The Mongols Return to Iraq

Mongolian troops

It’s been a while. in 1258, the Mongols sacked Baghdad. Now, they are back under different auspices. (Link via Center For Security Policy.) You might be scratching your head over this. Why do we want 173 men who cannot be understood by anybody and whose equipment is decrepit, and who need to be flown, housed, fed and otherwise cared for by Uncle Sam? The same might be asked about many on the list President Bush ran through in his SOTU speech: “Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and the 17 other countries.” Some of the countries are making a substantive contribution. Others want to participate because they have their own reasons for wanting to work with Uncle Sam. But what we get out of this, especially with the smaller and poorer countries, is building relationships, making friends in remote places.

I recall this interesting question, and answer from an interview with Robert Kaplan:

Q: You mention the friendships that have developed between U.S. military men and their foreign counterparts. These relationships appear to be extremely important to the Special Forces service. Can you talk about why these friendships mean so much? Also, why is it important for us to have a system for tracking these relationships outside of an anecdotal one?

A: What happens now is, there will be a crisis somewhere and an officer will say, “Oh, I know that army. A guy in that army was my student at Fort Leavenworth or Fort Benning and we were really good friends for a few years and then we lost contact. I’m sure he’s in the middle of this crisis. I wonder what he’s up to? I wonder what his e-mail address is?” If we could systematically keep track of these relationships and contacts, people would be able to access them in a crisis. We’d have better intelligence quickly and we’d be able to fix a problem too. When friendships are maintained, they are used. For instance, the Ghanaian Army may have a problem-it’s got rebels in the north, it lacks equipment, or it can’t keep up an airfield because the runway is damaged or there’s not enough money to keep paving it. So then a colonel in Ghana, who is friends with a Marine lieutenant at Camp Pendleton in California, can just get in touch with his friend and say, “You know, this is going wrong and that’s going wrong. Perhaps you could help us, perhaps you could send a training mission.” And remember, some of these training missions can be one person. Or they can be ten or twenty. They can be planned nine months in advance, or they can happen on the spot. The more flexible this process is-the more seamless the relationships between American middle- and higher-level officers and officers in other countries-the better our relationships with these foreign militaries are going to be, and the better able we’re going to be to deal with problems as they emerge in a world where every country is potentially strategic. If there’s one thing we learn from the news, it’s that the places that seem the most obscure today are the stuff of tomorrow’s headlines.

Those Mongolian troops may not look like much. But this Iraq gig is a prestige assignment, for them. These are their best and brightest. Down the road, these guys are going to be the senior honchos in the Mongolian Army. And they will be in our rolodex. Just in case.

47 thoughts on “The Mongols Return to Iraq”

  1. Who knows, the Mongolians may play a roll in a future Russian/Chinese conflict. But last I heard the Mongolians were basically a puppet of Beijing?

  2. Whaddya mean, “not look like much”? If those aren’t the coolest dress uniforms worn by any army anywhere in the world, I’d like to see the ones that are. If it wasn’t for the fact I can’t do throat-singing, I’d be almost tempted to join up myself.

  3. Great post. All the “not a real coalition” types out there like Dowd, should be more up on these things than they appear to be. How Dowd could be so demeaning to our allies and get away with it is beyond me. The Mongolians rock! –scott

  4. Martin, with a uniform like this, you’d definitely be able to camouflage against the curtains of Versailles, and lie on the carpets of Buckingham Palace unnoticed…(Quite useful if you samplef too much of the Queen’s champagne and need a little nap…)

    Although if the enemy is color-blind, red and blue could make you nearly invisible.

  5. This just goes to show how international Iraq has become. 30 years of being closed off to the world and the Mongols have arrived.

    These kids are getting quite an education.

  6. Well, not really, when one single country carries more than 95% of the burden and shoulder’s most of the costs, one can’t really say it’s international. I had to chuckle when I heard Bush bring up El Salvador in his address. Oh yeah…that’s one influential military power in the world. That’s going to make our enemies shake in their boots. (“Oh my God…they have the help of…El Salvador !! We’ve lost !!”)

    And the number of people in the Middle East who even know where El Salvador is on the map is probably no higher than in most other places.

  7. Also not impressed by Kaplan’s point. The notion that officers can whip up their own little overseas mission because thei buddy in Ghana can’t pay for the runway is a little bit of a stretch. This is the military and the government we’re talking about, a top-down hierarchy that reports to a civilian authority. It’s not a flexible private corporation.

    Special Forces are, well, a special case. Their job and function requires flexibility and they have worked and kept contact with their counterparts for decades. Nothing new in that department.

    This looks like standard military theater. The U.S. pays for everything, Mongolia provides the staff. 173 American soldiers off boring guard duty and back on the streets. That’s the good part.

  8. Those wild unforms are the DRESS unifroms, like the US Marine’s “Dress Blues”, but far more exotic.

    The other link shows what they wear when not trying to impress the ladies and sheep.


  9. Sylvain, I understand your point, but we see foreigners every day, they don’t. That’s a big step for both sides. The tales they’ll all be able to tell.

  10. Sandy, only the very young Iraqis are unfamiliar with foreigners. The place was full of European, Russian and Asian oil workers for a long time. As for Baghdad, it has attracted regular armies of journalists and NGO types for years.

    Definitely an adventure for these soldiers. But so it is for every other soldier over there.

  11. Nelson: Thanks, date corrected.

    Not looking like much — I did mean their field gear. Agreed that the dress uniforms are totally cool.

    Sylvain, I take Kaplan at his word when he says the military is able to weigh in with small projects, etc. He has seen all this stuff himself.

  12. I’ve been diggin’ on the History Channel’s “Barbarians” series lately, and then whammo here come the Mongolians. They are so totally cool — you know those boys are going to score when they get home. And I bet the average Iraqi is more determined than ever to get their act cleaned up and those foreigners the heck out of town. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be to have a platoon of MONGOLIANS guarding your local police station?

  13. Lex, with all respect due to Kaplan or yourself, I’d like to see the actual evidence; assertions that it is significant, effective and relevant sound good, but assertions is all they are. I have seen some of this myself, know others who have, and usually the ones who are the most impressed are the civilians for whom these little exercises are set up. I am so willing to be proven wrong on this, but given my experience, this is a nearly extraordinary claim; so I need a good proof.

  14. Sylvain, I don’t know how to respond, really. Everything I have ever read suggests that the United States has small numbers of military personnel in virtually every country in the world. As to whether their presence is “significant, effective and relevant” I suppose has to be determined case by case. Look at this article by Kaplan and read what he has to say about mid-level officers in Romania and other places. Anyway, we are a world hegemon, it is certainly wise to have contacts in all these places, and we have been working hard to do so for more than 50 years. A good older example of this is Vernon Walters, who was a brilliant linguist and translator. He met and knew well many foreign officers during his career and became the Pentagon’s point man for its contacts throughout Latin America during the Cold War. His Brazilian Portuguese was indistinguishable from a native speakers.

    As to whether the Mongolian participation is pointless theatre, I don’t think so. It is something they are interested in doing, as Kaplan also discusses, and we want to help them. We want access to Mongolia, they want our help, this mission is one way to advance those causes.

    Also, take a look at this post (via Instapundit) by a soldier over in Iraq. He has respect for the contribution of soldiers from smaller countries who are serving in Iraq. I have no doubt the Mongolians will make a contribution on a par with the Fijians he describes.

    If your main point is that the military cannot spontaneously come up with small sums of money to repair an airfield or something, I don’t think that is right. SOF and the various regional commands have discretionary funds, or so I understand.

    So, I don’t know what it is we are supposedly disagreeing about.

  15. Sylvain,I don’t care how small the contingents are…laugh at El Salvador if you must, but when one of them dies fighting along side our troops..

    What percentage of the force in a coalition makes a participant more worthy of praise rather than an object of your diminution?

    I hope all of you are well and having a great weekend.


  16. Lex, I agree that it matters, and always did, for Special Forces. And no argument as to whether it happens every now and then. But despite copious amounts of anecdotal evidence and hearsay, there is no hard evidence that this is important or relevant, like many other government habits. I only spent two years in the military and heard about many such initiatives, and indirectly participated in one. As far as I know, they’re the military equivalent of those all-expenses paid corporate trips to scout new markets. Once in a while, it pays off, by design or by luck. Most of the time, it’s just lost into the cost of doing business.

    These things are especially common when the money flows. And right now in the military world, the money does flow.

    Sure, there are successes, some of them spectacular (One British citizen going by the name of Lawrence comes to mind…). But let’s not get overly excited here. Outliers should not be extrapolated, and their existence is not necessarily the motivation behind other similar attempts, nor a valid justification for them.

    Sure, the Mongols sacked Baghdad 746 years ago. Feels like yesterday, when you’re a geologist. And it makes for interesting PR. But PR is all it looks like to me. Of course, Kaplan and yourself are absolutely free to see something more meaningful into it. I’ll take the risk of sounding overly cynical and say I don’t buy it. (Except for these funky uniforms for the next Halloween party.)

    And Mr J. Scott Barnard, I was not laughing at El Salvador. But at one President ending his coalition list with El Salvador. Let me go out on a limb here : should President Chirac list those countries who opposed the war with him, and end it with Luxembourg or Lichtenstein, I think you and I would have a hard time containing our giggles. Why ? Because we have contempt for Luxembourg, its citizens, its banks or its size ? No. Because we know the presence, or absence, of Luxembourg alongside France has no bearing on French policy whatsoever, and therefore does not in any way alter or otherwise influence whatever judgment anyone will make of it.

    Same thing here. The absence, or presence, of El Salvador alongside the U.S. is mostly irrelevant, espcially so given the rest of the list. The only reason to mention it, aside from genuine politeness, might be to make others like Denmark or the Netherlands look bigger by comparison. The midget, by its puny size and microscopic relative weight, does makes everyone else look like a mid-to-heavy weight.

    As for the objects of my diminution here, they do not reside in El Salvador, as far as I know. But they are known to claim operations in Iraq are “international” when most of the effort is staffed and funded by the US. I also note that 12 years ago, the same individuals who today argue this is a truly global effort, did claim the first Gulf War was an American victory since the US provided most of the troops and hardware, and did most of the fighting. The proportion of foreigners involved were a lot higher, but still, they had a point. And I agreed with them back then. France helped. So did Egypt. But would their absence have resulted in failure ?

    If Gulf War I was an American war and victory, Gulf War II most definitely is an American operation. Hence my finding claims that it is a global effort a bit phony, when not ludicrous when the President brings up El Salvador. So call me a western snob.

    Today, this is a US-led, US-funded operation, with a British component and marginal international support.

    Sure, it all depends on what you mean by ‘international’. After all, Portsmouth NH has an international airport, thanks to a couple of flights to Canada…

  17. Maintaining contacts is relatively cheap. The things you can prevent from blowing up never get into the newspapers. Knowing whom to call can be helpful. We had people in the Phillipines in the 1950s who knew their way around, like Edward Lansdale. He assisted Magsaysay in thwarting a communist rebellion. Similarly, we had good contacts in Bolivia, which led to the destruction of Che Guevara, who was out to raise serious Hell in South America. We had people in Jordan who helped King Hussein push the PLO out. Vernon Walters knew all the guys in the Brazilian military who were involved in the coup, because he’d met them in Italy in 1943. Whether we inspired the coup or not, we had an inside line to those guys, who had made a similarly minor contribution to our war against Germany. Similarly, there were many countries which made small commitments in Korea and in Vietnam. (In fact, in Korea, the Turks made a substantial contribution, and in Vietnam the Koreans did, both with relatively small number of troops.)

    Bottom line, I agree with you that we don’t need any of these people to conquer and occupy Iraq. We are using the conquest and occupation of Iraq as an opportunity to cultivate contacts with foreign militaries. You see this as a trivial exercise. I don’t agree. It is a cheap investment to obtain future access. We’d be stupid not to do it. It cannot hurt and might be useful.

    (On a related point, check out the foreign area officers’ association journal. Some interesting looking essays. Another time … .)

    Also, for whatever reason, politically, we want to be able to say lots of people are supporting this. As it happens, that is true. Most of these places do not have a very significant military capability, but they are committing what they have. Again, since these seems to matter to some people for some reason, it is smart for Bush to take advantage of this opportunity to involve these people, and to publicize it.

    If Belgium supported France, Chirac would probably mention them. If Miss Belgium had something positive to say about Chirac’s policies, I might even pay attention myself.

  18. It’s like when guys try to pick up girls. They have to pay attention to the DUFF’s (designated ugly fat friends) to get the hottie.

    Sorry, not the most enlightened phrase, but I heard the term DUFF on the show “Average Joe” and thought it was pretty funny.

  19. Actually, given statements that America could, should, and would go it alone if necessary, the President’s laundry list of bit players, by essentially pandering to the ‘multilateral guilt’ argument, sounds defensive. It implicitly acknowledges that an intervention is more legitimate if it involves others; and given the list itself, it makes it sound as if a dozen Ukrainian sailors and a squad of nurses from Angola are all that’s needed for the international stamp of approval and propriety.

    This is the kind of political talking point that both plays to the choir and yields some ground to the other side. And keeps this particular ball in the game.

    Real, credible coalitions and alliances are a rare thing. They are not judged based on the number of countries involved, or even how many men they line up, but on the interdependence of its participants to achieve their objective. During WW2, the US could not afford the loss of the UK, politically or militarily. And the UK needed US help to hold on.

    Today, would the Pentagon have to reassess and consider exit strategies if the Netherlands or Denmark pulled out ? I doubt it. And if we pulled out, would the former stick around and increase their commitment to finish the job ? Quite unlikely, even if they and the others collectively could.

    Beyond the UK, there is no “international coalition” here. But yes, we need to pretend there is one for all kinds of reasons, and if some countries want to play a side role in the movie, why not ?

    What is entertaining – to me, at least – is to read, hear and watch the same conservative pundits who justly derided Clinton for calling the Kosovo campaign international – America carried most of the burden, as usual – fall on top of each other to call this one an international operation. (Never mind that a few of them pointed out back then that bombing Yugoslavia without a UN resolution was a dangerous precedent, if not downright illegal…ahem…).

    But hey, this is an election year. One can’t expect people to be consistent four years out of four.

  20. Pragmatically, look at the Afghanistan campaign. We were helped immensly by Pakistan giving us rights to fly through their airspace. Kazakstan and Uzbekistan helped with basing rights. Networking has its uses.

  21. Yeah, and in Afghanistan, which is a relatively small-scale light-infantry war, even the Canadians and Norwegians have made a contribution. The Canadians have good snipers, and the Norskis have good SOF. Do we NEED them? No. Do we like having them along? Yes. At minimum, we learn from each other, cross-pollinate and make good contacts.

    Also, World War II is not really a good counter-example. We did the same thing, actually. There were three countries that mattered, the USA, the Soviet Union and the British Empire (which included Australia, New Zealand and Canada). But we went out of our way to get as many others involved as possible. For example, we got most of the South American countries to declare war on Germany. Why do we consistently do this sort of thing? For whatever reason, we have always wanted to have lots of allies, even ones who are only of only marginal use.

    Kosovo was our war, yes. But we wouldn’t have done it without “NATO”. Of course, we probably shouldn’t have, anyway. But that is another question.

    And as to an election year, Bush has at least been consistent. He has always said that he wanted a coalition, and he got the biggest one he could get, and he has continually talked about that coalition.

  22. Nito, I don’t think Pakistan had a choice, or could enforce a denial of airspace without getting itself in a lot of trouble. As for the others, they were eager to host Americans, if only to a) counterbalance the Kremlin and b) cover their own asses. The regimes in those places are not exactly pleasant and we didn’t like them pre-9/11. But since they help us, we now look the other way and support them. Besides, they have all this oil and gas so stability is better than anarchy, right ? Same s**t, different day, different place.

    As for Afghanistan, most of the foreign troops outside Kabul are special forces. Nothing new here that hasn’t been done elsewhere. Special forces, by definition, are not a general case and can’t be extrapolated.

    I don’t think WW2 is an invalid counter-example, since Iraq could have been done without the Brits – for all the heat Rumsfeld took for saying that, I believe he was right – who, in any case, have already pulled 30,000 of their 40,000 men out of Iraq. Ending WW2 in Europe without the Brits and England, on the other hand, would have been a lot more painful and taken a lot more time…or resulted in a Soviet western Europe or worse. There are Alliances and there are alliances.

    Sure, Bush has been consistent about pretending there is a coalition. As to what defines a coalition, or what makes a military operation international, let’s say politicians and pundits alike seem to have an innate ability to drastically change their song and dance depending on the prevailing wind. No surprise there.

    And disagree on Kosovo. It was a good thing to do, but it should have been done by Europe, possibly with US logistical assistance. In fact, Kosovo justifies Iraq without any need for WMD excuses. Or even “WMD-related program activities” or whatever the hell it is we’ve found after 9 months there.

    (I think I should totally tune out until after the election. Every four years, the amount of political bullshit flying around from both sides just drives me up the walls…I’ll stick to weather reports and internet jokes…)

  23. “I think I should totally tune out until after the election. Every four years, the amount of political bullshit flying around from both sides just drives me up the walls…I’ll stick to weather reports and internet jokes…”

    Come on Galineau, that wouldn’t be any fun. Peace.

  24. What Scott said, and more. Sylvain, ya must be kidding me! The quadrennial election period is the best time of all. That’s when the action is. I love this stuff. Democracy is the greatest sport in town.

  25. Lex, I was kidding of course. It’s the greatest show around. Still, the noise-to-substance ratio can be quite….frustrating, to put it mildly. Especially when you can’t vote.

    And it can be costly too. I went to Portsmouth the other day and all the news networks were in town, no parking spots then…there is one, just where I want it. So I park, feed the meter, go for lunch, run into Kucinich’s brother and a bunch of dreadlocked hippies on some kind of trip…When I get back to the car, I find a $100 parking fine on my winshield. Handicapped logo hidden under the sand and snow, guess I was supposed to dig for it or something.

    Every NH primary gets me some kind of parking ticket. I should collect them.

  26. This is an interesting debate but I see no reason the question should be limited to military affairs. Is the BBC-World Service unilateral or multi-lateral? Is the “Economist”? How much salt does it take to make a meal of a potato?

    If a local newspaper (in, say, New York or Chicago) maintains a few stringers in other cities like Washington, Los Angeles, and Houston, does that make it a national paper? How many permanent reporters much be on-staff around the country in how many places before a “local” is a “national”? How many reporters must be full time paid professionals stationed in Rome, Paris, Baghdad, etc for a paper to fairly claim INTERnational status?

    Does the readership matter? If the Dallas Morning News maintains a “bureau” in Fort Worth but the circulation is less than 5% of the competing homedown paper (Star-Telegram) is it reasonable to declare the DMN a “regional” paper?
    If the New York Times with a circulation in the millions has only a few percent sales OUTSIDE the city of New York, is it really an international news source?

  27. Sylvain,

    If it is fair for France and Germany to claim that the contributions of Mongolia and Poland are insiginificant, then it is equally valid for the US to assert that the objections of the French and Germans are insignificant. For the discrepancy between the German and French military and the those of the other parter nations in Iraq is of roughly the same scale as the discrepancy between American capabilities and those of France and Germany.

    It’s not unlike a person in a car, commenting that pedestrians are slow. This is true, just so long as you don’t compare the person in a car to a person riding in a plane.

  28. Anticipatory Retaliation, I don’t know how to answer since I do find the objections of France and Germany to be insignificant. (On top of being morally repugnant, but that’s not something they care about, obviously…)

    And to the extent that they are – and this Administration does believe they are – it’s hard to imagine why El Salvador’s participation is worthy of a State Of The Union address. Maybe to tell France and Germany they matter even less ?

    Pouncer, I don’t think the analogy with newspapers is useful here. The fact is, the other foreign troops in Iraq would not be there is the U.S. weren’t. They won’t stay longer than America does. And America wouldn’t have to leave if the packed and go home. Sure, it’s nice to have them, and the effort should be appreciated. But let’s not kid ourselves in believing this is some kind of grand international coalition. These U.K. was a real actor, and 3/4 of its soldiers have already left the stage. All the others are extras.

  29. Interesting factoid, the French army field uniform (not just the dress uniform like these Mongolian soldiers) in 1914 was a bright red, making them sitting ducks for german soldiers. As it happends, the dye just happened to be made in Germany by IG Farben…

  30. Well of course if was an American operation, had Germany and France been involved they wouldn’t have been contributing much themselves. More than the Mongols, but not much (and did you catch the way the French got sidelined in Gulf War I?)

    And besides, I don’t think there is any one nation outside of the US that COULD pull off adventures of the size of the 2 Gulf Wars solo these days. They all lack the logistical capability, and do not have advanced enough arms to be overwhelming. It would end up being a fairly classic conventional war.

    No one else has the combination of army size, logistical capability and hi tech. No One.

    So no one else can even think about such adventures. And of course that rankles…

  31. Hi all, never knew you guys discuss about such things. I’m a Mongolian Army officer in reserve, live here in california. OK, the photo you see is the soldiers of 032 military base in mongolia. in fact only these soldiers wear these “dress” uniforms. these guys are chosen ones with height 6″2 + especially trained to guard International delegates, our President and for parades, carrying 9 flags of Chinggis Khan on State ceremonys, national holidays etc.
    As for manpower and weaponry, Mongolia is equipped with soviet era russian equipment which is inexpensive, but kicks ass. One of our artillery batallions is in Aphganistan for peacekeeping mission right now, teaching aphgan soldiers. But main reason of sending our soldiers abroad is not only for obtaining good ties with USA, but a policy to restore our military as much as we were 800 years ago. also our military craves for real military action, since we haven’t been in action since 1939, when we kicked some japanese ass and destroyed their divisions. ok I think it’s enough for now. bye

  32. Hi, I heard that an officer of mongolian batallion in Iraq destroyed a truck full of explosives heading towards the allied forces base in Hilla, saving lives and property of the allies. That officer will be considered for a State Honor in Mongolia somethere in July.

  33. I am a Mongolian myself, I was jolly well surprised when the mongol guards shot and destoryed those bomb laiden trucks. I thought the mongol troops in iraq will not be seeing any action.

  34. The pants were red (“rouge garance”). Garance is the name of the plant originally used for the dye, until it was replaced by Alizarine, a synthetic compound produced by IG Farben.

    See this page for an illustration. Note we are talking of an everyday combat uniform, unlike the dress uniforms of that fine Mongolian regiment.

    The “bleu horizon” uniform was only introduced in April 1915, after countless casualties, no doubt.

    The higher echelons of the French army are often very rearward-looking, part and parcel of the aristocratic ideal they profess to honor, as opposed to he more pragmatic and scientific training of West Point (the latter was ironically enough based on the French Ecole Polytechnique).

    The St Cyr army officers school is still proud of those graduates of hers who decided to storm the front in full dress regalia (casoar feather head-dress, white gloves and red pants). Hopefully they did not survive long enough to imperil the men under their command with their suicidally stupid behavior.

  35. Fred,

    You should have seen the Mongolian wrestling champions who were in NYC for the Festival of Mongolia a couple years ago. They could have easily passed for WWF or pro-football stars. The two I remember most were probably 6’2 and 6’6, and both probably weighed more than 280lbs each–I’m 5’11, 155lbs, and their torsos, arms, and legs were easily twice the size of my mine. The Mongolian performers, male and female, seemed comparable in build to the NYC locals.

  36. IIRC Mongolia had some border clashes against China in 1950 or 60s. so far these two countries are still somehow hostile to each other.

    Mongolian armed forces are weaked in terms of quantity, but individually, they dont lack of professinalism, most of their officers were trained in Russia(Red Army kicks arse), and now also in the U.S.

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