UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1244 was adopted on 10 June 1999 and on 12 June, the first elements of the NATO-led Kosovo Force, or KFOR, entered Kosovo. By 20 June, the withdrawal of Serbian forces was complete.
KFOR was initially composed of some 50,000 men and women from NATO member countries, partner countries and other non-NATO countries under unified command and control. By early 2002, KFOR was reduced to around 39,000 troops. The improved security environment enabled NATO to reduce KFOR troop levels to 26,000 by June 2003, then to 17,500 by the end of 2003 and today, down to around 5,000.
A setback in progress towards a stable, multi-ethnic and democratic Kosovo occurred in March 2004, when renewed violence broke out between Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Serbs. At that time, KFOR troops were under attack. An additional 2,500 soldiers were rapidly deployed to reinforce the existing KFOR strength.
At the 2004 Istanbul Summit, NATO leaders condemned the renewed ethnic violence and reaffirmed NATO’s commitment to a secure, stable and multi-ethnic Kosovo.
The Kosovo status talks
After 14 months of UN-led negotiations, the Special Envoy for Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari, presented his Comprehensive Proposal for a Kosovo Status Settlement to the UN Secretary-General in March 2007. Whilst Pristina endorsed the Ahtisaari Proposal, Belgrade categorically rejected it.
On 1 August 2007, in the absence of any UN Security Council decision on Kosovo’s future status, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched an extended period of engagement with the parties, led this time by an EU/Russia/US Troika under the auspices of the Contact Group. By the end of the Troika’s mandate on 10 December 2007, the negotiating parties failed to reach any agreement on Kosovo’s status.
Throughout the negotiations, NATO supported the efforts of Martti Ahtisaari and, subsequently, those of the Troika to settle Kosovo’s status; KFOR helped maintain safety and stability on the ground allowing the negotiations to proceed without disruption.
In December 2007, NATO Foreign Ministers agreed that KFOR would remain in Kosovo on the basis of UNSCR 1244, unless the UN Security Council decided otherwise. They also renewed their commitment to maintain KFOR’s national force contributions, including reserves, at current levels and with no new caveats.
At the Bucharest Summit in April 2008, NATO leaders agreed that NATO and KFOR would continue to work with the authorities. They also agreed that, bearing in mind its operational mandate, KFOR would cooperate with and assist the United Nations, the European Union and other international actors, as appropriate, to support the development of a stable, democratic, multi-ethnic and peaceful Kosovo. They also stressed that NATO stands ready to play its part in the implementation of future security arrangements.
NATO Foreign Ministers, on 2-3 December 2008, reaffirmed that the UN-mandated NATO-led KFOR presence will remain in Kosovo on the basis of UNSCR 1244. They stressed that the prompt deployment of the European Union Rule of Law mission (EULEX) throughout all Kosovo was a priority, and in this context noted the adoption by the UN Security Council of a statement of its presidency in support of the reconfiguration of UNMIK. They reaffirmed that NATO will continue to work towards the standing down of the Kosovo Protection Corps and the establishment of the Kosovo Security Force on the basis of NATO’s voluntary trust funds.
An improved security situation
Since then, the security situation has continued to improve. As a result, on 11-12 June 2009, NATO Defence Ministers decided to gradually adjust KFOR’s force posture towards what is called a deterrent presence. This means that, when appropriate and according to the evolution of events, over time NATO will reduce the number of forces on the ground, with the remaining forces in theatre progressively relying more on intelligence and flexibility.
At their informal meeting in Istanbul on 3-4 February 2010, NATO Defence Ministers were informed by the NATO Military Authorities that KFOR had successfully achieved the so-called Gate 1 in its transition to a deterrent presence, reducing the number of troops on the ground to some 10,200. The move to Gate 2, allowing for a total of approximately 5,000 troops was recommended by NATO Military Authorities and authorised by the North Atlantic Council (NAC) on 29 October 2010. Gate 2 was declared on 28 February 2011.
In a separate development, the improved security situation on the ground in Kosovo also allowed NATO to continue with the implementation of the so-called unfixing process, the gradual transfer of security for religious and cultural heritage sites under KFOR protection to Kosovo Police responsibility. By the end of 2012, KFOR had unfixed seven properties with Designated Special Status: the Gazimestan Monument, Gracanica Monastery, Zociste Monastery, Budisavci Monastery, Gorioc Monastery, the Archangel site and Devic Monastery. Since then, the Pec Patriarchate, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has also been unfixed.
The situation in northern Kosovo
The security situation in the northern part of Kosovo deteriorated in July 2011 over a customs dispute. Clashes ensued, resulting in two major spikes of violence in July and September, followed by a third in November, prompting the Alliance and its partners to adapt their posture on the ground. In this context, a NATO Operational Reserve Force battalion was deployed in August, with a troop contribution of around 600 soldiers, in order to help bolster KFOR’s deterrent presence.
Amid the heightened tensions and clashes in northern Kosovo, KFOR acted carefully, firmly and impartially, with a view to guaranteeing the population a stable environment, freedom of movement and security.
By the end of 2012, the Operational Reserve Force battalion had withdrawn from Kosovo. However, a reduction of KFOR was delayed with the aim to ensure the ability to maintain a safe and secure environment if tensions arise.
Future decisions on further reducing KFOR’s footprint in Kosovo will continue to need the approval of the NAC in the light of both military and political considerations, with no automaticity in the move to a deterrent presence Gate 3.
NATO continues to support the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina under EU auspices. This dialogue for the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo remains key to solving the political deadlock over the northern part of Kosovo. In April 2013, Belgrade and Pristina reached an Agreement on Normalisation, which will help to improve relations between both parties while giving new momentum to the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans. NATO and, in particular, KFOR stand ready to support the implementation of this latest agreement to the best of their ability within their current mandate.