It takes a (coalition) village to rebuild a country or two
TAMPA--Ninety minutes southwest of Disney World, U.S. Central Command presides over a military variant of Epcot World Showcase: an international "coalition village," as the military calls it, populated by senior officers from 65 countries allied with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sporting a variety of uniforms and speaking a hodgepodge of languages, the liaison officers--working from two clusters of trailers fenced off from the main Centcom headquarters building--try to keep abreast of what the U.S. military is up to and offer the occasional suggestion about operations.
The trailers give the arrangement something of a temporary feel--and that is more than just an aesthetic problem. Maj. Gen. Richard Comer, the Centcom official who oversees the coalition village, says Pentagon bureaucrats tend to see just a temporary alliance and so are reluctant to change rules that get in the way of better cooperation.
Centcom, for instance, has struggled to get approval for non-NATO allies to use certain American radios, locator devices, and other sensitive communication gear. Transportation is another problem: At one point, the Pentagon wanted payment from Ukraine for shipping home the bodies of eight Ukrainian soldiers killed in Iraq in January. Comer intervened before anyone sent a cargo bill, but it left a bitter taste in his mouth. "Many of the people who write the rules at the Pentagon are waiting for things to go back to normal," he says. "For the most part, the public does not believe the nation is at war, and some at the Pentagon think like the public."
Help wanted. As it tries to improve the ways the coalition works together and shares information, Central Command also hopes that the generally positive international reaction to Iraqi elections will help with another problem--the decisions of countries like Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine to draw down their forces in Iraq.
At an upcoming conference this month in Europe, the United States will press coalition allies to step up their commitments, even those who are in the process of withdrawing troops. "We want to discuss how to proceed," says Comer. "And we want both the countries who are in Iraq now, and those that might be persuaded, to help."
It is not just American generals who voice some frustration. Brig. Gen. Jan Wang of the Norwegian Air Force has served for more than three years as his country's liaison officer to Centcom. His complaint: The Americans are reluctant to discuss plans with the coalition members, which makes it difficult to respond to requests. For example, if the Americans are asking for more troops for the next six months, it will take Norway a couple of months to weigh that request and make a decision. By that time it is too late to send troops.
The American military does have a group of international soldiers who participate in a planning group. This cell was one of the first to map out plans to hand over duties in Afghanistan to NATO. But the Combined Planning Group reports to Centcom, and the German, French, Australian, and British soldiers who lead the group cannot share their work with their home countries.
For all the controls on intelligence and planning, there are signs of change. For months, Americans kept the French officers out of Iraq briefings, arguing they had no need to know since France isn't participating in the Iraq mission. In December, Centcom officials finally began including the French, a gesture that seems intended to ease tensions over Iraq. Says French Brig. Gen. Jean-Paul Huste, "Things are evolving in the right way."
Currently, the Afghanistan and Iraq coalitions are not a grand alliance as much as a series of agreements between the United States and each individual country. Some officials here are looking for something more lasting and more multilateral. Indeed, it is the prospect of being part of a lasting alliance that has drawn some countries to the coalition village. On the wall of Ukrainian Gen. Petro Haraschuk's trailer hangs a NATO flag. Sending troops to Iraq, Haraschuk hopes, is a steppingstone to eventual NATO membership. "The main aim of our country is to join NATO, to join democracy," he says.
For this coalition to survive, it may need to become more of a true alliance in which foreign militaries do not just keep tabs on American plans but help shape them as well. Centcom may also have to think about upgrading the trailers. -Julian E. Barnes
This story appears in the February 21, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.