailoring of policies to the needs of the particular region and to allow KFOR troops to cooperate more effectively (especially in the gathering of intelligence) with the local police and population.  But it also detracted from the unity of the mission.

Managing security and reconstruction operations at the local level allowed policymakers to understand and respond better to their constituents’ specific needs. Despite these benefits, however, the dual command structure that each national military contingent operated under worsened the confusion of an already difficult mission.

For instance, each of the five MNBs developed its own information operations strategy rather than followed a single integrated KFOR plan. In addition, military commanders received orders and less formal guidance from both NATO headquarters and their own governments. This dual hierarchy led to contradictory orders and, when followed, occasionally contradictory policies.

When the field commanders followed the demands of their national governments, which was often the case, the ally’s distinct domestic concerns (usually related to shielding their troops from combat) took priority over mission-wide needs. In KFOR, as in Afghanistan, it proved difficult to order soldiers from one MNB assist soldiers in another MNB because of Allies’ reluctance to send their troops outside of their region.

The system of caveats that has so disrupted NATO operations in Afghanistan has also impeded KFOR operations in Kosovo. Both NATO and non-NATO governments often required their military contingents to secure approval from their national capitals before implementing a KFOR directive.

Similarly, governments sometimes withdrew their troops without coordinating force reductions with KFOR. These conditions caused friction and weakened the force’s unity of action. The KFOR commander from October 1999 until April 2000, German General Klaus Reinhardt, later complained that the KFOR commander “has nothing to command” despite his lofty title.

In some cases, NATO allies were often reluctant to cooperate among themselves even in emergency. Much to their chagrin, France discovered this problem early on in their mission when few allies offered troops to assist French forces to quell an uprising that had broken out in the northern city of Mitrovica. Besides helping to overcome these weaknesses, a more centralized command structure would have helped identify best practices and applied them as standard operating procedures throughout the entire mission area.


(Credit: Dreamstime)

(Credit: Dreamstime)

Compounding the fissiparous effects of KFOR’s decentralized structure was the involvement of so many disparate international institutions (the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, their field missions in Kosovo) and non-governmental organizations in the operation.

Combined with the absence of a dominant command and control center, the presence of so many international institutions — with differing mandates, players, and visions — has made it difficult for policymakers to follow a coherent overall strategy by creating problems of coordination, overlapping jurisdictions among them, and gaps in their authority.

The large number of available international institutions with a Kosovo mandate has also encouraged foreign and domestic actors to go forum shopping. For example, the Russian government used its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to bloc actions by the NATO and European Union, institutions in which Moscow enjoyed little influence. Conversely, on several occasions, the Western governments bypassed the U.N. in order to act unilaterally through NATO and the European Union.

In addition, there was an awkward sharing of responsibilities regarding the construction of the new Kosovo Police Service. The OSCE had the task of recruiting and training, while UNMIK was to mentor, monitor and assist in its development. Since December 2008, the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) has assumed UNMIK’s responsibilities for monitoring, mentoring and assisting the Kosovo Police (KP) – however, capacity building programs for the KP have occurred through bilateral arrangements.

Still, a more distinct division of labor among the institutions might have made better use of Europe’s uniquely rich institutional architecture. For example, the Council of Europe has led a useful Reconstruction Implementation Commission that has concentrated on reconstructing the 34 cultural and religious heritage sites that had been damaged during the March 2004 riots against the Serbs. The profusion of European and Eurasian security institutions involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan might also be needlessly complicating the operation there.

In one respect, the complexity issue resembles the centralization issue. In the latter case, the major troops contributors were reluctant to allow foreign commanders to control their forces, so they carved out their own “kingdoms.” The complexity of the international presence in the Kosovo case likewise seems hard to avoid. Neither NATO nor the U.N. would serve under the other’s military command. The architects of the Kosovo mission learned from the problems in Bosnia, where both the EU and the OSCE operated independently, and placed them under loose U.N. oversight.


The United Nations might have assumed these functions directly, but at some probable loss of capacity. In the Kosovo case, the mission planners made a conscious choice to favor broad participation over unity of command. In Afghanistan, they also have prioritized seeking an extensive coalition, with all the national caveats and tensions between institutions, primarily because the United States remains reluctant to wage the protracted conflict only with a few key NATO allies.


(Credit: Dreamstime)Credit: Dreamstime

A lack of effective communication among the parties compounded the complexity and incoherence problems. This insufficient coordination among the military and civilian players was evident even before the mission began. Within KFOR itself, moreover, insufficient communication and coordination occurred between the multinational brigades. The short duration of some troop rotations, such as France’s four-month field deployment policy, limited its troops’ ability to develop ties with the civilian staff working in the region as well as the local population.

Some analysts believe that the rigorous force protection methods practiced by the American and German forces placed a significant barrier between them and the people they were trying to aid. They argue that the British practice of shedding unneeded protective equipment not only instilled a sense of trust between solider and citizen, but dressing with only a sidearm reinforced the belief that combat operations had ended and that the peacekeepers were there to help maintain public order and safety and assist with post-conflict reconstruction and other civic tasks. This British method is also seen as increasing trust between soldiers and citizens and allowing the peacekeepers to collect valuable intelligence about possible threats to their mission and themselves.

The lack of readily available and deployable resources to conduct essential civilian missions such as local governance, street-level policing, and community liaison especially those that could be employed rapidly in the early phase of the operation, disrupted the UNMIK mission. The limited UNMIK capabilities, especially at the beginning of its mission, compelled KFOR to assume civil responsibilities beyond its mandate when UNMIK needed longer than expected to commence functioning civil services. The UNMIK support provided to the field commanders beyond Pristina was often underfunded, understaffed, and lacked the materials and knowledge (i.e., the ability to speak English) necessary to be an effective KFOR partner.

It took the U.N. a year to reach its authorized strength of 5,000 police officers following the end of hostilities. The Security Council had sought to compensate for the U.N.’s limited police surge capacity by authorizing NATO in UNSC 1244 to assume responsibility for public safety until adequate numbers of UN police could be deployed.

Although the mandate for KFOR, unlike for the Stabilization Force in Bosnia, included “law and order,” KFOR was unprepared to assume such extensive civilian policing functions. As a result, law and order deteriorated during the power vacuum that emerged between the withdraw of Serbian military administration and its replacement by KFOR and UNMIK. By June 1999, one account placed the murder rate in Kosovo at some 50 each week, most of which were directed at the Serbian minority.

This rise of ethnic reprisals was especially worrisome given that more than 135,000 Serbs remained in Kosovo following the war, mostly in various enclaves in the north. KFOR and UNMIK would eventually establish order, including by protecting the Serbian minority enclaves. By mid-2000, the murder rate had fallen to around five per week. Nonetheless, the initial wave of violence led many Kosovo Serbs to flee to neighboring Serbia, where most remain.

When the UNMIK police force was finally established, it was beset by the same problems that have hindered past U.N. police missions. The largest troop contributors to U.N. peacekeeping missions come from developing countries, and their police units are often less well-trained in community policing methods, which decreases their ability to train the host nation’s police units. Furthermore, the need to retrain most U.N. officers in law enforcement methods and crowd control, combined with the small stipends offered to them (approximately $71 per day), contributed to the difficulties that UNMIK faced throughout its mission.

Along with a weakened police force, initially UNMIK’s operation was hindered by an inadequate judiciary and the lack of corrections facilities. As a result of Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing and racist policies throughout the 1990s, few Kosovo Albanians were qualified to preside over Kosovo’s courtrooms. The EU eventually had to organize a separate mission, EULEX, to address this deficiency by providing supplementary teaching and training. Even one potentially hopeful sign — that almost all the Kosovo Serb police officers who abandoned their jobs after Kosovo’s independence declaration — have now returned must be discounted since they probably could not find suitable employment elsewhere.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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