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Mongolia proves we actually knew what right looks like.
America’s military successes are mostly unremarked. Success depends in part on not highlighting our presence or influence in a foreign land. Also, it often does not suit our domestic politics, left and right, or the national defense establishment, to highlight missions that do not end in a ticker-tape parade, with bushel baskets of medals and fat publishing contracts for generals. Yet, America’s military is quite good at much more than “breaking things and killing people.” As we draw all the right and wrong lessons from the past 20 years in Afghanistan, our mission to Mongolia, starting around the same time, stands in stark contrast.
Robert Kaplan told the tale of “The Man Who Would Be Khan” in the Atlantic in 2004.
[Colonel Tom ] Wilhelm’s assignment to Ulan Bator occurred against the following backdrop: Mongolia, with one of the world’s lowest population densities, is being threatened demographically by the latest of Eurasia’s great historical migrations—an urban Chinese civilization is determined to move north. China—which ruled much of Mongolia from the end of the seventeenth century until the early twentieth century, during the Manchu period—covets the oil, coal, uranium, and empty grasslands of its former possession. Given that a resurgent China has already absorbed Tibet, Macao, and Hong Kong, reabsorbing Mongolia—a country that on the map looks like a big piece of territory bitten away from China—seems almost irresistibly a part of China’s geopolitical intentions.
When Wilhelm arrived in Mongolia, in 2001, U.S.-Mongolian defense relations had no focus. All that existed was a hodgepodge of unrelated aid and training programs that had not been staffed out in detail in Washington or in Ulan Bator. Mongolia’s post-communist military had no realistic vision of its future. It wanted a modern air force but wasn’t sure what such an air force would do, or how it would be sustained, or its aircraft maintained.
China was a clear regional threat all the way back in 2001. The threat was largely ignored by our foreign policy establishment, committed to the myth that economic liberalization drives political liberalization. This domestically useful fiction was still defended this past year by Condoleezza Rice. Even as the Chinese Communist Party encouraged domestic economic advancement, lifting many millions out of rural poverty, it was acting as a colonial, an imperial power. Peter Robinson gently challenged Rice on September 11, 2020, drawing this response:
China has not faced a reckoning about the essential contradiction between economic well being and political repression, yet. We don’t know, maybe it never will. But, I will not yet concede that they will not eventually have to deal with that contradiction.
Kaplan reminds us Tibet had already been effectively absorbed, despite decades of “Free Tibet” bumper stickers, t-shirts, and posters. He also called quiet conquest correctly on both Macao and Hong Kong. With the 1997 agreement between Britain and Beijing, Hong Kong was set on the road to becoming a normal communist Chinese city. True, Xi violated the terms of that agreement, but the agreement itself set a date in 2047, after which there would be no special status, no quasi-independence, for Hong Kong.
Like Afghanistan, Mongolia is a land-locked country, with powerful neighbors controlling air and land access. Mongolia was cut loose in the collapse of the Soviet Union, having been extracted in the 1800s from a failing Chinese empire by an ascendant Russian empire. Effectively, any trade, any hope of economic improvement, depended upon the tolerance of Beijing and Moscow.
How, then, might America effectively reinforce a small country on China’s periphery, increasing China’s cost of seizing Mongolia’s land and resources? The traditional answer from our foreign policy and national defense establishment was massive public works and military hardware sales. These contracts would benefit powerful constituents of members of Congress. Yet, such projects would be entirely unsustainable in a poor, land-locked country.
There was no way Mongolia could afford to build and sustain a conventional military on the U.S. model. How, as a practical matter, would they even take delivery of a fleet of military aircraft and U.S. Army equipment? Would Putin permit shipment through Vladivostok? Would China allow shipment by railroad? Indeed, replacing Russian Cold War equipment with modern U.S. aircraft and armor could do no more than provide an excuse for either China or Russia to reposition a much larger force and start conducting military exercises, intimidating Mongolia and raising the international cost of other states seeking friendly relations and access to Mongolia’s natural resources.
So, there was little prospect of any American defense official leading a big-ticket project on behalf of any defense contractor. No member of Congress was going to extract big campaign contributions associated with funding military sales. Absent powerful pressure to do the wrong thing, the way was open for American ingenuity.
Wilhelm, with the active support of Ambassador John Dinger, quickly provided a sense of purpose. He and Dinger developed a “three pillars” strategy for the country and persuaded the Mongolian military to sign on. The three pillars are:
1) Securing Mongolia’s borders not against a conventional military threat from China (such security would be impossible) but against illegal border incursions, criminal activities to finance terrorism, and transnational terrorism itself, particularly by the Uighur separatists of western China. Aided by the Chechens and the broad militant Islamic network, Uighur extremists represent the future of terrorism in Central Asia.
2) Preparing the Mongolian military to play an active role in international peacekeeping, in order to raise its profile in global forums and thus provide Mongolia with diplomatic protection from its large, rapacious neighbors. The dispatch of Mongolian troops to post-Saddam Iraq elicited shrill cries of annoyance from Russia and China, but it was the first building block of this pillar.
3) Improving Mongolia’s capacity to respond to natural disasters, most notably drought.
The first pillar amounts to building a light mobile paramilitary force that does not look like infantry units massing on the Chinese border. Mongolia needed a sort of Bundesgrenzschutz, the West German Cold War paramilitary border security force countering smuggling and spies. By denying criminal and terrorist groups safe haven, Mongolia reduces the security reason and pretext for China to extent military and political control north.
The second pillar, international peacekeeping, should not draw sneers. Whatever your impressions of “peacekeeping” and the UN, this strategy actually matters beyond American shores. Mongolia has become a center for peace operations training, playing off the American Army concept of maneuver training centers, most famously the National Training Center.
The flagship event of the Mongolia-US defense cooperation calendar is the multinational peace operations exercise “KHAAN QUEST” held early at Five Hills peace operations training center near Ulaanbaatar. Conducted since 2006 “KHAAN QUEST” establishing itself as one of the main event of the peacekeeping training calendar of the Asia-Pacific.
Leaving aside the third pillar, a review in 2021 shows Mongolia holding its own between powerful expansionist neighbors. Indeed, Mongolia is trading with China while turning to Russia for limited military equipment modernization. America’s part is in assisting Mongolia in running an international military training center and exercises that focus on cooperation rather than scenarios that could be taken as provocative by China.Published in