The Importance of Kosovo

As published in The Hill

Recently, more than 5,000 miles away from my hometown of Red Oak, Iowa, I visited our Sister State, Kosovo. As I walked the streets of the Muslim majority nation, I saw American flags on its street corners and received sincere expressions of gratitude for the support the country has received from the United States, and more specifically, from the people of Iowa.

Kosovo is a young nation, and only eight years after declaring independence, it is working through growing pains and getting stronger. Many of Kosovo’s struggles – including high unemployment, corruption, and ethnic division – are shared by new democracies with a war-torn past. But in addition, Kosovo must overcome unique and challenging obstacles.

Currently, Kosovo maintains a professional security force, whose main mission is civil protection and humanitarian assistance. However, the country is in the process of integrating women into the force and transitioning toward a formal military, all while its government continues to work toward normalization of relations with Serbia and greater international integration.

Moreover, Kosovo’s parliament is still learning to work together. During a visit last December, Secretary of State John Kerry rightly encouraged all parties to renounce the use of violence in public life and come together to work toward the resolution of their differences and the advancement of the interests of the country as a whole. We must be mindful that just 17 years ago, Kosovo was engaged in a devastating war; the country’s progress since is truly remarkable.

When I met with the leaders of Kosovo, each of them attributed the country’s growth, in part, to the people in the United States – but even more specifically, to Iowa.

They give us this great respect because, after NATO intervened in 1999 to stop the atrocities on the ground in Kosovo, and just a few short years after declaring their independence in 2008, the Iowa National Guard entered into a State Partnership Program with Kosovo to share many of the humanitarian skills our ready warriors are best known for.

And in 2013, Iowa and Kosovo officially became Sister States.

What has followed is a series of exchanges in education, business and agriculture, as well as the establishment of a consulate in Des Moines.

Recent visits by U.S. officials to Kosovo affirmed our continued support for the country, and my home state of Iowa will continue to stand with the people of Kosovo, too – not only through our National Guard, but also through our colleges and universities, farmers, entrepreneurs, host families, students, and elected officials.

With ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, we cannot afford to turn our back on this predominantly Muslim nation which has proven itself an ally with a strong desire to align itself with America.

In fact, in an effort to address the estimated 300 Kosovar citizens fighting alongside Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria, Kosovo has implemented new legislation to halt radical Islam within its borders and taken steps to ensure that radicalized individuals are not leaving the country to fight abroad. Moreover, in 2014, the Government of Kosovo joined our global efforts to combat ISIS.

The vast majority of people in Kosovo want to work with the United States and our allies to counter the rise of terrorism, and they continue to work toward the goal of a prosperous nation full of the freedoms we enjoy every day.

In addition to sustaining and building upon its efforts to counter violent extremism, the Government of Kosovo must focus on coming together as a country, rooting out corruption, advancing the rule of law, and consolidating progress to strengthen its democracy. As it does so, we in the United States – and the State of Iowa – will be here for support.

The rolling hills of Kosovo are full of opportunities for the United States, and especially Iowa, to have a positive impact on a nation ready to take its place in the world.

As the people of Kosovo expressed their appreciation, it made me incredibly proud of the United States and the wonderful state I represent.

Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) served in the military for more than 23 years and was the first female combat veteran elected to serve in the United States Senate. In Washington, Senator Ernst serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

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