'Village' eases coordination between 'coalition of willling' and U.S.
MacDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Rows of plain beige trailers sit neatly in a fenced compound behind the U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base.
They would be easy to miss except for one thing: Each trailer has the flag of a different country flying above it.
There is Azerbaijan, Japan, Latvia and Djibouti. There is South Korea, Slovenia, Yemen and Germany. In all, about 352 foreign servicemembers work here as liaisons in what the United States calls “the coalition of the willing,” 53 countries working in support of the war on terrorism.
The compound is known as the Coalition Village. But it serves as the nerve center for coalition combat support and humanitarian aid for Operation Enduring Freedom in and around Afghanistan and, in some cases, the war and subsequent rebuilding in Iraq.
The liaisons coordinate everything from transporting 5,000 sheep donated to Afghanistan from the tiny country of Djibouti to training the Afghan military.
Having the liaisons all in one place allows them to communicate more easily, and quickly work out who will provide what. One country might have a ton of school supplies to donate to Afghanistan but no way to get them there. Another country might have a C-130 that can do the job.
“If I need anything from Sweden, he is just across the street,” said Kuwaiti Lt. Col. Fahed Alshelaimi. “If I need anything from Greece, I just knock on his door. It makes the world so small.”
Alshelaimi is chairman of the Humanitarian Assistance Working Group, which coordinates humanitarian aid from the various countries. Like most of the liaisons here, he has spent time in the United States before. Many have attended U.S. universities or military schools like the Army’s Command and General Staff College.
Nearly all are high-ranking officers — colonels and generals — and most are men. Many of them have converted their ranks to the U.S. equivalent, and English is the official language.
Each country has a senior officer and a small staff assigned to the village. Tours of duty range from four months to more than a year. The liaisons work across three or more time zones, coordinating between the United States, their home country and Afghanistan or Iraq.
“Essentially we facilitate between the Ministry of Defense level and the poor guys on the ground who actually have to do the work,” said U.S. Army Col. Michael Scotto, a reservist serving as director of the coalition’s headquarters. “There could be a multitude of nations involved in what looks to be a simple task.”
The United States asked for support from other countries on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Coalition liaisons started gathering at CENTCOM a short time later.
Some countries don’t have liaisons at the Coalition Village because they want to keep their contributions low-key.
The public affairs officer escort through the compound repeatedly points out that the coalition was formed to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and is not officially connected to operations in Iraq. That’s a necessary distinction because not all the countries here supported U.S. efforts to oust Saddam Hussein.
South Korea army Brig. Gen. Choe Jong-ho said his country uses most of its resources trying to keep North Korea at bay. But he said South Korea owes the United States whatever it can give in support of the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We have a friend to protect us, that’s America,” Choe said. “When you \[the United States\] are having a hard time, I have to help.”
Besides the daily meetings to hammer out the details of wiping out terrorism and rebuilding entire countries, the liaisons have regular social gatherings where they share a bit of home. The Japanese might hold a sushi lunch, while the Germans have a regular beer call.
“The working environment here in the coalition is conducive, it’s very friendly,” said Pakistani Brig. Gen. Masood Khan. “We don’t discuss political issues. We’re all quite senior and understand not to mix politics with social hours.”
Khan’s wife and two young children are here with him and they live in an apartment near the base. The kids attend fourth and sixth grades at public schools outside the base in Tampa, where Khan said they are amazed by the diversity of the student population.
Paul Becker, a German navy commander, said the coalition sends a signal to terrorists.
“This is a message of international solidarity,” Becker said.
Choe predicts the coalition one day will be credited with saving the world from terrorism.
“We make great things here,” he said. “Maybe nobody knows this now.”
A snapshot of coalition contributions to Operation Enduring Freedom:
• Japan has pledged up to $500 million in assistance to Afghanistan over the next 2½ years. Two refueling/replenishment ships and three destroyers deployed to the Indian Ocean.• South Korea has set up a hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan, and is supporting the war with four C-130 aircraft and a navy ship. A team of South Korean engineers is helping fix airports and other structures in Afghanistan.• Germany has sent special operations troops and is helping train Afghan police.• Kyrgyzstan has provided bases and overflight rights for U.S. and coalition forces and in cooperation with Russia.• Tajikistan has donated 16,500 tons of flour and wheat.• Spain has deployed two frigates and one logistics ship, has set up a hospital in Bagram and has donated several vehicles including seven Humvees and a forklift.
— From staff reports