Remember the Balkans?
Just back from a day in Kosovo, in the heart of the Balkans. What a difference a decade makes.
It wasn't so long ago that there were nearly 60,000 NATO troops in Balkan peacekeeping missions, often engaged in vigorous combat -- it was the Afghanistan of the 1990s.
During the turbulent decade after the break-up of the former Yugoslav state, held together by Communist dictator Tito, the region underwent a difficult rebirth.
Over 100,000 were killed and between one and two million refugees were pushed across borders in active warfare among the various ethnic and religious groups: Croats (Catholic), Bosniaks (Muslims), and Serbs (Orthodox).
At a place called Srebrenica, in Bosnia, nearly 8,000 mostly men and boys were massacred in the worst war crime in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
Robert Kaplan's brilliant book, "Balkan Ghosts" captured the thousand-year history of the region and the prospects for peace looked grim indeed. At the outset of the international community's involvement, there was much pessimism regarding what could be accomplished, one senior US official famously said, "We don't have a dog in that fight."
Today the Balkans look very different. While tensions remain, Croatia, Albania, and Slovenia are members of NATO. Bosnia-Herzagovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Montenegro are all in various stages of applying for NATO membership. Serbia wants in the European Union. Kosovo is recognized by nearly 100 nations. And many of the countries have troops in Afghanistan.
The international community, including a significant military effort from NATO, helped bring the sides to various negotiations. The people of the Balkans, tired of war, were willing to compromise. Instead of reaching for guns, they chose to pursue prosecutions in the International Criminal Court.
Today, instead of 60,000 troops in the Balkans and active combat, NATO has just over 5,000 troops, almost all in Kosovo. Their job is to maintain a "safe and secure environment" and provide "freedom of movement."
While there are occasional demonstrations and roadblocks, and some violence, the situation is largely under control. During my time as SACEUR, we've been able to reduce our presence from over 15,000 to a third of that number. We are hoping to reduce it further in the coming year, although that will be very situation-dependent.
The key will be steady and sustained international pressure on both Serbia and Kosovo to resolve their difficulties, which range from border disputes to customs arrangements along their extensive and contested border. The European Union has done good work of late bringing the two Prime Ministers to talks, and these appear set to continue into the New Year.
NATO will also stay steady, and there is no pressure to depart prematurely from the 28 nations and our partners (Austria, Finland, Sweden, Morocco, and others) who supply the troops. We'll continue performing our UN mandated mission to the best of our ability.
As the cold winter approaches, I'm thankful for the 5,000 troops far from their homes -- they are standing the watch, keeping the peace, and shaping a more peaceful world in the Balkans: something that looked impossible a