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Sunday Times

US to build buffer zone in Balkans. Tom Walker, Diplomatic Correspondent.  September 23 2001.

THE Bush administration is planning to strengthen its military presence in the Balkans, which it now sees as a potential buffer against terror threats from the east.

William Farish, the American ambassador to Britain and a close friend of President George W Bush, has said US policy advisers are evaluating how best to safeguard American and European interests in the region, including planned pipelines to the vast oil and gas reserves of central Asia.

Before Bush became president it was widely thought he favoured a phased withdrawal of troops from Bosnia and Kosovo. During a recent visit to Bondsteel, the main American base in Kosovo, he said the burden of peacekeeping should be borne by European armies. But after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Farish told The Sunday Times that foreign policy was being radically rethought.

"I think all of that is under review now, particularly in light of recent developments," he said in an interview. "What the final deployment is, is something that is under discussion - as it falls into play with the whole terrorist plan."

Unusually for a new ambassador to Britain, Farish hopes to visit the Balkans within the next three weeks, and to assess American policy in Macedonia, the region's current tinderbox, before reporting back to Bush.

He identified the Northern Ireland peace process and enlisting support for Bush's national missile defence plan as his other foreign policy priorities.

Although Nato's operation to collect weapons from rebel Albanians ends this week, Nato planners are hoping many of the troops involved can stay on until a follow-up mission is agreed with the Macedonian government. Hardline members of the government in Skopje want Nato out of the country.

Farish outlined a very different possible scenario, in which Nato strengthened its presence in the region, turning the Balkans into a prominent theatre of operations and training. Perhaps reflecting US fears of a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey, a Nato ally, Farish sees the Balkans as a possible buffer zone in future against unstable regimes to the east.

There are currently 3,350 American peacekeepers in Bosnia among a total Nato-led force of 18,000, and 6,200 in Kosovo, among a force of 37,500. Several hundred American troops are providing logistical support for the arms-gathering operation in Macedonia.

Farish said the key thinkers behind Bush's strategy were his deputy, Dick Cheney; the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld; the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice; and the secretary of state, Colin Powell. Their policy would be geared towards long-term stability, rather than what Farish described as the haphazard troop deployments of the Clinton years.

"We won't see American troops thrown into every crisis like it's a dartboard," he said.

The new ambassador is hardly limiting his field of vision, however. A son of one of the five great oil families of Houston, Texas, Farish is fascinated by the "black gold" that lies in large quantities in the countries around the Caspian Sea. He sees America's relationship with Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, as vital to its future influence in the area.

"I think we'll see a whole new era between the United States and Russia," he said. "Putin appears to be very direct, very straightforward - he and President Bush will get along very well."

Last week the former prime minister of Kazakhstan, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, said America should join forces with Russia and use former Soviet pipelines to move oil to northern and southern Europe.

Farish believes the stability of Macedonia, which lies on a projected pipeline route between the Black Sea and the Adriatic, is vital to the region's economic development. "The whole area is in a state of flux," he said. "It's going to be a fascinating study for the next few years."