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Serbia and Montenegro: Belgrade Offers Washington Soldiers For Afghanistan

Four years after the NATO-led war on Yugoslavia, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic is offering to send Serbian soldiers to serve in missions abroad under U.S. command. Western media are now reporting that the offer has been accepted and that a Serbian unit will likely be deployed in Afghanistan next spring.

Prague, 8 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials reportedly were caught by surprise when, during a visit to Washington in July, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic discreetly offered to send some 1,000 Serbian troops to Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever the U.S. might like them.

Many in Belgrade were equally surprised by the offer, and by Western media reports over the weekend that it has been accepted. According to those reports, a Serbian unit of several hundred men will be sent to Afghanistan's Kandahar Province by March.

U.S. and Serbian officials have only confirmed that a delegation from Serbia and Montenegro visited Washington and U.S. Central Command headquarters in Florida last week to discuss the possible deployment.

Officials in Belgrade insist that no decision has been made. Serbia and Montenegro's defense minister, Boris Tadic, said: "Those talks were technical. They do not mean that there has been a decision that we will take part. Finally, the decision will depend on all relevant institutions, starting with the Supreme Defense Council, then the Council of Ministers, and to become fully legitimate, it must be approved by the parliament of Serbia and Montenegro. That is the usual procedure which any nations currently taking part in peacekeeping missions have followed."

The reasons behind Zivkovic's offer are easy to guess. Authorities in Belgrade are seeking to repair relations with Washington, which have been strained for more than a decade. They reached an all-time low when U.S.-led NATO forces bombed Yugoslavia for nearly three months in 1999 to end a crackdown by Yugoslav forces against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Duska Anastasijevic is an analyst with the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a German-based research and policy institute. She told RFE/RL that Serbian officials must have felt the time was right to offer the U.S. something that it apparently needs.

"I think Mr. Zivkovic did expect that at least this offer will be considered and that it will be interpreted in Washington as a good gesture from the Serbian side. We know that American-Serbian, or Washington-Belgrade relations, have not been good for a decade, and that was part of an effort to repair this relationship and to offer the Americans something that they at this moment are actually quite keen on," Anastasijevic said.

Charles Heyman, an analyst with "Jane's Defence Weekly," says that for Washington, any help with military operations abroad, especially in Afghanistan, is welcomed.

"Right at this moment in time, Washington needs all the friends that it can get. And one of the things that people really do not realize is just how difficult it is for the Americans to produce the right number of troops for operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq," Heyman said.

In Belgrade, however, the reports raised the specter of secret deals being negotiated behind the backs of the Serbian public. The surprise was all the greater since the proposed mission is something that's never been done before, either by the army of Serbia and Montenegro or, before that, the army of Yugoslavia. The Serbian army until now has participated only in UN-mandated peacekeeping missions.

And then there is the question of whether Belgrade will be able to deliver on its promise at all. Serbian media say the authorities will not be able to find enough soldiers to satisfy U.S. criteria. Even for a small, several-hundred-strong unit, some of the troops would have to come from the better-trained and more experienced police units.

Forming a joint unit of army soldiers and police officers would in itself pose problems. The regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic built up the police at the expense of the army, fueling animosity between the two forces.

Some of the police units also became notorious during the Balkan wars, notably during the 1999 Kosovo conflict. Witnesses at the war crimes trial of Milosevic at the UN tribunal in The Hague have mentioned the police commander, Colonel General Goran Radosavljevic, as part of the chain of command in Kosovo, although the general has not been indicted by the tribunal.

ESI's Anastasijevic said there is no doubt some Serbian police officers may be eager to pack their bags for Afghanistan. And, she said, in the absence of U.S. objections, Belgrade authorities may not be sorry to see them go. "One thing is without any doubt and it is that there is a strong motivation for certain members of the [police units], including General Radosavljevic, who would be the leader of the troops, to go to Afghanistan," she said. "But if I may quote a police official who told me recently, 'If Americans have no problem with his past, why would we bother?'"

Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic denied Serbian media reports that Radosavljevic is being considered as the possible commander of the new force. "When the respective decisions are taken, then in accordance with them it would be normal to decide who will participate and who will be the commander," Mihajlovic said. "We have neither the ambitions nor have we proposed that the police commander be chosen to lead that joint unit. We think that this position should go to our colleagues from the army of Serbia and Montenegro."

Jane's analyst Heyman said choosing the right people is a political decision of such importance that Belgrade will surely not take it lightly. "The decision will be made by the government of Serbia and Montenegro. Now, I am sure that the government will make a very political decision here and they will actually vet the background of all the soldiers who are involved and they will make very sure that they don't send people who might embarrass either the American command or the NATO command. This is very, very important for the government of Serbia and Montenegro to get this absolutely right in the first instance," Heyman said.

Some Serbian media suggest the Serbian unit could be sent to Afghanistan formally as part of the UN-mandated, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan but be placed under U.S. command.

Heyman sees no problem with that since, he said, there are close links between the command headquarters of the 5,500-strong NATO force in the Kabul area and the 11,500 U.S.-led coalition troops pursuing Al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants in southeastern Afghanistan.

"It is a really complicated situation of command, but it doesn't really make a lot of difference. By and large, what happens is that the NATO headquarters operates all the troops in the Kabul area and the American command is responsible for the troops outside the Kabul area. And it's quite possible for units to move from one command to another," Heyman said.

There has been an unexpected reaction to Zivkovic's offer from Pristina. Apparently fearful the Serbs were scoring points in Washington, Kosovo's President Ibrahim Rugova said he also has contacted the U.S. State Department. He said Kosovo has no soldiers but would be "happy to offer a police force for Iraq and Afghanistan."

Police in Kosovo are under the ultimate authority of the UN administration, and "The New York Times" reported that Rugova's offer was turned down.