The American decision reflects both Albania’s strategic importance and the growing volatility in the Balkans.
On January 6, 2022, the US Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) announced its decision to “locate a forward-based SOF (Special Operation Forces) headquarters, on a rotational basis, in Albania”.
Described as a decision intended to enhance the capabilities of the SOF in achieving regional stability, the move was made in light of Albania's strategic location.
Commander of SOCEUR, Major General David H. Tabor, was quoted as saying: “The ability to rapidly move and train within the Balkans, in close coordination with other allied and partner forces, made Albania the best location for this effort.”
Fellow commander of SOCEUR Sean Foertsch similarly noted Albania’s membership of NATO, strong relations with the Albanian government, the country’s geographical location and connection to Balkan transportation hubs as among the reasons that made this decision a sound one. Albania’s prime minister Edi Rama welcomed the announcement, calling it “fantastic news”.
In fact, Albania offered that the US establish a military base on its territory back in 2018.
According to military reporter John Vandiver, such a decision places Special Forces near “countries such as Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia, North Macedonia and Serbia, where Russian political, economic and military influence has been growing steadily stronger”.
This decision of the Stuttgart-based Special Operations Command Europe comes at a time of rising tensions in the Balkans. Not since the late 1990s has there been so much concern about the region’s stability.
Bosnia is currently amid a secession as Serbian nationalists push for the country's division. It faces its worst political and security crisis since the war ended in 1995. How this crisis unfolds is yet to be seen in the weeks ahead. Serbia has been arming itself over the past years, much to the dismay and concern of its neighbours.
Montenegro’s new government, in power since late 2020, has a shaky commitment to the Western alliance. North Macedonia joined NATO in 2020, but Bulgaria is now blocking its path to EU membership. As a result, the security situation in the Balkans is now more challenging than a decade ago.
This is one of the reasons why this announcement is so significant. Bordering Montenegro, Kosovo and North Macedonia, Albania provides easy access to Yugoslavia’s successor states. Furthermore, the country has a strategic location with access to both the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea.
A once-isolated country during the Cold War, Albania has transformed itself into a staunchly pro-American and pro-Western nation. The former communist state joined NATO in 2009. Albania sent its troops in support of the US-led war in Afghanistan and Iraq, thereby consolidating its pro-American credentials.
The American decision reflects Albania’s strategic importance and the growing volatility in the Balkans. However, this is not the first time Albania is home to a great power base. During the Cold War, in the 1950s, Pasha Liman naval base in Albania was the only Soviet base in the Adriatic that provided the Soviet Union access to the Mediterranean. However, this arrangement did not last long, as Albania’s dictator Enver Hoxha broke off with Moscow.
Unlike Albania’s foreign policy during the Cold War, now several decades later, Albania is firmly entrenched in the Atlantic Alliance. The new base in Albania augments American power in the Balkans. In next-door Kosovo, a significant American base known as Camp Bondsteel is home to the American troops keeping the peace as Kosovo Force (KFOR). The presence of American troops in Kosovo is a security guarantee that the newest state in Europe will remain peaceful.
To keep the peace in the Balkans in the tumultuous period ahead, US SOCEUR should also consider opening a forward base for Special Operations Forces in Bosnia. This base could be located in Tuzla with an airport nearby. The vicinity of Tuzla, to the strategic town of Brcko in the country’s northeast, would be a deterrent to any potential escalation of violence in the weeks and months ahead.
Along with the American presence in Kosovo, and the announced increased presence in Albania, the base in Bosnia would send a clear message about the US commitment to peace and stability in the region. Combined, these three bases would be the bedrock of American-led security in this corner of Europe.
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