European Western Balkans

[EWB Interview] Foggo: Security in the Western Balkans improved since last decade

James G. Foggo; Photo: US Navy / Brian Dietrick

Interview with Admiral James G. Foggo III, commander of Allied Joint Force Command Naples and commander of U.S. Naval Forces Africa. The interview was conducted in Belgrade during admiral Foggo’s visit to Serbia.

European Western Balkans: How do you see security in the Western Balkans? What do you consider to be the main security-related challenges?

James G. Foggo: Let me take you back to the first time I became acquainted with the region. It was in 2003/2004 while working in the Pentagon, where I studied the Balkans and had a responsibility to be a subject-matter expert on the Balkans. So my perspective dates from back then to present. I had an opportunity to travel to Belgrade a couple of times between 2005 and 2009 and if I were to say how did the security situation look back then as opposed to today, I would say it has improved and I am very happy to say that.

We have seen many members of the former Yugoslavia declare independence and become members of NATO and also of the EU. Here in Belgrade, I know that your president is leading the charge for Euro-Atlantic integration and I wish him all the success in doing that because I think it would be very lucrative for the state of Serbia and very helpful for your economy. So, I think this bodes well for both stability and prosperity in Serbia.

EWB: Do you believe that the Montenegrin membership in NATO has positively influenced the overall security situation in the region?

JGF: Absolutely. If you read this Charter, which I carry with me all the times – the Charter of NATO from 1949, it talks about deterrence and defence – a defensive Alliance that believes in collective security for all. That makes it easier to have a dialogue with countries that are a part of this institution and this very successful Alliance which has been here for over 70 years. So yes, I would like to see more countries of the Balkans become full members of NATO.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a member of Partnership for Peace (PfP), Serbia has been a member of PfP from 2006 to present and, of course, FYROM is knocking at the door. Namely, we have got a couple of things to work through there and I hope for all the success in FYROM.

EWB: Serbia is the only Western Balkan country that does not aspire to join NATO. However, there seems to be a strong and stable cooperation with the Alliance. How would you describe this partnership?

JGF: Very successful, and I will give you a few examples why.

First of all, I have three members of my command from Naples here, beyond the group that is with me, having key leader engagement with your Chief of Defence, Minister of Foreign Affairs and your Defence Minister. Those three members are out planning exercise REGEX, which is the regional exercise that Serbia is hosting with NATO and with my headquarters in Naples this year. It will take place in October.

There are several planning conferences throughout the year, and the purpose of REGEX is to teach our partner countries how NATO procedures and NATO doctrine actually work so that our partner countries can plan an exercise that mirrors a real-life situation – humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, overseas type operations from start to finish.

We learned a lot about the Serbian Armed Forces (SAF) and the SAF in partnership with NATO learned a lot about it. So I think that both work well for our relationship and partnership.

In addition, I brought with me a picture of a 63rd Airborne Battalion of the SAF and in the back row are all the non-commissioned officers who came from NATO headquarters to be with the battalion so that they can talk about how  did the SAF approach the military operations and how does the NATO approach them, how do we do business, how can we better understand one another, etc. At the same time, they were together for an entire week, they went out together, they enjoyed one another’s company, they had a strong esprit de corps and they established an unmatched comradery and when Master Sgt. Hilke Lütt from the German Armed Forces came back, she brought me this photo and a little note that said “mission accomplished” and she gave me 63rd Airborne Battalion badge and this is what I am having in my office all the time, as a reminder of our partnership with the Serbs.

Serbia, too, has been very helpful to me and to the Iraqi Armed Forces. I am charged with the responsibility of training the Iraqi Armed Forces in medical procedures, explosive ordnance disposal, and also repair of old armored equipment and personnel carriers. Serbia volunteered to bring Iraqis to Niš and teach them how to do medical triage and medical care for personnel on the field with open wounds. It was very much appreciated, and I spoke to your Defence Minister and your Chief of Defence and I asked them to continue doing that because it is extremely important for us. I see the expansion of that mission coming because it is getting more important. Iraqi forces are standing on their own against terrorism, they have been rejuvenated after the campaign in Mosul and so they need our help and we need Serbia’s help with that very important mission.

So, all of these things contribute to a healthy partnership that does not necessarily require that Serbia becomes a full member of NATO.

One of the other things that are extremely successful is the bilateral relationship between the US and Serbia that is unmatched through the State Partnership Programme. You may have seen some members of the Ohio National Guard from the State of Ohio that are in Serbia or Serbs who are in the United States – training, learning about one another and forming bonds and friendship – this has been going on for a long time. It is without a doubt one of our most successful State Partnership Programmes.

I think the future is bright for a continued collaboration and cooperation in all these fields and, again, this is not my first time to Belgrade, it is my third or fourth visit. I have been very familiar with the professionalism of SAF since I have first started working on the Balkan issues back in the early 2000s. You have a very professional and an extremely qualified force and it is a pleasure to have a relationship with KFOR. The command I have in Kosovo and SAF go on patrol together up in the administrative borderline to the North and it is always a very cordial, professional and enlightening experience for both sides.

EWB: FYROM and BiH are the two leading aspirants for NATO membership in the region, but there are numerous political obstacles for their accession. But political disputes aside, do you believe that the armies of the two states have the capacities to become part of NATO in the near future?

J.G.F: Yes, I think FYROM has made tremendous progress. There are some things that need to be worked out in the political realm regarding naming conventions that must be regulated first, but I think they would be outstanding members of NATO.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we are working very hard and I have a General Officer, a Brigadier General who is stationed in Sarajevo with a rather large staff, who is helping BiH with defence reform. One of the things they need to do is figure out how to get a handle on and register all of their defence properties centred throughout the state Bosnia and Herzegovina. They are moving in the right direction, but they have more work to do. They are a partner, a member of the Partnership for Peace, and they are moving towards the eventual potential membership in the Alliance, and we wish them great success, which is why we have an American Airforce General in Sarajevo right now with the staff trying to help them.

EWB: Can we expect NATO to reduce the presence of its troops in Kosovo in 2018 or in the near future, or this would rather remain on the same level?

J.G.F: The issue of the size of the force is a question for the North Atlantic Council – it is a political question. Right now, the force is about 4000 troops. That is the force that is very capable and has a track history of a good success in maintaining a safe and secure environment, which is our mission.

Any change in the size of that force would be conditions-based. So, if we continue to make progress in Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, if there is a continued good will between the two capitals, if the institutions in Kosovo continue to make success towards democratic institutions and the rule of law governance, if police and security forces continue to make progress, that will hopefully some day allow Kosovo and Serbia to exist in kind of a peaceful coexistence in the region. But we are not there yet and in 2018 I think that the size of the force will remain about the same so that we can continue to do the mission that we have been doing for eighteen years now. But eventually, I would like to see something that becomes more like a deterrence presence in the region.

Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

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