Mongolia, a nation with abundant mineral wealth, has emerged in recent days as a showcase for the US-Russian rivalry. The Mongolian military has found itself in the unusual position of participating in separate joint exercises involving US and Russian troops going on at the same time.
An 11-day US-Mongolian exercise known as Khaan Quest 2009, held at the Five Hills Peacekeeping Operations Training Center about 70 kilometers west of Ulaanbaatar, concluded August 25. The maneuvers involved roughly 500 soldiers from Mongolia, 150 Americans and 300 total troops from India, Japan, Cambodia and South Korea -- all of them practicing peacekeeping techniques, including convoy security, patrolling and checkpoint operations. The closing ceremony featured a parade by the graduating platoons and speeches by the chief of staff of US Pacific Command (which sponsored the exercise), as well as Mongolia's defense minister and chief of armed forces.
The exercise is the most visible form of US-Mongolian military cooperation, which, for Mongolia, has become an integral part of its "third neighbor" foreign policy strategy. Under that strategy, Ulaanbaatar strives to strengthen relations with nations beyond its two immediate neighbors, Russia and China. The joint exercises have been held annually since 2003. For the last three years, they have included other countries beyond the United States and the host nation. Past participants have included Indonesia, Bangladesh, Tonga and Fiji.
Khaan Quest grew out of Mongolia's participation in the US-led war in Iraq, the first combat action that Mongolian troops had seen since World War II. During the Communist era, Mongolia was a close ally of the Soviet Union. In the post-Soviet age, though, Mongolia has built ties with countries other than China and Russia, to avoid being dominated by those two neighbors.
Mongolia's efforts to balance its strategic relations were underscored by the fact that as Khaan Quest 09 was winding down, a different group of Mongolian soldiers was participating in joint military maneuvers with Russian armed forces. Those exercises, dubbed Darkhan 2, began on August 23. According to the Mongolian news agency Montsame, Darkhan 2 involves 400 Mongolian soldiers and 232 Russian troops and also focuses on UN peacekeeping. The exercise will last until September 15, and is part of a $7 million military aid package from Russia.
The balancing act has proven complicated at times: The Khaan Quest closing ceremony, for instance, was moved back several hours from its original scheduled starting time so that the Mongolian officials could participate in events related to the arrival of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Ulaanbaatar the same morning.
After the outbreak of the second blitz against Baghdad in 2003, Mongolia initially wanted to take part in United Nations peacekeeping operations in Iraq, but the UN deemed Mongolia's armed forces unsuitable for deployment, said Mashbat Otgonbayar Sarlagtay, an analyst at Mongolia's Institute for Strategic Studies. The United States, eager to recruit as many countries as possible for its "coalition of the willing" against Iraq, accepted Mongolia's forces despite their faults, Mashbat added. A contingent of about 150 Mongolian soldiers carried out perimeter security operations at Camp Echo in southern Iraq until Mongolia ended the deployment last year.
Mongolia's participation led to financial rewards from the United States, including a $285 million aid package through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Khaan Quest exercises. "This [peacekeeping exercise] is one of the gains we got from Iraq," Mashbat said. In addition, Mongolia has achieved its goal of taking part in UN peacekeeping operations, with a contingent of about 250 soldiers in Sierra Leone since 2006. Mongolia is also expected to send a unit to Afghanistan for the first time in mid-September, said Lt. Col. Nyandorj, a spokesman for the Mongolian Armed Forces.
In addition to the Khaan Quest exercise, US military cooperation with Mongolia includes the Marine Leadership Development Exchange Program, an initiative unique to Mongolia in which a small group of US Marines "embeds" with Mongolian forces full time to help train them in western military methods.
Although Mongolia does participate in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the focus of US training in Mongolia is on UN peacekeeping operations. US troops themselves traditionally do not participate in UN peacekeeping missions, and this fact can create some "challenges" for Marines working with the Mongolians, said Col. Steven Merrill, the exercise's director. "The UN has different tactics, techniques and procedures than we do. The American standards are a little stronger, a little more aggressive," he said. "We're talking about aggressiveness. In an ambush, for example, we might continue on and attack into the ambush, where a peacekeeping force, their goal is to keep going and get away."
Mongolia trains with many foreign militaries, including those of China and Russia, and Mongolian leaders are adept at using each foreign partner for what it can offer militarily, said Major Richard Callahan, the current commander of the Marine Leadership Development Exchange Program. "We are, in essence, another tool for the Mongolians to use. They take as much information as they can to develop their forces as best suits them. So they're not taking Marine Corps training and doctrine as gospel, they're applying it to how they do business," he said.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.