TAMPA — Less than two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States military launched a politically sensitive effort to coordinate with other nations involved in the burgeoning war in Afghanistan.
So U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base created the Coalition Coordination Center, commonly called Coalition Village, where foreign military officers would work closely with their U.S. counterparts.
The idea was deceptively simple: share intelligence.
More than a decade later, Coalition Village remains intact even as U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan loom. But that coordination hasn't always been seamless, and that could affect discussions about Coalition Village's future, a top coalition leader said.
The 200 foreign military officers at Coalition Village from 57 nations have struggled to gain the full trust of their U.S. counterparts at CentCom and access to some intelligence, according to the Danish army general who is chairman of the center.
Gen. Jens Praestegaard said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times he did not want to be overly critical of CentCom, which spearheads the war in Afghanistan, as it did in Iraq.
Foreign military officers enjoy a good relationship with staff at CentCom, which he said is extremely forthcoming much of the time. But coalition members are often frustrated that CentCom does not share everything, he added.
"It's a challenge is the diplomatic way to say it," Praestegaard said. "I get a lot of information. But we could do better. That's the point. We could do better."
The problem isn't necessarily prevalent on the ground in troop operations, but he said coalition members are often shut out of longer-term planning.
"CentCom strategic planning for future operations is based on strategic and operational intelligence, which we feel is not shared fully with us, even if we are going to take part in the future operations," Praestegaard said in a followup email.
Praestegaard blames much of the secrecy on the Foreign Disclosure Office, which is part of the command and makes decisions on what intelligence can be released based on U.S. policy, regulations and the law.
Close the coalition?
The question of intelligence sharing may take on heightened importance as U.S. officials consider whether to close Coalition Village after American troops leave Afghanistan in the next two years.
Praestegaard said problems in sharing intelligence could play a part in the decision by coalition members to keep personnel at the center in coming years, especially given tough economic times in many nations.
"Why couldn't I sit in Copenhagen and do exactly what I do here?" he asked.
Army Maj. Gen. Karl Horst, CentCom chief of staff, said the command works "tirelessly" to get as much information as possible to coalition partners "while remaining within the legal bounds of security classification guidelines."
But he added: "There are often times when a coalition member may wish to have some information for their situational awareness that we are simply not allowed to share."
James Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank, said intelligence sharing on the battlefield is trouble-free by most reports. "But I certainly think at the policy level our allies have a legitimate gripe," he said.
U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young said Friday it was his understanding that CentCom officials had recommended to the Pentagon that Coalition Village be continued beyond Afghanistan.
A CentCom spokesman said a final decision has not been made.
"I think Coalition Village has been a very successful endeavor ever since it was first created," Young said. "I think it's paid off a lot in our relationship within other countries."
The village was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with little publicity. Foreign officers worked out of temporary trailers in a parking lot adjacent to CentCom's headquarters.
Today, Coalition Village offices are housed in two buildings at MacDill. The foreign officers have forged a tight community that gets along well despite the cultural, religious and political differences of their nations.
"We don't care about color, religion, or anything," said Praestegaard. "Here, we are all equal."
Praestegaard described a U.S. military bureaucracy that at times can seem comical in the ways it clings to information. He said he has made presentations to CentCom staff, only to later see the very same information withheld from the coalition.
"We can't get it back," he said.
Praestegaard said a combined-planning group at CentCom, which is composed of U.S. personnel and about 20 foreign officers, operates as a think tank for the command. But he said the group is presented with nonclassified information only of limited usefulness.
"Which means whatever they can get on the Internet," Praestegaard said.
He said CentCom also has rebuffed offers from several nations, including Denmark, to embed small numbers of their officers on CentCom staff.
Praestegaard said it is difficult to know if something critical is being withheld.
"I don't want to be a smart guy," he said. "But I don't know what I don't know. I know there is something I don't know. Maybe it's important. Maybe it's not important. But I am the only one who can decide that."
Praestegaard said coalition partners too often learn about important developments in the Afghanistan war through U.S. media, such as plans to draw down U.S. troops.
Asked if it was a question of trust, he said: "Basically, it is. It must be. … It is a question of trust and policy and tradition."
When intelligence leaks to the media or elsewhere occur, coalition members are not to blame, he said.
"All the leakage happening, where does (it) come from the last two or three years?" Praestegaard asked. "Not here."
He said most nations believe the village is essential in the fight against global terrorism. But it is important, too, in smaller ways, Praestegaard noted. For instance, he travels around the state educating Floridians about the war.
"That was what we needed to tell Americans — you are not alone," he said.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.