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US special operators are getting a new outpost in a tense corner of Europe

US Army Green Berets with 10th Special Forces Group conduct sniper training during a Joint Combined Exchange Training in Albania, July 23, 2021.

US Army/Sgt. Devin J. Andrews

  • In January, US Special Operations Command Europe said it would set up a new headquarters in Albania.
  • The command said it chose Albania because of its proximity to major transport hubs in the Balkans, thus reducing travel times.
  • The announcement comes as ongoing disputes with Russia add to tension in an already tense corner of Europe.

Against the backdrop of Russia’s truculence in Eastern Europe, US special operators have established a new forward-operating base in another tense corner of Europe.

In early January, US Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) announced its decision to set up a special-operations headquarters in Albania.

The new headquarters will help in SOCEUR’s mission to “galvanize our relationship with Allies and partners to counter malign influence, build interoperability, rapidly respond to emerging threats and if necessary, defeat aggression,” the command said.

Access and convenience

US Army Green Berets in AlbaniaA US Green Beret observes close-quarter-battle drills by Albanian Special Forces during training in Albania, July 21, 2021.

US Army/Sgt. Devin J. Andrews

SOCEUR said the headquarters will be based in Albania on a rotational basis, suggesting that it will only be used during particular months of the year or during times of need.

The number of special operators in the new headquarters will be small — about 10 to 15 — Maj. Gen. David Tabor, SOCEUR’s commanding officer, told a local media outlet.

The command, which oversees special-operations activities in Europe, also said it chose Albania because of its proximity to major transportation hubs in the Balkans, thus reducing travel times for special operators and conventional units.

“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. Albania remains an important NATO ally and a valued security partner, both regionally and globally,” Tabor said in a press release.

US Army Green Berets in AlbaniaA US Green Beret prepares Albanian Special Forces soldiers for close-quarter-battle drills during training in Albania, July 23, 2021.

US Army/Sgt. Devin J. Andrews

“The Balkans have always been a place of interest for us dating back to the Cold War. You will see 10th [Special Forces Group] guys in Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria, [and] Greece all the time,” a retired Army Special Forces operator told Insider.

The region has long been volatile because the many different ethnicities, nationalities, and religions in close proximity there, which has in turn made it “fertile ground for conflict and atrocities, as we unfortunately saw with the genocides in Bosnia during the war,” the operator said, speaking anonymously because he still works with the US military.

Special-operations forces “are all about access,” whether it’s a forward-operations base or a standing partnership with a foreign military, and “the more access we have, the better positioned we are to operate,” the retired Green Beret said. “We can then use this access to our advantage should we [be] tasked to operate.”

But beyond access and convenience, the new special-operations headquarters will help counter malign Russian influence in the region.

Countering Russian malign influence

US Army Green Berets in AlbaniaA US Green Beret observes close-quarter-battle drills by Albanian Special Forces during training in Albania, July 21, 2021.

US Army/Sgt. Devin J. Andrews

Albania has been a NATO member since 2009. It sent troops to support NATO and the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, and the alliance has helped Albania improve its military capabilities.

However, several countries in the region, including Bosnia, Serbia, and Bulgaria, aren’t exactly in the US’s sphere of influence. These countries were aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and some maintain close ties to Russia.

As tensions with Russia increase, Moscow might try to use such connections to stir up trouble. It has already done so in the recent past — in 2016, Russian intelligence officers attempted to organize a coup d’etat to overthrow the Montenegrin government. Moscow also criticized North Macedonia’s accession to NATO in 2020.

Activities conducted by US special-operations forces at the new headquarters will likely focus on foreign internal defense, civil affairs, and psychological operations, the retired Green Beret said.

US Army Green Berets in AlbaniaA US Green Beret teaches communication techniques to Albanian Special Forces soldiers during training in Albania, July 20, 2021.

US Army/Sgt. Devin J. Andrews

“Albania isn’t next to Russia, so you don’t get that physical proximity to an adversary. But the Balkans are important, and Russia still has a lot of sway there,” he added. “Bottom line, Russians are Slav[ic] and so is most of the Balkans, with very few exceptions, like Greece, and Russia has always played that card to manipulate and control the situation there.”

Turkey is also a factor in the region. Turkey has invested heavily in Albania and both are NATO members as well as majority-Muslim countries, but under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has steadily moved away from the transatlantic alliance, raising concerns about NATO’s access and operations in an important part of the world.

SOCEUR’s decision to base the new special-operations headquarters in Albania might be a tactful attempt to preserve some of that access or to keep Turkey from pulling other NATO countries away with it. Albania’s willingness to host the headquarters definitely played a part, as other governments might have faced domestic opposition.

For now, the new headquarters is more symbolic than operationally significant, but special operators are always on the hunt for access and will benefit from having this base. The decision to put it in Albania suggests that the Balkans are once more a region of importance for the US military.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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