Over a decade ago, the brilliant writer Robert Kaplan published an award-winning study of the long history of turmoil, racial and religious hatred, conquest, and war in the Balkans. His evocative title was perfect for his themes of historical enmity and bitterness: Balkan Ghosts.
As I fly back from a three day visit of the region, I certainly had ample opportunity to see firsthand all that he describes; yet today, there seems to me to be real hope in the region for cooperation and security alignment, perhaps for the first time in the more than two millenniums of recorded history.
I’ve now visited the Balkans several times in both my NATO and U.S. European Command (EUCOM) hats.
My first stop was Kosovo, where we have 15,000 NATO troops leading a peace support operation. Things there continue to go quite well, and we are in the process of reducing the forces on the ground to 10,000 by January 2010. We’ll look for opportunities as next year unfolds to reduce even further.
Last week, I went to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I presided over the conclusion of a 39-nation, EUCOM-sponsored communications exercise called Combined Endeavor 2009. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the host for this remarkable display of connectivity and cooperation. The tri-partite Presidents, representing the three key ethnic groups in the country, came together to celebrate the event making it a success on many levels.
A couple of days ago, I visited Croatia, where a special operation forces exercise with 10 nations and more than a thousand soldiers was in full swing. I rode out to sea in a U.S. Army helicopter with a Croatian Vertical Insertion Team, and then flew up north to the exercise control center. There I saw representatives from each nation doing practice hostage rescue, boarding at sea, direct action, intelligence gathering – all in a seamless spirit of international military partnering.
And finally, I visited Montenegro, a small and newly independent country on the Adriatic Sea. Above the beautiful and historic Bay of Korta, I joined the leadership of five Adriatic Charter nations discussing mutual support in the event of natural disasters. The mood of the conference was upbeat, and I departed very optimistic about the future.
Old ghosts die hard – especially in the Balkans. But, if a ghost is something that haunts our past, I am starting to believe not in Balkan ghosts, but rather in Balkan dreams – dreams of a region that truly works together in peaceful ways and is moving into a far brighter future.
Admiral James G. Stavridis
U.S. European Command