TAMPA — The U.S. Central Command international coalition, formed after 9/11, will not leave MacDill Air Force Base at the end of this year with the scheduled departure of the bulk of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, according to the coalition’s current leader.
With Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq among the 20 nations in the Centcom region, there are no shortages of potential trouble spots and challenges beyond Afghanistan, said Swedish Rear Adm. Mats Fogelmark, chairman of the coalition.
“Just open the newspaper today,” he said. “There are problems in almost every country today.”
So far, at least 40 of the current 55 nations have already agreed to stay on in Tampa past December, Fogelmark said in an interview with The Tampa Tribune this week. And there may be one very significant new addition.
Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the Centcom commander, “will send out letters to 61 countries, including even India,” inviting them to join a new “international presence,” Fogelmark said.
Centcom officials could not comment because they don’t speak for foreign militaries or governments. Indian officials did not comment by press time.
“This is good news for Tampa,” said Fogelmark, 51, who has been the coalition chairman since August of 2012. “There will definitely be a coalition of foreigners at Centcom” past December.
There are currently about 200 foreign military officers assigned to MacDill by coalition member nations, Fogelmark said. Some, like him, come with family members, adding to the region’s cultural diversity and economy.
The addition of India would be “a significant step, particularly since the U.S. and the Indian military establishments are only gradually growing closer,” said Jonah Blank, senior political scientist for the RAND Corp.
Currently, India is in the U.S. Pacific Command region. While changes to the way U.S. geographic combatants are now aligned have reportedly been discussed, they are nowhere close to happening. But bringing Indian military officers to Tampa as part of a coalition focused on the Middle East and South Asia makes sense to both nations, said Blank.
“From the U.S. perspective, anything that increases ties and transparency and comfort level between the U.S. and Indian military is a good thing,” said Blank. “The U.S. would like much greater contact with India’s military establishment, so just getting Indian officers over there is a great thing from the U.S. perspective.”
India, for its part, “wants to be a player,” said Blank. Joining a Centcom coalition would help meet that end. But it would also create some “interesting dynamics,” he said.
“India would like to be a part of the decision-making process, but India would not like to be bound by U.S. foreign policy,” said Blank. “There are a lot of areas in the Centcom (region) where India would very much like to keep itself distant from U.S. policy.”
Iran, for instance, is seen by U.S. officials as a malign influence in the region but has “relatively close” relations with India, said Blank, and India “would like to have much closer relations with Iran and would definitely be averse to any military action against Iran.”
The Centcom coalition was formed after 9/11 to help prosecute military efforts against violent extremist organizations in the Middle East and South Asia.
The term “coalition” is somewhat of a misnomer, said Fogelmark.
“Coalition is a little misleading,” said Fogelmark. “It is more like a military buffet at Centcom. We are 55 countries collocated in the same building. Each has its own bilateral agreement with the United States.”
There are “coalitions within the coalition,” he said, depending on the issue.
One example he cited is the ongoing Syrian civil war. Sweden, he said, has no interest in taking part in any military engagement in Syria, but it is interested in taking part in humanitarian efforts dealing with the spillover of refugees in neighboring countries.
The coalition concept is gaining traction, said Fogelmark.
Pacom, he said, is looking toward setting up something similar for the Pacific region.
“All the other commands are looking at Centcom and would like to have lessons learned,” said Fogelmark, who has advice for any command setting up a coalition.
“First of all, you have to be realistic,” he said. “If you have a mission, you can’t share information with anyone not taking part in that mission. A lot of countries believe that they will all have that information. But it is not ‘nice to know,’ it is ‘need to know.’”
Another piece of advice Fogelmark offers is that “it is all about communications and that the countries taking part have to provide something for the United States.” On the other hand, “it is important for American officers to be open-minded to learn something” from their foreign partners, he said, adding that U.S. military who have served in Afghanistan are more open to that concept.
Fogelmark’s stay in Tampa is scheduled to come to an end in June.
“I am going to be the defense attache in China and North Korea,” said Fogelmark. “It will be very interesting.”
Sweden was the first country to establish an embassy in North Korea, in 1972, said Fogelmark.
“I really hope to meet the leader,” he said of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
For Fogelmark and his wife Annette, Tampa has been “easy living.
“We are a little bit beach people,” he said. “We rent a house in Belleair Beach.”
For eight months, the couple’s daughter, Malin, also lived here, but she has since headed back to Stockholm, where she will join the Swedish military.
“This is my first visit to the United States,” he said. “I can’t compare it to any other place in the U.S., but in my role as chairman, I have met so many nice people outside the gates who have support for the armed forces. They also thank me for my service.”