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.