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What is the future of KFOR in Kosovo?

Photo: Flickr / KFOR Kosovo

Following the signing of the NATO-Yugoslavia Military Technical Agreement on 9 June 1999, which ended the NATO air campaign, UN Security Council Resolution 1244 was adopted the following day, providing for the withdrawal of FR Yugoslavia’s military and police forces and the establishment of NATO-led international operations in Kosovo.

As early as June 11, the first contingents of KFOR (Kosovo Force) from today’s North Macedonia arrived. Nine days later, with the complete withdrawal of FR Yugoslavia, KFOR remained a legitimate military force in Kosovo.

More than 20 years have passed since then, the circumstances in Kosovo, Serbia and the Western Balkans have changed significantly, so the question arises as to what political challenges the KFOR mission is facing today and what does its future hold.

The mandate is the same, changes in organization and structure

Although the structure of KFOR has changed over the years (which is normal given the longevity of the mission), the mandate of this mission has remained unchanged.

“The UN mandate for our KFOR peacekeeping mission, which is based on UN Security Council Resolution 1244 from 1999, remains unchanged. We continue to ensure that the environment is safe and secure and that all communities in Kosovo are guaranteed freedom of movement, for the benefit of all people in Kosovo,” said Admiral Robert Burke, Commander of the Joint Forces Command in Naples, which is responsible for the KFOR mission.

In addition, the mission’s role is to support and coordinate international humanitarian efforts and civilian presence, support the development of a stable, democratic, multi-ethnic and peaceful Kosovo, and support the development of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF).

However, what is noticeable is the fluctuation of the countries participating in the mission and the tendency to reduce the number of members of the mission.

“The dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina and regional relations certainly affect the role of KFOR, so over time, the structure and number of the mission have adapted to the situation on the ground. Several years ago, the number of members of this mission was significantly reduced, but it still de facto represents a significant military presence in Kosovo and a significant mechanism for conflict prevention in this region”, said Marija Ignjatijević, Researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP).

Initially, the mission numbered about 50,000 members from 39  NATO members and partner countries. Already in 2008, that number dropped to about 17,500 members. Today, KFOR has just under 3,400 troops from 27 different contributing nations.

While the reduction in the number of troops is causing discomfort to officials in Belgrade and attracting media attention, for analysts from Pristina, it is a sign of improvement in the situation in Kosovo.

“Reduction in the number of KFOR troops is not related (whether directly or indirectly) to the engagement of the KFOR mission in Kosovo as this is rather an individual decision of particular states contributing in this mission specifically. Indeed, it confirms noteworthy improvements in Kosovo“, says for EWB Plator Avdiu, Researcher at the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS).

He, just like Ignjatijević, believes that KFOR has played a significant role for more than 20 years when it comes to comprehensive security in Kosovo.

„In my opinion, this mission nowadays is released from duties and responsibilities it had since that time due to gradual transfer of responsibilities to the Kosovo institutions and development of security institutions of the Republic of Kosovo, including Kosovo Police, Kosovo Security Force, etc.“, thinks Avdiu.

Transformation of the Kosovo Security Force – a challenge for NATO?

On 12 June 2008, nine years after the first KFOR troops entered Kosovo, NATO assigned KFOR a new task – training “he multiethnic, professional and civilian-controlled Kosovo Security Force (KSF).

The KSF is a lightly armed Pristina’s official security force whose main tasks are mainly focused on supporting civilian authorities in situations where it is not appropriate for the police to respond, removing explosives, managing hazardous materials, extinguishing fires and civil protection. Accordingly, the mission of these forces did not include a defence component, which is a characteristic of the armies of most countries.

However, on 14 December 2018, the Kosovo Parliament adopted three laws that lay the basis for the transformation of the KSF into the Kosovo Army in the next ten years, with a plan to have about 5,000 soldiers and about 3,000 reservists.

“The Kosovo parliament adopted with a vast majority, without political differences as it rarely did a set of laws on the forming of the army of Kosovo”, wrote on Facebook at the time the then President of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also reacted to this, stating in the official statement that he regrets that this decision was made despite NATO’s concerns.

“While the transition of the Kosovo Security Force is in principle a matter for Kosovo to decide, we have made clear that this move is ill-timed”, stated at the time Jens Stoltenberg and added that the North Atlantic Council will now have to re-examine the level of NATO’s engagement with the KSF.

While discussions in the North Atlantic Council are still ongoing, as confirmed by Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană in a recent interview for the EWB, Avdiu says that there are no changes in the level of cooperation regarding KFOR or NALT (NATO’s Advisory and Liaison Team located in Kosovo Ministry of Defense and responsible for KSF development).

“Despite some criticisms by NATO HQ following the KSF transformation process, I do not expect now nor in the future any potential reactions from NATO HQ itself with reference to KFOR and NATO HQ activities in Kosovo”, says Avdiu.

He also does not see the reactions from Serbia and their allies as relevant, given that the KSF contributes not only to regional stability in the Western Balkans but also to international peacekeeping missions together with the United States and other partners.

Thus, in January 2021, the Kosovo Parliament voted unanimously to send peacekeepers under the command of the Iowa National Guard. However, the public is not aware of the mission or the number of members to be sent.

Ignjatijević believes that two years after the adoption of this legislation, the situation has not changed much, including the role of KFOR.

“The decision to transform the KSF into an army resonated in Serbia and the topic was sensationally and belligerently covered in the media, although it is certain that such a process can take years and will not greatly affect the situation on the ground,” concludes Ignjatijević.

KFOR is there and it will stay

When it comes to the importance and future of the mission, Marija Ignjatijević emphasizes that for Serbia, the presence of KFOR and good communication with the mission is important as a guarantee of stability and a secure environment for the Serbian community.

“On the other hand, the topic itself is very susceptible in Serbia, and it is rare to talk about specific forms and benefits of cooperation with NATO, including cooperation with KFOR. What is certain is that KFOR will not withdraw completely in the near future, but regional relations will certainly affect the nature of the mission’s mandate”, Ignjatijević told EWB.

On the other hand, when it comes to the future of relations between KFOR and Kosovo itself, Avdiu believes that the new government of Kosovo should develop a strategic framework for cooperation with NATO.

“The new Kosovo Government expected to be constituted soon should develop a strategic cooperation framework with the NATO HQ and its North Atlantic Council for launching a political dialogue between the Kosovo institutions and NATO HQ based in Brussels resulting in establishing mutual contractual relations“, explains Avdiu.

He thinks that this would lay the groundwork for Kosovo’s accession to the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program and the eventual development of a Membership Action Plan (MAP).

„The political dialogue between both parties (Kosovo and NATO HQ directly) would also define the exit strategy of KFOR mission which should remain in Kosovo until the latter becomes a NATO member country when the Kosovo Security Force and the Kosovo Police would in advance assume remaining defence and security duties held currently by KFOR accordingly“, concludes Avdiu.

Given that the end of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, which should result in a comprehensive agreement on the normalization of relations, is far from the conclusion and the fact that Kosovo is not recognized by four NATO members, which makes its Euro-Atlantic perspective uncertain, KFOR will remain the only legitimate military force in Kosovo. However, it will also, as has done before, adjust its activities, structure and numbers of members in order to fulfil its mandate.

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