The Pentagon is building a spanking new community here in south-central Kosovo at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to house U.S. peacekeeping troops in a little piece of home--complete with a Burger King and discounted American candy bars.
The aim of the installation is to safeguard the bulk of the U.S. military stationed in Kosovo in a sealed environment with as much comfort as possible and maximum protection against attack. The scale of the 775-acre site and the substantial construction under way, which raises immense clouds of dust over the devastated countryside, suggest that the United States plans to have its troops hunkered down in Kosovo for a long time.
The base, about a mile east of Urosevac, seems to do justice to the American military's reputation for going in heavy and making a large footprint. It is already attracting gibes from officers in European brigades also deployed here as part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force. They have dubbed the base "Disneyland" and suggest the concentration of so many soldiers in a single, isolated location will hinder their ability to perform peacekeeping tasks.
An estimated 4,860 U.S. troops, or roughly 77 percent of those deployed in Kosovo, reside at the camp behind dozens of earthen berms, 10 miles of barbed wire, 11 guard towers and countless concrete barriers. The base is meant to re-create a homelike atmosphere within a wall of impenetrable security, separating the troops from Kosovo's destruction, anguish and hazards.
"It is an obvious sign that the Americans are making a major commitment to the Balkan region and plan to stay," said a senior British officer. "But their desire to drive the risk of casualties to an absolute zero can be a major distraction."
When they are not on duty, the soldiers can visit a chapel, fitness center or hospital; soon they will also have three recreation centers, a library and a food court rivaling those in American shopping malls. "This was a wheat field," said Maj. Jimmie Kennan, the hospital's chief nurse. "Now, it's a metropolis."
American officers said construction, which began in late July, will cost more than $32 million in its initial phase. They said the base offers a sensible and efficient way to house U.S. forces here and maintain morale. But it is also an emblem of the Clinton administration's concern with security in peacekeeping operations, sometimes at the expense of other objectives.
U.S. officers said the preoccupation arose from the deaths of U.S. Army Rangers in a botched operation in 1993 during a peacekeeping mission in Somalia, which led Congress to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Since then, U.S. officials have worried that even a few U.S. casualties will endanger the political consensus for intervention in Kosovo, even though polling by the University of Maryland and others suggests the public is less allergic to such deaths than politicians.
In Kosovo, self-protection is listed in the mission statement as the foremost objective of the U.S. military brigade responsible for a quarter of the province's territory. Peacekeeping tasks, such as maintaining "a safe and secure environment" and supporting the United Nations in building a civil society, receive lesser priority.
This translates into a welter of military rules that limit how U.S. soldiers operate in Kosovo. For example, any soldier who ventures outside Camp Bondsteel must first don 35 pounds of body armor and a thick Kevlar helmet. Moreover, the troops must travel either by helicopter or in convoys of armored vehicles, since the site is too remote to make foot patrols feasible.
Conducting such "mounted patrols" puts distance between the soldiers and the Kosovo citizens they are obliged to protect, many U.S. soldiers acknowledge. Moreover, even when U.S. foot patrols are conducted elsewhere in Kosovo, such as in the tense city of Gnjilane, platoons do not always take interpreters with them.
These tactics contrast with methods used here by British troops. The British forces are widely dispersed within north-central Kosovo, often in bases cordoned by white plastic tape instead of barbed wire and sandbags.
In urban areas, most British soldiers live in apartments and houses in tense neighborhoods, six to a unit. They patrol on foot in small numbers without helmets and often without heavy body armor, projecting a more relaxed style that they say puts them in closer touch with local residents.
"To wear body armor and a helmet is the wrong psychological approach," said a British officer who commands a company of roughly 100 troops in Pristina, the Kosovo capital. "It also makes you tired, so you can't concentrate. And a helmet makes you look down, instead of up. It's like being behind a desk."
None of the 5,400 British troops or 6,295 U.S. troops in Kosovo has died in attacks by hostile forces since the U.N.-authorized peacekeeping mission began in mid-June, although some have been shot at, stabbed or attacked with grenades. Two U.S. soldiers were slightly wounded in the first month, and one American died last week when his parachute failed to open during a training exercise.
Col. Michael Ellerbe, of Fayetteville, N.C., who commands the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Urosevac, said he supports the protective measures. "If you have the equipment, why not use it? My own guys say, 'I can't mingle with the people if I'm wearing this.' But I hug 'em, I kiss 'em, the whole nine yards, and [the gear] . . . has no effect. It's a crock. They just don't want to wear it."
The city where his troops live was once ethnically mixed and tense. But it has calmed since all but 40 Serbs fled in the face of retribution by ethnic Albanians after the war. Ellerbe said he nonetheless keeps the blinds closed on the front of the former police station where his troops are quartered. When he moves outside the gate, it is frequently in a convoy of green Humvees, along with a dozen or so men carrying automatic weapons.
Bogdan Glogovac, 76, one of the last Serbs in Urosevac, called Ellerbe "a good man" because he assigned 50 troops to protect the remaining Serbs around the clock from ethnic Albanians. But he also said U.S. Army officers told him they do not have enough soldiers to protect him. As a result, Glogovac had to give up his apartment and move in with another Serb who lives near an Army guard post surrounded by sandbags.
Ellerbe said stationing U.S. soldiers in homes would be an error. "If I were to cut loose 700 guys on this city--whose average age is 22--I'd be dealing with [local] fathers and mothers on other issues. It's not because they're bad guys, but because they don't understand the local culture. . . . It would also erode the trust" between families back home and married soldiers in his company. "If you take away all that temptation, you don't have to worry about that."
But Maj. Nick Welch, another British company commander in Pristina, said patrolling in pairs and staying close to the community allows his soldiers to "get under the skin of the place . . . to establish a database on the pattern of life and determine who's doing what, to have a cup of coffee with everybody. It's in the training we got from Northern Ireland to look for something that doesn't fit in."
For 100 soldiers, he added, his company employs 21 interpreters, nearly four times more than the American soldiers in Gnjilane.
CAPTION: A U.S. soldier makes Kosovo more like home, practicing his golf swing during a break from the construction of a new base near Gnjilane.
CAPTION: U.S. soldiers guard Camp Bondsteel, where a "safe environment," complete with a Burger King, takes priority over other goals.