Army Adjusts to Mission in Kosovo

By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, November 23, 1999
GNJILANE, Kosovo "Mad Dog 6," a company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division, is meeting by candlelight with Kosovo Albanian leaders because the electricity in the dusty orange school room in Pozaranje has just gone out.

Hunting season is canceled, announces U.S. Army Capt. Kevin Lambert, a Tom Cruise look-alike whose last assignment included a mock takeover of a Central American airstrip. He reports that downtown traffic in Pozaranje has improved since the unlicensed street vendors were banned. He wants receipts showing how market taxes are being spent. He needs tips on two teenage girls who committed suicide. He apologizes for the way his soldiers jostled teachers who came to town to collect stipends from the United Nations.

The soldiers, he explains as he cracks his knuckles and chomps gum, were merely trying to organize the line. "This was the first time, and the first time is always painful," says Lambert, the strap of his black pistol holster held together across his back with duct tape. "We will try to do better next time."

When he finally goes home to nearby Vitina, Lambert will remove his protective "battle rattle" 35 pounds of armor and gadgetry the Army requires him to wear and lie down to sleep in a tiny blue office in a former Serbian police station. His bed faces a big black flag that reads: "Run with the Best, Die Like the Rest."

It had been a typical day for Lambert, 28, one of the 6,000 young soldiers trying to build a new Kosovo from the tattered remnants they found after NATO's 78-day air campaign ended in June. Earlier, Lambert had convinced a Serbian man to let a family of ethnic Albanian squatters remain in his apartment. He had ordered windows for a nearby school. He had led a dozen American soldiers toting M-16s through an Albanian market so the few Serbs left in town might feel safe to go shopping.

This is not the life Lambert or others expected when they signed up, ready to do battle and trained in armor, infantry and artillery tactics. In Kosovo, where President Clinton will visit troops today, the soldiers have had to learn to be surrogate mayors, school principals, police chiefs, social workers and even corporate chief executive officers as they try to forge lasting peace in a land divided by centuries of hate.

Not since post-World War II Germany and Japan has the U.S. military entered into people's daily lives to the extent it has in Yugoslavia's southernmost province. The Army's top leadership complains that peacekeeping comes at a cost, diverting money and troops from the military's primary war-fighting role. Army officials recently declared two of their 10 combat divisions not ready to fight a high-intensity war because they were on peacekeeping missions.

"There's good and bad to peacekeeping," Col. Stephen A. Hicks said. "You lose some of the high-intensity skills, but you gain junior leaders. In six months, it's like six years in the Army."

Of a force of 480,000, the Army has 14,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor, the Sinai and Macedonia. Although it is lobbying for money to create a few more agile brigades, it has so far done little to change its heavy Cold War civil affairs resources it needs for peacekeeping. And its massive Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles are too heavy for many of Kosovo's roads and require a huge support staff.

Some troops carry $3,000 night vision goggles that can spot a sniper on a balcony at midnight, but don't have flashlights to search car trunks. Some soldiers have complicated Army radios, but many use walkie-talkies they bought back home at Wal-Mart. Apache attack helicopters meant for destroying tanks use their expensive thermal and infrared imaging to look for bad guys who roam the streets at night.

There is no pretense of a quick exit from Kosovo. The proof is in concrete. At the 1,000-acre Camp Bondsteel, the largest temporary foreign base constructed since the Vietnam War, the cement footers and the wooden barracks they anchor are built to last at least five years.

The mission in Kosovo differs significantly from the 4-year-old Army peacekeeping operation in Bosnia, where 6,000 U.S. troops help NATO monitor the separation of three well-defined warring factions along miles-long buffer zones.

In Kosovo, where a Washington Post reporter recently spent a week with troops, 7,000 U.S. military personnel are painstakingly trying to pacify ethnically mixed villages street by street, and sometimes person by person.

Keeping an Uneasy Peace

When the war ended in June, NATO divided Kosovo into five sectors. Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the United States each control one. A Russian battalion operates in the American sector in southeast Kosovo. Troops from 24 other countries also participate. There have been no U.S deaths due to hostile action, but eight American soldiers have died in accidents or of self-inflicted wounds.

While the nearly 40,000 KFOR, or Kosovo Force, troops have effectively quashed overt large-scale violence in Kosovo, tensions between the minority Serbian population and the province's ethnic Albanian majority remain high. Many Kosovo residents say KFOR's presence is the only reason the fighting has not resumed, and the only reason some Serbs have risked staying.

"We'd like to have KFOR forever, for security and to continue doing the work they've been doing up until now," said Hysen Rajolli, an ethnic Albanian mine director.

To build trust, soldiers have insinuated themselves into the micro-level of communities. To calm neighbors in Klokat, troops collected 10 truckloads of disputed furniture and made residents prove ownership. The Army escorts bus loads of Serbs to the province's border to shop. It takes people to medics, guards newly sown fields and settles disputes over woodcutting and stolen cows.

With a hamstrung United Nations and the U.S. Congress unwilling to fund more projects through civilian agencies, the Army gets in deeper and deeper. The Pentagon has given commanders in Kosovo $5 million to engender goodwill in villages. Most of it is being spent to winterize schools, repair electrical grids and water treatment plants, buy fuel for farmers and rebuild homes.

From the moment they arrived June 14, the Americans pulled their tanks and Bradleys up to factories, churches, farmhouses and police stations and set up barracks there to intimidate troublemakers. They sent tank squads to guard Serbian and ethnic Albanian churches 24 hours a day.

They also set out on a much more problematic mission: to make a civil society in a world with no town councils, police, courts, banks, property records or civic spirit.

Lt. Sam Donnelly set up a phone company board of directors in Vitina. He developed a billing system and figured out how to trace threatening calls ethnic Albanians were making to Serbs.

Maj. Chris Jacobs, a lawyer for only 18 months, wrote the procedures for criminal trials and conducted the first postwar preliminary criminal hearing. It took place in a small tent, in a downpour, by the illumination of a chem-light stick.

Capt. Torry Brennan, 30, got the spa and medical clinic in Klokat running again. He fixed the water pipes, drew up a salary structure and fired all 120 Serbian employees who refused to come to work. His battalion commander is still pressing the Serbian community to replace them.

The first time Brennan held a town meeting to discuss the clinic, "I got a little confrontational," he says, pounding the table and threatening to leave when the crowd began yelling. At the second meeting, "I just sat there and let them vent."

U.S. troops seem to want to run Kosovo as they would a base back home. Troops have radar guns to catch speeders and have helped some towns lay sandbag speed bumps. Drunk driving and spousal abuse are hot topics. Shop owners in many towns are obligated to sign and post an Army-written pledge not to discriminate, and soldiers conduct spot checks to enforce it.

But officers understand that their mission is more complicated than just keeping order. They all know Carl von Clausewitz's dictum, "War is politics by other means." In Kosovo, they have learned, politics is war by other means.

The officers say they must avoid being used by Serbs hoping to retake the province or by ethnic Albanians trying to force out the remaining Serbs.

In Podgorce, for instance, KFOR soldiers who initially supported integrating the all-Serbian school, now believe "it is a way for the Albanians to begin the cleansing again," said Lt. Col. Michael Ellerbe, Lambert's commander.

"And the worst part is, it would be with KFOR's assistance," Lambert added. "The Albanians know if they get close to the Serbs, they can intimidate them."

Ellerbe, an African American who often speaks at town meetings about the violent history of racial integration in the United States, has convinced the U.N. administration to put off integration this year, which means KFOR must continue to escort students to segregated schools.

Henad Kojic, the Serbian major of Podgorce, where ethnic Albanians are demanding an integrated school, said the first KFOR commander assigned to his area "didn't understand" how inflammatory the issue was. "Now," he added, "we understand KFOR and KFOR understands us."

Because NATO bombed the Serbs during the war, U.S. soldiers are not as welcome in Serbian villages, where their patrols are often greeted with silence. In Albanian villages, by contrast, children and adults run up to the vehicles shouting "NATO! NATO!"

But U.S. soldiers have been surprised at the close ties they have developed with Serbian leaders and business people. At the same time, the Americans express a deep distrust in the shadowy politics of the ethnic Albanian community. Part of this is because the Serbs are the underdog. "We came here thinking we would help the Albanians, but it's been more of defending the Serbs," Hicks said.

Strategy for New Enemies

Long before the air war against Yugoslavia began, U.S. military intelligence had templated its enemy, the Yugoslav military. If electronic surveillance spotted a certain number of tanks and troop carriers, it meant that 15 miles down the road there would be a large body of troops.

But the Yugoslav army left Kosovo.

The new enemies are Albanians in the American sector and Serbs in the northern French sector who have adopted more insidious tactics of intimidation. There is no template for the underground Albanian networks that control property ownership and run a flourishing criminal trade in drugs and black-market goods.

To meet this threat, the Army is trying to adapt its battle tactics to a civilian theater.

Brig. Gen. Craig A. Peterson asked his intelligence unit to put together a town summary for each village. It lists prominent figures the mayor, factory owners, former Kosovo Liberation Army members, the police chief and even, on one list, a murderer.

To develop his campaign plan, one of Peterson's battalion commanders, Lt. Col. Timothy R. Reese, holds a twice weekly Battle Update Brief at Camp Monteith, the Army's smaller second base in Gnjilane. It is here that officers refine their methods.

Brennan, one of Reese's company commanders, reports that soldiers visiting a suspected member of the local ethnic Albanian criminal network surreptitiously confiscated two notebooks filled with names from the man's desk. "No witnesses," someone says. There is hope they have filched the organization's "Who's Who."

In Vitina, reports another officer, KFOR picked up two men with counterfeit police cards. "What can we do to these guys?" Reese asks. "Random stop-and-searches seem appropriate to me."

In Stanisor, some Albanian teenage thugs are harassing elderly Serbs and children. "Question them a 'scared straight' kind of program," Reese suggests. "Put them in a security checkpoint. Let them freeze a little."

"What if the parents overreact?" Command Sgt. Maj. Willie L. Day asks.

"Do everything right by the book, no blindfolding or anything," Reese answers. "You can very well lock up the parents if they can't control their kids."

On top of everything, Reese announces that the snowplows have arrived along with division instructions for "snow disasters." This amuses the officers, who have never had snowplow duty before.

"I'm curious," Day interjects. "What did they do before KFOR?"

On a Civilian Watch

In Kosovo, the Army's heavy armor mentality sometimes butts up against the realities of peacekeeping.

As Lt. Jason Green, West Point class of '98, leads three armored Humvees into a quiet schoolyard in Jasenovik, the doors of the school burst open and out rush four elite Russian airborne troops trailed by seven hard-faced Serbs.

"Okay, we got 'em," Green mutters as he steps out of his vehicle, surprised, suspicious and nervous.

Green is aware that Russian troops recently had entered the American sector without authorization. The Russians had said they were escorting Serbian children. But the American soldiers doubt these reports, just as many doubt the Russians have only good intentions in Kosovo.

"Okay, ask them what are they doing here?" Green orders his interpreter.

Escorting children to school, says the Russian standing two feet from Green.

"Ask him if he's tasked to stay all day."

Yes.

"Ask him how many days a week."

Six.

"Six! They go to school on Saturday?" he says, believing he had caught the Russian in a lie.

"Okay, stop," Green says abruptly to himself, realizing he's been too hard-line. "Let's start over." His voice softens, his body posture relaxes.

"My name is Lt. Green ... are there enough desks in the school? Do the students have enough paper?"

Seeing the cynical gaze of his 30-year-old noncommissioned officer, Green says to Staff Sgt. Eric Ebert: "I don't want to sound like I'm prying information out of him. ... I'm just trying to make it easy for him right now."

"Is there a problem that we came here?" the Russian asks, with a hint of confrontation.

"It's not a problem, we just need to know when you're in the American sector."

Within five minutes, Green has the Russian's commander's name and unit number. The matter will be resolved many grades above his lieutenant's bars.

But in the Humvee, it is Green's reputation that is on the line.

"Hey Lt. Green, you're a pretty diplomatic guy," taunts Ebert, looking down from the gunner seat. "I'd just not let them into the sector."

Green changes the subject. "Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to pick armor," he tells a passenger. "There's something about a big powerful piece of machinery rolling over and killing everything. Why carry a gun when you can ride it? What I'm trained to do is command a platoon and kill other tanks."

Filling the U.N. Void

The United Nations was supposed to be in charge by now, with ethnically mixed town councils and a U.N.-trained police force. KFOR would stick around for the big tasks and eventually pull out.

U.N. officials acknowledge their deficit and blame lack of money and staff. Only 1,400 of the promised 4,100 police officers are here. Some have no professional police experience and many are too afraid to patrol without a KFOR escort. Dozens of shining red-and-white police vans sit parked and empty in Pristina and Gnjilane.

In the American sector, the Army is still in charge on the ground after five months.

As soon as autumn's early darkness settles over Gnjilane, the "Corso" the Kosovo version of cruising begins. But here the Corso is a suspect, monitored by heavily armed U.S. troops led, on one recent night, by Capt. Charles Hansel.

He patrols on foot with four other soldiers, including one whose five-foot-long radio antenna flops with each step.

"Boom!"

The sound of a shrapnel grenade echoes through the city. Hansel grabs the radio handset. A car goes by too quickly. "Stop that car and search it," he yells.

Sixteen troops on foot and six Humvees race to the blast several blocks away to interview neighbors and block off the street. The grenade has wrecked the door of a Gypsy's home.

"Boom!"

Another grenade.

Hansel orders all the patrons in a nearby bar held for questioning.

The captain's radio crackles with the voice of a soldier trying to give Hansel the location of the explosion.

But Hansel and the soldier are using different maps. Hansel has a local street map, the soldier a Defense Department satellite map. Instead of streets he's calling out coordinates.

Hansel curses. "I need the satellite map. I can't translate the location to a grid."

As Hansel talks, explosions come from new directions.

"Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!"

These are firecrackers. But the soldiers are wired and angry now. They will move up the curfew from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m.

"Anyone who looks suspicious, pull them out of their vehicles," Hansel says.

The search begins, and ends 10 minutes later when he decides it's fruitless. There's a discussion about sending out the Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Instead, several Humvees are dispatched to block traffic.

The ethnic Albanian drivers get out of their cars and begin milling about. "I have a friend with a headache," one asks a soldier. "Can I go?"

"No!" a lieutenant yells.

The soldiers search a couple of cars, and tell everybody to leave. The curfew comes and streets empty. The troops leave frustrated, but they have accomplished the night's mission. All is quiet in this corner of Kosovo.

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