Settling in for a long Kosovo run

President Clinton tomorrow visits the biggest new US base sinceVietnam.

The amber waves of grain that once covered rolling hills two miles east of Urosevac, in south-central Kosovo, are no more. They've been replaced with sprawling Camp Bondsteel.

The heavily fortified, 755-acre military base is the largest the United States has built from the ground up since the Vietnam War.

Still under construction, it features amenities such as a mobile Burger King (burgers and fries only), fitness center, volleyball court, library, and two chapels. It's so large that it's divided into "uptown, midtown, and downtown."

As President Clinton visits tomorrow to spend an early Thanksgiving with the troops, some observers here are wondering: Why is Bondsteel so big?

In Kosovo's other four sectors, contingents from 30 nations participating in the NATO-led peacekeeping force live in existing apartment blocks and, in some cases, factories.

Soldiers at this $36.6 million American base say it's strictly about safety and comfort. If nothing else, it sends a direct message to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who already has provoked four wars this decade and may be capable of more mayhem.

"The base is a response to the perceived need for a presence in the Balkans for years to come," says Bryan Hopkinson, Kosovo director of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. "It shows the US means business."

One day it could mean even more. Some say Camp Bondsteel will smooth the logistics of a future US military intervention. Others see it yielding benefits in terms of Balkan geopolitics and trade. Perhaps with this in mind, says Mr. Hopkinson, US planners are shrewdly "taking advantage of favorable circumstances" to build a base spacious enough to accommodate any future needs.

Those "favorable circumstances" are the key. Three months of NATO airstrikes this spring ended a Serbian campaign of "ethnic cleansing" that unleashed some 1 million refugees in the Yugoslav province. So ethnic Albanians here are thrilled to have 47,000 international troops - 6,300 of them from the US - protecting them, even if assistance has so far fallen short of their goal of independence.

This contrasts starkly with Macedonia and Hungary, Yugoslavia's neighbors to the south and north. During the airstrikes, both countries were uneasy about being drawn into NATO operations. Hungary, unlike Macedonia, is a NATO member. But the nation only rid itself of Soviet troops nine years ago.

"Albanians are the only people who embrace NATO with all their heart," says Sevdije Ahmeti, a human-rights activist in Kosovo. "America will find no better allies in the Balkans, or in Europe, than us."

Continued instability

Allies may be needed with Milosevic still holding the reins in Belgrade. A slew of destabilizing scenarios are possible: secession by tiny Montenegro, leaving landlocked Serbia the lone remaining Yugoslav republic; conflict with ethnic Hungarians in northern Serbia; civil war between pro- and anti-Milosevic factions; or upheaval in Macedonia, which has its own restive Albanian minority.

It's unclear whether Camp Bondsteel would deter a crisis. But at least the Americans will be nearer the action, and more secure and comfortable while they wait. The base is one giant air-tight fortress perched atop a series of small hills. With soldier safety high on the Clinton administration's agenda, nothing is left to chance. The 4,800 troops stationed here - roughly three-quarters of the total US force in Kosovo - are ensconced behind miles of barbed wire and countless earthen berms and concrete barriers. Eleven guard towers keep a vigilant eye.

In terms of comfort, the US military learned a vital lesson from Bosnia. American troops entered in 1995, but grew demoralized after three harsh winters spent in tents. Finally, in 1998 they erected insulated, plywood "Sea-Huts," which were first used during the Vietnam era. At Camp Bondsteel, US planners went straight for the cozy Sea-Huts. Each has five rooms, sleeping six soldiers per room.

The base contains a large helipad for nearly 55 transport, reconnaissance, and attack helicopters, including a dozen of the vaunted Apaches.

There is no runway for fixed-wing fighter aircraft, although Hopkinson and other analysts speculate that the base may be big enough for future contingencies like a runway. US officials reject this possibility, pointing to the area's undulating terrain. They also have tried to quash rumors that Camp Bondsteel eventually may replace Aviano, Italy, as one of the prime European airfields of the US Air Force.

Strategic importance

Still, observers suggest Camp Bondsteel would serve several geostrategic functions. Though Kosovo is a diamond-shaped province smaller than New Jersey, its ethnic Albanians highlight their proximity to the Black Sea to the west, the Mediterranean to the south, and the Adriatic to the east.

As NATO expands eastward, perhaps even into the Balkans, some say Bondsteel could underpin security for the alliance's southeastern flank.

It's not only Russia that considers the Balkans within its sphere of influence. Between the Bosnian Muslims and the predominantly Muslim but highly secular populations of Albania and Kosovo, the Arab world is also looking to make inroads. "Kosovo can be treated as a small spot in the ocean, or a very important spot in Europe," says Ms. Ahmeti. "The Near East also tries to put us [in] their sphere, so we're sandwiched."

But some Western diplomatic sources scoff at the idea of Kosovo having any real strategic value.

"The notion that the US is interested in forward bases and extending its international presence is fundamentally paranoiac and fundamentally wrong," says one diplomat, who asked not to be identified. "On the contrary, the US would prefer to let countries conduct their own defense and not have to intervene around the world."

And while President Clinton and others talk of a Marshall Plan-style reconstruction of the Balkans, ethnic Albanians hope that the mere sight of Camp Bondsteel may soothe jittery foreign investors.

Ardian Arifaj, news editor of Kosovo's leading daily paper, Koha Ditore, says, "There's a perception here that there are American bases all over the world, and all those countries have prospered with them."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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