BRUSSELS – NATO nations agreed on Thursday to cut their 10-year-old peacekeeping operation in Kosovo from around 14,000 troops to 10,000 in coming months, with further reductions planned if security allows.
Kosovo defied Serbia last year by declaring independence from Belgrade and was backed by many Western powers. NATO armies, stretched by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and with the global economic crisis hitting military budgets, have long been looking to wind down their presence in Kosovo.
The principle has been agreed, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a news conference of an agreement by NATO defense ministers at talks in Brussels.
He said the alliance had yet to fix a firm date for the cut, but added: That date might well be January 1 (2010).
Earlier, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates insisted that any reduction in NATO presence from predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo should not leave existing troops exposed.
My concern is that we do this in an organized and coherent fashion as an alliance, and not countries leaving unilaterally, he told reporters on board a plane from the Dutch city of Maastricht to the NATO meeting.
Asked whether any troop withdrawals in Kosovo would free up troops for the alliance's battle against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, Gates said: I would certainly hope so.
But he added: I'm not going to bet the ranch on it.
Separately, a U.S. official said NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe John Craddock had put forward a plan that envisaged subsequently reducing the KFOR force to 6,500 and then 2,500 if security conditions allows.
We want to do it in a way that is stabilizing. There's no timeline, this is a conditions-based approach, said the official, who requested anonymity.
However a NATO diplomat who also requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said the plan was to complete the reduction to 2,500 troops within two years.
KFOR has been in Kosovo since 1999 under a United Nations mandate after a NATO bombing campaign to drive out Serb forces.
It can have up to 15,000 troops in Kosovo at any time but the level now is around 14,000, NATO officials said.
There had been wide fears in the West that Kosovo's move toward independence in January 2008 could increase tensions and fuel violence between its ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority, or reignite dormant tensions in the wider Balkans.
Those fears have largely proved unfounded and a mission review conducted for NATO found the security situation had improved enough for the initial reduction to 10,000.
All steps after that will have to be evaluated at a political level, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, whose country has some 2,200 troops in the NATO force, told reporters as he arrived for the meeting.
The global economic and financial crisis has forced governments around the world to run higher public deficits and sharpened the appetite for spending cuts. The relative calm in Kosovo has made peacekeeping there a prime target for such cuts.
It is just prudent good management, and I think it's very sensible at a time of economic difficulty, said one diplomat.
Kosovo's independence is recognized by 60 countries including the United States and most EU member states. Serbia and Russia, a permanent Security Council member with veto rights, have said they will not recognize an independent Kosovo.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; writing by Mark John; Editing by Richard Balmforth)