ULAN BATOR, Mongolia | Eight centuries after Genghis Khan’s conquering hordes swept across Asia subduing all in their path, the proud heirs to that military tradition have found a new mission in life — U.N. peacekeeping.
Hundreds of highly trained soldiers drill and exercise in U.N. blue helmets at a dusty base in the capital’s dreary western suburbs, mastering such skills as manning checkpoints and escorting convoys in hopes of an assignment to serve the cause of world peace in some forsaken trouble spot.
“It is a dream” to go back for a second tour in Afghanistan, 1st Lt. Otgonbayar Munkhbileg said during a break from studying English out of a U.S. military textbook. But, he said, he would also welcome a stint in Sierra Leone or Kosovo.
“I have always wanted to visit other countries,” he explained.
Politicians and military commanders say peacekeeping makes good sense for a country of just 2.6 million people that has no current enemies and cannot imagine going to war with either of its neighbors — Russia and China.
“This is a good thing for Mongolia,” said Oyun Sanjaasuren, an independent member of parliament. “It provides the country with good exposure on the international scene, and it provides good experience for Mongolia’s defense people. So it is good for defense, and it is good for international relations.”
Defense Minister Luvsanvandan Bold acknowledged that Mongolia has faced no external threat in recent years, but said the country had for years stood on the border between Russia and China at a time of political and ideological confrontation.
“If you consider history, you can never tell that this situation will stay the same,” he said. “We have to maintain our heritage of bold military knowledge. Mongolia contributed to the world’s heritage of military organization from the time of Genghis Khan,” the 13th-century founder of a Mongolian empire that eventually stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Balkans.
The martial skills that made that empire possible still are valued today. A popular sport consists of firing arrows into a series of five targets from the back of a galloping horse.
The Mongolians take an expansive view of peacekeeping, counting among their missions 10 rotations providing base security for U.S.-led forces in Iraq and the deployment of mobile artillery trainers to Afghanistan, where a new mission is likely to be approved shortly.
The 20,000-member military also is training for an eighth rotation of 250 soldiers with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, and has sent observers to U.N. operations in Sudan, Congo, Western Sahara and Georgia.
“Mongolia served with distinction in Sierra Leone, where they performed a number of vital security tasks to help guarantee the peace,” said U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Nick Birnback in New York.
The majority of peacekeepers are drawn from the base in Ulan Bator known simply as Unit 150, where soldiers last week underwent martial arts training and vigorous gymnastics workouts — including up to 50 extended full circles on the high bar.
“It takes about three years for their arms to get strong enough to do 50,” explained one officer. “The maximum anyone is allowed to do is 500.”
Col. Ontsgoibayar Lkhamjii, commander of Unit 150, has earned a reputation as a tough but fair officer, and the sharp salutes he elicits on a walk around the base suggest a well-disciplined force. He said his 800-member force is one of two peacekeeping battalions and that Mongolia hopes soon to add a third to its peacekeeping brigade.
“We are trying to build a big force for peacekeeping,” said the officer, who commanded Mongolia’s troops during one deployment in Sierra Leone. “We are the number-one unit in the armed force,” with a showcase full of awards for winning grueling physical endurance competitions.
Apart from the physical workouts, training at Unit 150 largely follows a U.N.-mandated program, in which the soldiers are taught such skills as how to man a checkpoint, how to escort a convoy and how to defend a food-distribution site. Two U.S. Marines are assigned to the unit at any given time to help train noncommissioned officers.
The Mongolians also participate in exercises with troops from other countries, mainly at a specialized seven-year-old facility outside Ulan Bator on the edge of the Asian steppe. The most important annual exercise, called “Khan Quest,” was conducted with U.S. forces initially, and in recent years has included participation by other countries including Nepal, India, South Korea and Australia. Even the Alaska National Guard has taken part.
The government hopes to develop the facility into a major regional training center and Mark Minton, the U.S. ambassador to Mongolia, said the United States is happy to help.
“The U.N. Security Council authorizes a lot of peacekeeping missions but the number of trained peacekeepers often falls short of what is needed,” he said. “I think it is incumbent of the five permanent Security Council members to contribute [to that training].”
China and Russia, both permanent council members, also have sent observers to Khan Quest exercises, and Mongolia this month sent 40 soldiers to Beijing for their first joint peacekeeping exercise with Chinese troops. Late last month, Unit 150 hosted visits from a delegation from the U.N. peacekeeping headquarters in New York and from the chief of general staff of Luxembourg.
Altogether, more than 3,200 Mongolian officers and soldiers have participated in peacekeeping operations outside the country, said Mr. Luvsanvandan, the defense minister, who said the work has helped the armed force make the shift from Soviet-style military techniques to standard Western practices.
“Those who have been involved with our soldiers in international operations have a high opinion of the capabilities of our troops,” he said. “They praise them very highly.”
Col. Ontsgoibayar said he does not worry that all the training for peacekeeping will leave his troops unprepared if they ever have to face a combat mission - something no Mongolian has done since 1945.
“It is hard to train soldiers from combat to peacekeeping, but from peacekeeping to combat is easy,” he said. “You have to make a change in the head. We learn how to fight first. After that, we learn peacekeeping operations.”
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