PRISTINA, Kosovo – Europe's newest independent and sovereign democracy and the Iowa National Guard are a textbook example of the National Guard State Partnership Program's impact, the chief of the National Guard Bureau said here Wednesday.
"I am so impressed by how much these two partners have accomplished in four years," Army Gen. Frank Grass said as he wrapped up a three-day visit to the Balkan nation, accompanied by Chief Master Sgt. Mitchell Brush, his senior enlisted advisor; Army Maj. Gen. Timothy Orr, Iowa's adjutant general and other National Guard leaders.
Grass met with Kosovo's President Atifete Jahjaga; the minister of the Kosovo Security Force, Dr. Haki Demolli; KSF Commander Lt. Gen. Rrahman Rama and Command Sgt. Maj. Genc Metaj; other officer and enlisted senior KSF leaders and National Guard members serving with Kosovo Force or KFOR, the peace-support operation NATO has led here since 1999 in support of wider international efforts to build regional peace and stability.
Although only launched in 2011, the Iowa National Guard's partnership with Kosovo in four short years has reached a level of effectiveness similar to State Partnership Program relationships that have been in place since the program was founded in Europe in 1993.
"The Kosovo/Iowa partnership is a comprehensive approach that combines security cooperation with public and private collaboration across multiple sectors, including education, public safety, business and agriculture," Grass said in a Tuesday address to Kosovo's Germia Hill Talks here.
The Germia Hill Talks are part of the ongoing Germia Hill Conference, Kosovo's premier foreign policy forum, co-organized by Europe's leading think-tanks and the Republic of Kosovo's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"This partnership [between Iowa and Kosovo] serves as a compelling example of a strategy that enhances security capabilities while bolstering essential pillars of society," Grass said.
That strategy is the National Guard State Partnership Program, which pairs the National Guard in the states with foreign countries. Started in former Soviet Bloc countries after the fall of the Soviet Union, the program has expanded worldwide, with 22 partnerships in European Command's area of responsibility alone, including Iowa and Kosovo. Nine of those partnerships are in South East Europe, a region that includes Kosovo and other nations that were part of the former Yugoslavia.
"These partnerships are grounded in common interests and shared values," Grass said. "They develop strong bonds of cooperation, understanding and trust that enable us to work together effectively to meet the evolving security threats of this new century."
The SPP security cooperation relationships are conducted under the authority of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and executed through EUCOM and in coordination with U.S. ambassadors.
"I greatly value the combatant command's and U.S. embassies' close working relationships with the National Guard in enhancing security and stability in the region in response to the new, challenging strategic environment we are facing," he said. "We were reminded of the deadly nature of some of these challenges with the recent tragic events in France, Mali, Lebanon and Egypt."
The National Guard's mission triad comprises fighting America's wars, guarding the homeland and building partnerships. The three pieces of the triad are not independent – they work together. Thus, building partnerships such as those found in the SPP contributes to the war fight, for example when partners co-deploy with U.S. forces, and to the Guard's homeland defense mission, for example through the domestic response skills learned by the National Guard in the states from partner nation troops, who often have world-leading .expertise to contribute in specific areas, such as Kosovo's premiere search and rescue abilities and its knowledge of demining, or removing landmines.
"The National Guard is no stranger to Kosovo, and you could have no better friend," Grass told Germia Hill Talks audience members, who included government ministers, parliamentarians, foreign ambassadors, local business leaders, KSF leaders, cadets just beginning their military careers and two dozen media representatives.
About 15,000 National Guard Citizen-Soldiers and –Airmen have served with KFOR since 2003. All eight National Guard Divisions have contributed forces. The Iowa National Guard alone has deployed more than 800 members to KFOR, and Grass met with North Carolina National Guard troops who are serving here this Thanksgiving.
Grass has visited Kosovo numerous times while serving in different assignments, including with EUCOM, and he has been here twice in his role as chief of the National Guard Bureau and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I have observed firsthand the courage and determination of the Kosovo citizens and their vision to build a new country, achieve full independence, and become a full-fledged member of the Euro-Atlantic community," he said.
It is perhaps a measure of how many Guard members have served here from across the nation that, when Kosovo entered the SPP, the National Guard in the states competed to be named its partner.
At first, Iowa and Kosovo focused on cooperative exchanges with the Kosovo Security Force, which is currently professionalizing and modernizing. The partners had more than 70 engagements over four years, working together to boost each other's capabilities – emphasizing junior leader training, noncommissioned officer development, and emergency management and disaster response skills.
NCO development is critical to the future of any military force, Grass said. Kosovo's CSM Metaj, for example, graduated the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, while also attending night school and earning a master's degree.
But the Iowa / Kosovo relationship, leveraging private and non-DoD resources, quickly grew to other critical areas that have taken some other partnerships many years to develop. These include cooperation between Kosovo's police and Iowa's law enforcement agencies on drug interdiction, highway safety and other issues; the signing of a sister-state agreement between Iowa and Kosovo; Kosovo's opening the first full-fledged foreign consulate in Iowa; and educational exchanges, both at the high school and college level.
Cooperation between partners such as Iowa and Kosovo can contribute to broader regional cooperation.
"The National Guard supports regional security through our participation in peace monitoring operations such as the NATO KFOR mission," Grass said. "We attach high importance to such missions, which are a critical investment in advancing regional peace and developing and strengthening our capabilities.
"Through increased deployment of National Guard Army and Air units in Europe in support of initiatives such as EUCOM's Operation Atlantic Resolve, the National Guard helps maintain a persistent U.S. military presence in key areas of the Continent," he said.
Through Operation Atlantic Resolve, the United States is demonstrating its continued commitment to collective security through a series of actions designed to reassure NATO allies and partners of America's dedication to enduring peace and stability in the region in light of the Russian intervention in Ukraine.
Violent extremism, an unprecedented and overwhelming flood of migrants and refugees, arms and drug and human trafficking are among threats to Southern Europe.
"The credibility and effectiveness of our response to threats in a complex security environment in South East Europe and in the rest of Europe depends not only on the geographical scope and scale of our presence and activities, but also on perseverance and longevity," General Grass said. "I can assure you that we are here to stand with you, shoulder-to-shoulder, for the long haul.
"Such threats require a comprehensive, coordinated response from all sectors of government and from all countries in the region," Grass added. "The urgent challenges of the new security environment confronting the Euro-Atlantic region does not allow for business as usual."
Intensifying exchanges and consultations among partners and allies, improving timely information sharing, agreeing on key objectives and summoning collective will for action are parts of Grass' recipe for success.
"With all of the challenges we currently face, I still believe that we are living in a time when hope and opportunity still abound for those who are ready to seize them," he said.