March 12, 2010:
The U.S. is pulling another 570 troops out of Kosovo, leaving about 830. By the end of the year there will be only about 700 U.S. troops left, but a token number will remain for another year or so, as the area is still in need of some peacekeepers. There are still about 200 American peacekeepers in nearby Bosnia, continuing service that began 14 years ago.
American troops have been in Kosovo for eleven years, part of an international peacekeeping force that originally came in to make sure Serb troops got out, and to keep the peace between the remaining Serb civilians and the majority Albanian population. The Serbs were persuaded to leave by a 78 day bombing campaign of Serbia, and Serb troops in Kosovo.
The U.S. initially sent over 6,000 troops into Kosovo. Most of them lived in Camp Bondsteel. As military bases go, this one was remarkable. It took less than six months to build the 955-acre facility. It's surrounded by an eight-foot high earth wall, plus a wire fence. Troops and electronic devices watch the perimeter at all times. The base is self-sufficient when it comes to vital utilities. It generates its own electricity, purifies some half-million gallons of water a day and destroys waste via three incinerators. There is a fortified command post, a helicopter landing and maintenance area and ammo storage bunkers. Most living and working spaces are air-conditioned.
Camp Bondsteel cost $350 million to build and $50 million a year to maintain. Much of the "construction cost" consists of portable equipment that can be moved out when the base is closed. A lot of the annual maintenance goes into the local economy, as more than a thousand locals were hired to do all the maintenance (including cleaning troop barracks) and food preparation. From the beginning, some non-American troops were also stationed at Bondsteel. The base can house 7,000 personnel, and most of those now there are non-American.
The many amenities on the base were necessary because U.S. troops are not allowed off base unless on duty (or for some group tours). No alcohol is allowed on the base, and going to local villages for a drink is forbidden. The troops get hardship duty pay and hostile fire pay, which amuses the other military contingents in Kosovo.
Camp Bondsteel looks more like a fortress than any of the other NATO bases. But with the fiber optic Internet hook up to stay in touch with the folks back home, at least morale isn't much of a problem. What does rankle the troops, at least the combat troops, is the derision they receive from other NATO troops. It's not unwarranted. The other NATO contingents spend a lot of time out among the local civilians and get to know them better.
The non-American troops also spend more time out patrolling. The Kosovo rebel groups, fighting to expand Kosovo control into Serbia, Greece and Macedonia, prefer to operate in areas covered by U.S. troops. American soldiers put safety ahead of getting the job done. Officially, that's not the case, but in practice it is and the rebels take advantage of it. There will always be fewer U.S. soldiers on patrol and they will be more cautious in the face of possible hostile action.
All this is frustrating for American soldiers, who would prefer a little more freedom in the field and off duty. But fear of a media and political circus if anyone is hurt, or gets into trouble with civilians, turns American troops into prisoners in a gilded cage. On the positive side, American troops in Kosovo have fewer accidents and injuries than they would back home, where they could drive their own cars and party whenever they wanted to. But to many inside - and outside - Camp Bondsteel, the place looks and feels more like a prison than an army base.