MacDill's new 'village' helps coordinate globe
By PAUL de la GARZA and DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN
© St. Petersburg Times,
WASHINGTON -- To help coordinate the international war on terrorism, the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa has recently established the Coalition Coordination Center, a politically sensitive enterprise that includes military personnel from around the world.
Known informally as "the coalition village," the weeks-old center reflects the White House mantra that the war on terrorism enjoys broad international support.
The 12 countries represented at Central Command, which is directing the war in Afghanistan, are the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Jordan, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Qatar, Turkey, Belgium and Canada.
As the war strategy changes, the makeup of the coalition may change as well.
Fearing a political backlash, the majority of coalition partners have balked at promoting their role in the war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Bush administration officials repeatedly have said that the war on terrorism will not end with Afghanistan. As a result, the Coalition Coordination Center apparently will be in operation indefinitely.
"I expect they will be there for as long as there is a military operation under way in that region," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, one of the few people who have been briefed on the workings of the center.
The coalition village, a cluster of 50 to 100 trailers described by eyewitnesses as a whole city, is going up on a parking lot on the south side of the headquarters of the Central Command, or CENTCOM.
To accommodate the facility, CENTCOM personnel have been parking across the street from headquarters, along the airfield's flight line.
As they await completion of the center, which is to serve as their working quarters, the foreign visitors have been working in the offices of the Central Command.
CENTCOM, whose area of responsibility stretches from Egypt to Turkmenistan, routinely hosts foreign military visitors. The center, however, was created specifically for the war on terrorism in the weeks after the attacks in New York and Washington, Young said.
While the project is not classified, Central Command will not talk about it.
Access to the base is restricted and reporters are not allowed to visit the facility, which is fenced in.
Regular base personnel are not allowed contact with the foreign guests.
Young was briefed Thursday and stressed that center personnel do not run the war but help coordinate it. "It's not an operational facility driving military operations," Young said.
Basically, the congressman said, the various representatives share intelligence with each other and make sure that everyone is on the same page.
For specific military operations, for example, "They determine what the ratio of troops would be from each respective coalition partner, what types of troops would be sent," Young said.
Col. Brian P. Hoey, Central Command spokesman, declined to discuss details about the Coalition Coordination Center. His only comment was this: "International visitors are not unknown to Central Command."
Indeed, before Sept. 11, military representatives from other countries came and went. Since the attacks on the United States, their numbers have swelled. Last week, according to the New York Times, Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, Britain's top military officer, made an unpublicized visit to MacDill to meet Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander-in-chief of Central Command.
Even though it handles the Middle East, CENTCOM is based in Tampa because the United States has never found a politically acceptable way of basing its headquarters somewhere in the region.
Base personnel, meanwhile, say listening to the various languages the visitors speak is unusual.
An official figure of the number of foreign visitors was unavailable. But they have been noticeable on base: at the commissary, for example, and off base, at restaurants up the street.
In fact, Monday evening, two military officers walked into the Thailand Restaurant, about a mile north of the MacDill entrance gates.
Pichit Trirat, who has waited tables at the restaurant six days a week for 10 years, knows almost everyone who comes in. Most are civilian and military personnel from MacDill.
But Trirat said the two men were dressed differently, in light green and brown fatigues.
He did not recognize the uniforms.
In talking with the men, Trirat discovered that they were Australian, based at MacDill, and in town for a couple of weeks.
They ordered carryout: curry chicken, a combination vegetable platter and coconut soup. "They didn't say very much," said owner Amnuay Thambundit. "They talked only when we asked."
The next day, three different men walked in, all wearing uniforms similar to those on the soldiers from the Australian military.
This time, Trirat did not ask any questions.
He recognized the fatigues.
While the visitors work at MacDill day and night, they stay in area hotels. A spot check of hotels and suites found that they have been in Tampa for a while.
The wait staff at one hotel said six of the officers had the breakfast buffet at the hotel restaurant Thursday morning. Management, however, told hotel staff not to ask the guests questions.
The officers, some in military uniforms, others in plain clothes, are friendly, said the waiters, who almost spoke in whispers.
Twice this week cabdriver Jesse Mogedcheru drove officers from their hotel to MacDill.
He tried not to be nosy.
"I do not ask where they are from," Mogedcheru said. "It's kind of hard to ask, you know. They are doing their jobs. It's probably secret."
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