In the wake of the attacks of 9/11, an international coalition of nations was formed at U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base to coordinate a global response. With the war in Iraq over (though that nation is still in turmoil) and the war in Afghanistan winding down, the original impetus for the coalition, now numbering 52 nations, is about to end. But what about the future?
In his first interview since being named coalition chairman, Danish Brig. Gen. Frank Lissner, talked with The Tampa Tribune about what happens next, how Edward Snowden affected information sharing, the Taliban resurgence after the invasion of Iraq and the raging controversy back at home over the treatment of detainees handed over to U.S. forces during the first of his two tours in Afghanistan as a Danish special operations forces commander.
Q: The war in Afghanistan is set to conclude by the end of December and President Barack Obama has stated 9,800 U.S. troops will remain next year, with half that the following year. What is the future of the coalition?
A: Everyone knows Afghanistan is winding down and the coalition was formed based on Afghanistan primarily, and also on Iraq, too, and the thing that kept us together was that we were more or less standing around Afghanistan holding hands having the same and mutual interests in developing Afghanistan away from the Taliban rule to the more Afghan democratic way and with the withdrawal that task does not exist anymore. However, the resolve will probably go on for a couple of years, until 2016.
Q: What happens then?
A: In 2016, all the NATO countries are going to follow the U.S. If the U.S. completely withdraws by 2016, I think the different NATO nations will withdraw as well.
Q: Is that the end of the coalition?
A: No. You could say it is the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, because what will happen in the future, no one knows. And by having a coalition, you still have a venue to focus on interoperability, to focus on military-to-military cooperation, and you know the popular saying, I think it was (U.S. Special Operations Command leader Adm. William) McRaven who used it: Trust cannot be surged. So the coalition is regarding a specific operation, but it is also about building relationships, building trust. Building knowledge of each other's capacity. And I think in the future it is not only the U.S. — any nations facing budget cuts, so we need to look at which are the capabilities needed for future operations and then we need to develop those.
I need to stress I primarily speak for the Danish perspective. The U.S. is our main strategic partner and we wish to improve our interoperability with U.S. forces so one of the purposes ... of me being here is for me to facilitate that. We look for training opportunity, ways to improve interoperability to be able to plug and play with the U.S. forces when necessary, and no one in this changing world can say if that will happen next year or 10 years. Denmark and many other nations are maintaining a presence here and trying to transform the coalition into something else.
Q: Transform it into what?
A: The coalition forwarded a paper to Centcom where we addressed some of the issues we think should be raised. At the end of the day, it is about ensuring that the coalition stays relevant in the future, not only for Centcom, but for the individual nations investing in officers to serve here.
Q: What's in the paper?
A: It focuses on two areas. One is the internal part. I think the coalition is a unique structure. We have 52 officers from 52 very different nations and amongst ourselves we should use this in the best way possible to some academic discussions, getting to know each other better. ... Then toward the Centcom side we are addressing that with the Afghanistan mission drawing down, we need to look at the ways to make sure the operation is still relevant for Centcom. The relevance isn't only what Centcom can provide us, but what we can provide Centcom.
Q: Afghanistan aside, the Centcom region is still very dangerous, with Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen and 14 other nations from North Africa to Central Asia. But is there financial pressure on coalition nations to end the mission here?
A: This is a long-term investment. Right now, Centcom is not involved after Afghanistan in that many operations. No one knows what comes up. You could even say by downsizing in Afghanistan, you should upgrade here in Centcom. ... in fact, Denmark is looking at adding one extra man here, because we want to follow the developments in Centcom.
Q: What do you think that development is at Centcom?
A: They are in a strategic pause right now, downgrading in different areas. But again, looking at the AOR (area of responsibility), there are potentials for new conflicts.
Q: Are you satisfied with the sharing of information and intelligence?
A: I would say regarding information sharing, there is always room for improvement. however, one should know that for information sharing, it is not just a U.S. issue. It's an issue for any country. Denmark has the lead on the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) in Syria, and I cannot share all the information from those operations with all the partners. The policy for all nations has been a need-to-know basis ... but, of course, with 52 nations, different policies, different politics, different agendas, it's difficult to share because it will be the lowest common denominator and we are working with the U.S. side on that. The (former National Security Agency contractor Edward) Snowden case doesn't make it easier.
Q: How so?
A: My personal opinion is that the Snowden issue has made a lot of Americans more cautious about what are the rules for handing over information to others. I think based on Snowden, if they hand over information they are not allowed to, it could have consequences. That's just how I see it.
Q: Do you see a Danish Special Operations Forces (SOF) presence in Afghanistan beyond this year?
A: Good question. I think if there is a need from the U.S. side and they ask for Danish SOF, my personal belief is yes.
Q: What about conventional forces after 2014?
A: We are watching to see if there is a (Bilateral Security Agreement). If there is no U.S. presence down in Afghanistan, NATO and all the other countries will pull out.
Q: When you first served in Afghanistan in 2002, what was your mission?
A: Hunting Taliban in Kandahar. It was the first time for Denmark to send out a force on such a mission. It was a major step for Denmark.
Q: How many troops were under your command?
A: Initially, I had 110 men, then we drew down to around 60. For many typical SOF missions, going out, throwing bombs and shooting lots of shots and killing people, that was only a small part. The main part was to special reconnaissance. Stay out there, observe what's happening, report back, and if the information is good enough and confirmed then other units make an attack.
Q: The U.S. has lost more than 2,310 troops supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. How has the war affected Denmark?
A: I think after the U.S. then compared to size, Denmark was the nation that lost the most. In Afghanistan we lost 47. That is a big percentage. We had a lot of wounded. I myself had three soldiers killed and seven losing one or more limbs.
Q: You were the focus of a great deal of controversy in Denmark over the issue of detainees. What happened?
A: When we were down in Kandahar, we didn't bring our own detention facility. There was a lot of discussion in Denmark if we could hand over detainees to the U.S. or not.
A: The U.S. hadn't signed one of the Geneva protocols. We got reassurance from President George Bush, then handed over the detainees. During operations that supported the U.S. forces, we captured about 25 Afghans, which we initially thought were Taliban and we handed them to a U.S. detention center. Years after, three, four, five years after, one of these guys said they were subject to hard treatment. Not torture, but hard treatment. And they got a free process in Denmark. It took 10 years, first to the local court, then the Supreme Court, because they said I as the task force commander ought to know or should have known that they would be subject to hard treatment. It took 10 years, but based on all the information, they said that we didn't know and couldn't have known.
Q: Did you notice many changes in Afghanistan during your second tour there?
A: Of course, there was quick development in Afghanistan, then suddenly the Iraq war came up and forces were drawn from Afghanistan to Iraq from all the nations. No one thought the Taliban would be able to come back that fast, so everyone thought it was OK in Afghanistan, but it wasn't. ... Suddenly the Taliban surfaced again.
Q: How successful was Operation Enduring Freedom?
A: I think too many people say that we have spent a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of soldiers' lives in Afghanistan and what have we achieved? That's the pessimism. If we hadn't gone into Afghanistan, we would have an even worse situation, lots of the conflict spread to the rest of the world.