GNJILANE, Kosovo - Thronged sidewalks and cafes, jammed roads and packed store shelves suggest progress in this former war zone where National Guard troops play a key role in an international effort to keep the world's newest country on the path of peace.
The governors of Iowa and Minnesota, whose National Guard troops are deployed here, toured this Delaware-sized new nation on April 11-13, joined by LTG H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, and other senior military officials.
"You see notable improvement," Blum said after a foot patrol through the eastern city of Gnjilane. "It is slow, but it's steady progress. We saw economic vitality I had not seen on previous visits. We see people walking around, feeling safe. We see multiethnic mingling, children playing, business going on, traffic jams. Nobody likes a traffic jam, but it's a sign of development: People have more money. They can afford to operate motor vehicles. They're feeling pretty good about themselves and their future."
Through the 1990s, Kosovo was wracked by Serbian repression of the Albanian majority and by an insurgency bent on independence. NATO intervention in 1999 ended the violence. U.S. troops, including the National Guard, have been part of a NATO and United Nations Police force on the ground ever since. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17.
"The National Guard's contribution has been a critical part of NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR), maintaining the peace between the Albanians and the Serbians, and it's pretty clear that peace would not exist but for the presence of American troops," said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, chairman of the National Governors Association. "If Kosovo's destabilized, it destabilizes an entire region, and that really begins to impact what our future obligations and dangers are going to be for the United States in this volatile part of Europe and our interests abroad elsewhere."
Pawlenty and Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, federal liaison for the 28-member Democratic Governors Association, thanked the Kansas National Guard's 35th Infantry Division deployed in Kosovo, which includes sizable numbers of troops from their states.
Blum called the United States' military role as leader of KFOR's Task Force (TF) East in Kosovo, "A very sophisticated, nuanced mission at a time that's probably as critical in Kosovo as any time in their history. It's exciting to see the National Guard responsible for the American contribution to guarantee a safe and secure environment for a nation that has just literally been born."
Led by Brig. Gen. John Davoren, the 35th ID's missions include extensive presence patrols, military liaison with civilian authorities and contingency support for the KFOR commander, Lt. Gen. Xavier Bout de Marnhac. Guardmembers also distribute clothing and educational supplies and help rebuild schools. De Marnhac credited the National Guard troops from TF East for their timely and crucial reinforcement of TF North troops confronting a serious outbreak of violence in northern Mitrovica following independence.
"We're uniquely suited for this," Blum said. "We come in with civilian-acquired expertise that is highly useful and effective in a stabilizing mission like this and at times actually is more important than the military skills themselves. Of course, you have to underpin civilian-acquired capabilities with solid military skills and the ability to apply force if necessary."
The governors met with military commanders and toured TF East's area of responsibility for eastern Kosovo, which shares borders with Serbia and Macedonia. At town hall meetings with Guardmembers, they heard about issues they said they would address with state legislators.
"My main sentiment as I talk to the troops is gratitude and respect," Pawlenty said. "I realize what they go through to do what they're doing, in terms of the burden that it imposes on their families and them. I am overcome with a sense of gratitude that we have men and women like that who continue to raise their hand and lay it all on the line for our country. I have a deep, deep sense of respect and awe for them."
"I couldn't be more impressed," Culver said. "They are doing a magnificent job. They've got a very impressive record of accomplishment "¦ whether it's the border security missions, the humanitarian efforts, the diplomacy and communication with local officials and civilians."
Pawlenty previously visited National Guard troops in Kosovo in 2004. "The situation on the ground has improved somewhat," he said. "It's important that there be a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo because, if there isn't, you'll have large numbers of people killing each other. KFOR, bolstered by our Minnesota troops and other American National Guard forces, is playing a pivotal and key role."
For Culver, elected in 2006, it was his first visit with his state's troops deployed overseas. "I came away even more committed than ever before to make sure we address their needs not only here on the ground in Kosovo but "¦ when they return to the states," he said.
Culver has called out the Guard in the aftermath of severe storms. "I saw them step up to the plate back in Iowa when we really needed them in terms of public safety and homeland security, and now to see them here in Kosovo makes me very appreciative of the great work that they're doing at home and abroad," he said. "These dual roles at home and abroad are a huge benefit to Iowans. The skills they learn over here, the additional courses that they're taking, the promotions that take place because of the opportunities that a mission like this presents, as a result of that, we're going to have a better prepared force back at home."
Pawlenty said the 13,000-strong Minnesota National Guard is deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and 11 other countries.
"We're very proud of these men and women," Pawlenty said. "They're serving in important roles to advance America's strategic interests across the globe. They do it at great cost and expense to them and their families. They're courageous people. They're people of great patriotism and strength with impressive dedication. They deserve our thanks."
Among those visiting National Guard troops in Kosovo were the adjutants general of Iowa and Minnesota, Air Force Maj. Gen. Ron Dardis and Army Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, and Army Maj. Gen. Frank Grass, U.S. European Command director of mobilization and reserve component affairs.
Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) were among those briefing the senior leaders, a contrast with briefings by officers from foreign armed forces.
"That's unique to the United States Army and particularly a strong suit of the National Guard," Blum observed. "Our NCOs are extremely gifted and talented professionals with deep and wide civilian experience, and you will see noncommissioned officers performing roles and functions "¦ that you would not see in any other army in the world."
The Missouri National Guard's 110th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade is scheduled to assume command from the 35th ID later this year.
"“ The CIA World Factbook contributed to this report.