How Mongolia is changing peacekeeping in Africa and beyond

Mongolia is helping lead efforts to increase the number of female peacekeepers and boasts the highest per capita peacekeeper contributions in Asia.


Just the Basics

  • From just two observers in 2003 to almost 900 peacekeepers ten years later, Mongolia has emerged as a leader in humanitarian operations

  • From Afghanistan to Kosovo and Iraq, as well as theatres across Africa, Mongolian forces have repeatedly come to the aid of Washington and the United Nations

  • Mongolia’s professionalism has been recognized by the UN, and the country is at the forefront of efforts to increase female participation in peacekeeping operations


Dozens of school children are packed into one of the classrooms in a newly renovated primary school in South Sudan. The students are there to meet the United Nations peacekeepers that worked on restoring their school and are responsible for safeguarding their local area. A lively exchange is taking place between UN personnel and the children, as both groups enjoy a light-hearted encounter as well as a brief reprieve from the oppressive midday heat. The event’s star attraction is the group of female peacekeepers who, surrounded by young girls, field questions about working as women in a predominately male sector.

The female peacekeepers represent a dual novelty for the students, that of armed individuals working for the benefit of the downtrodden, and of women in positions of power in an otherwise hyper-masculine realm. By comparison, the peacekeepers’ third characteristic goes almost unnoticed: these soldiers are from Mongolia. The remote, landlocked Asian nation has sent hundreds of its soldiers to protect civilians in South Sudan, including having spent $50,000 to fully renovate the 1,500-strong Rubkana Primary School. The Mongolian connection is further underlined by a large hand painted mural on the school’s wall. The mural in question offers a glimpse of the rolling green hills and majesty of the Asian steppe, a tiny slice of Mongolia in rural Africa.

Attracting Washington’s attention

Having emerged from the shadow of Soviet influence in the early 1990s, Mongolia has gone on to become a key player in international peacekeeping operations, especially in Africa. The fact that Mongolia is able to make a name for itself in the realm of international military operations is down to the fact that the government has made peacekeeping a primary policy goal. Encircled by Russia and China, Mongolia’s three million citizens are dwarfed by the geopolitical and demographic power of two of the world’s most powerful countries.

 

Surrounded by Russia and China - Map of Mongolia | WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

 

With its only two neighbours both nuclear-armed, permanent members of the UN Security Council, Ulaanbaatar has sought to balance its economic reliance on Beijing and Moscow by reaching out to other global powers. This so-called ‘Third Neighbour’ approach has been the core mantra of the Mongolian government since the nation achieved independence in a bloodless revolution in 1990. By reaching out to Western powers - notably the United States - Mongolia is working on diversifying its interests, marketing itself as an island of democracy surrounded by Washington’s authoritarian rivals.

Nevertheless, the question remains as to what Mongolia can offer the United States that warrants Washington spending political capital to increase its presence in Russia and China’s backyard? This question was one that Mongolian politicians wrestled with throughout the 1990s. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Mongolian military lost its source of materiel and training, suffering severe shortages as the country underwent political and economic liberalization. Devoid of purpose and only a shoestring budget, public support of the military dwindled as the country made successive cuts, channelling funds towards economic development instead.

In response to this lack of focus, Mongolia’s first civilian defence minister advocated peacekeeping as the new priority of the Mongolian military. In one of history’s great ironies, the descendants of the warmongering Khans and history’s largest contiguous land empire opted to become champions of peace and humanitarianism. As a result, in 1996 Mongolia officially assigned the country’s 1st Infantry Battalion to peacekeeping duties. This was followed by the establishment of the National Peacekeeping Training Centre, with peacekeeping operations (PKO) enshrined as a key goal in the government’s 1996-2000 action plan.

That Mongolia - a landlocked country of just three million, nearly half of whom still live a nomadic life - provides any aid at all to the international force [in Afghanistan] is remarkable.
— 1st Lt. Mark Larson, U.S 10th Division

Having taken on such a lofty goal, the realities of such an undertaking quickly became apparent. With little to no operational training, a severe equipment shortage and the minor inconvenience of being one of the most geographically isolated nations on the planet, the Mongolian military was in no shape to carry out its plans. The ultimate goal for Ulaanbaatar was to acquire the support of the United States in rebuilding the country’s armed forces. Fortunately, (from the perspective of the Mongolian military) the events of 9/11 propelled the U.S into a military intervention in Central Asia.

The U.S invasion of Afghanistan provided the Mongolian military with an opportunity to work with the United States relatively close to home, as well as an arena in which to gain valuable experience. With Washington on the warpath, any foreign assistance in the conflict served a greater symbolic purpose, given that the U.S was more than capable of undertaking the Afghanistan mission alone. By sending troops to Afghanistan, Mongolia managed to share its condolences with the U.S as well as put the tiny country on Washington’s radar. Appreciative of this show of solidarity, the American military overlooked any logistical inefficiencies and inconveniences which arose from allowing Mongolia to join its operations in Afghanistan.

 
 

“The Mongolians for certain, [provided] the most extraordinary example of international support,” recalls 1st Lt. Mark Larson of the U.S 10th Division. “That Mongolia - a landlocked country of just three million, nearly half of whom still live a nomadic life - provides any aid at all to the international force is remarkable.”

Mongolia’s presence in Afghanistan help it secure America’s goodwill and largesse. When the United States declared war on Iraq in 2003, Mongolia once again joined Washington’s latest overseas venture. The level of international resistance to the Iraq War only boosted Mongolia’s return on investment. With the legitimacy of the U.S-led coalition hinging on the need for international partners, Mongolia’s decision to join said coalition endeared the country to Washington all the more, especially since Mongolia was not part of NATO nor a historical overseas ally of the United States.

Mongolia’s transformation into a peacekeeping power

2003 also saw the creation of Khaan Quest, a bilateral peacekeeping training exercise conducted by Mongolia and U.S Pacific Command with funds from the UN’s Peace Support Fund. Khaan Quest has since grown to become a major annual regional and international PKO exercise. The exercise expanded from a bilateral to multilateral event in 2006, with 1,400 soldiers from twenty-six countries participating in the latest rendition in 2018. The 2016 event was even larger, with 2,000 individuals from forty-seven nations taking part. The evolution of Khaan Quest demonstrates Ulaanbaatar’s efforts to position the country as a regional PKO training hub.

Mongolian peacekeepers have led the way in terms of robustness [in South Sudan]
— David Shearer, head of UN mission to South Sudan (UNMISS)

As Mongolia was beginning its cooperation with the United States, the country was also quietly beginning its foray into peacekeeping. The Mongolian government passed legislation authorizing overseas deployments, with the first Mongolian peacekeepers joining UN operations in 2002. Peacekeeping was billed (and continues to be billed) as a means for the young nation to punch above its weight and fulfil its obligations to the international community.

Speaking during a 2013 training exercise in Nepal, Lt. Col. Dorj Myagmarjav noted that “as a member of the UN we want to show our presence and what we can do [...] We are proud to be Mongolian and like working with other nations.” Mongolia’s ‘military diplomacy’ has become a key foreign policy tenant, with Mongolia (as of December 2017) enjoying military relationships with the United States, Japan, Germany and thirty other countries, according to Colonel T. Narankhuu, defence and military attaché at the Mongolian embassy in Washington.

 

Mongolian Army Sgt. Mungunchimeg Nyamaajav stands ready to participate in the Warrior Leadership Course’s Situational Training Exercise at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Nov. 3, 2015. Nyamaajav is the first female Mongolian soldier to train with U.S. Army Alaska. | U.S. ARMY/ SACHEL HARRIS

 

Mongolia’s first UN mission was a small affair, with the Asian nation sending just two observers to the UN contingent in Western Sahara in 2002. This was followed by the deployment of two observers to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). By 2006 Mongolia was able to field substantially larger detachments, sending 250 soldiers to Liberia in 2006. By 2012, Mongolia was sending 850 military personnel to South Sudan, and as of March 2018 the country maintains contributions to UN missions in Western Sahara, DRC, South Sudan, and Darfur and Abyei in Sudan. Mongolia’s African connections run deep: Mongolian troops have also participated in missions in Ethiopia, Chad and Eritrea.

Whereas countries such as India, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Nepal lead international tallies for the most peacekeepers provided to the UN, the thousands of soldiers provided by these countries represent a small portion of said countries’ armed forces, population or both. By contrast, Mongolia boasts the distinction of providing the highest number of peacekeepers as a percentage of its total population than any other country in Asia.

Moreover, Mongolia’s contribution to the UN, while dwarfed in terms of raw numbers by other nations remains one of the highest contributions in terms of number of peacekeepers deployed as a percentage of a nation’s military. With a land force of around 8,000, Mongolia’s contribution of almost 900 soldiers in 2018 means that one in ten soldiers in the Mongolian army are assigned to peacekeeping duties. With 1,100 troops deployed in 2017, this percentage reached an all-time high of 13.75 percent.

 

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Since 2003, over 14,000 Mongolians have served in UN operations, an impressive feat for a country whose entire military tallies barely 10,000. To celebrate this legacy, Mongolia’s national military museum has commissioned the creation of a new wing dedicated to the country’s peacekeeping efforts.

Boosting the number of female peacekeepers

It is important to recognize that Mongolia’s impact on peacekeeping goes beyond troop numbers and deployment percentages. The small country has earned international recognition for its professionalism and its proactive take on addressing the challenges of peacekeeping in the 21st century. After just four years of working with the UN, Mongolian troops were chosen to guard both the detainees and officials of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the UN judicial organ overseeing war crimes trials in that country - an auspicious deployment, especially for a relative newcomer. In March 2018, the Washington Post even tipped Mongolia as a potential source of peacekeepers for a UN mission in Ukraine, noting that Ulaanbaatar’s “troops have performed courageously” in South Sudan.

Alongside typical duties such as community engagement and humanitarian assistance, Mongolian peacekeepers were commended for their efforts to prevent the abduction of refugees by human trafficking groups, as well as for repelling a mob attempting to storm a civilian facility in South Sudan. In recognition of these deeds, over 850 Mongolian peacekeepers were awarded the United Nations Medal for service to the UN and the people of South Sudan in May 2017.

 

Mongolian Peacekeepers at the Tavan Tolgoi Peace Operations Support Training Center, July 26, 2009 | UNITED NATIONS

 

Describing Mongolia’s peacekeepers as “robust, calm and appropriate,” the head of the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) David Shearer expressed the organization’s gratitude for Ulaanbaatar’s efforts. “The Mongolian peacekeepers” - Shearer noted during the 2017 medal ceremony - “have led the way in terms of robustness, which is an approach that we would like to see more of in our peacekeeping efforts in South Sudan.”

Shearer also made special note of Mongolia’s female peacekeepers - “Women peacekeepers are critical because they reduce the chances of sexual exploitation and abuse. They empower women in local communities, provide a greater sense of security for women and act as role models.” As of June 2018, of the 116 countries contributing peacekeepers to the UN; thirty-eight were not fielding any female staff officers or military observers; forty-six nations had women filling between 0.1 and ten percent of the aforementioned roles; and thirty-two nations boasted female participation rates above fifteen percent. Of this last group, nineteen countries were contributing twenty or less soldiers. Mongolian women constitute 27.3 percent of Mongolia’s military observers and ten percent of staff officers, accounting for 16.1 percent of the nation’s 31 staff officers and observers.

This state of affairs further boosts Mongolia’s efforts to win UN recognition, as the organization has made increasing the number of female peacekeepers a key priority, especially in the wake of various sex scandals involving peacekeepers. Increasing female participation is not only a matter of gender equality. Studies have indicated that increasing the percentage of women in peacekeeping contingents from zero to five percent reduces the expected number of sexual misconduct allegations against that contingent by half.

 

Mongolian Peacekeepers, MONBATT VI, awarded medal for outstanding service in Bentiu | UNITED NATIONS

 

Only one percent of peacekeepers were women in 1993, and while progress has been made, by 2015 this proportion had only increased to four percent - far short of former General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon’s goal of women comprising ten percent of the UN’s forces by 2014. While Mongolia needs to continue to improve female representation, its is well situated to lead by example. The potential for female peacekeepers to act as role models for women and girls in South Sudan and beyond should not be underestimated. The hurdles faced by Mongolia’s first female peacekeepers in the early 2000s in overcoming patriarchy within the Mongolian military underlines how helpful it is having role models who have gone before you.

Whereas approximately fifteen percent of the Mongolian military are women, they are primarily relegated to support and administrative roles. In an interview with UP POST, Lt. Colonel T. Munnkh-Orgil talks about her experiences as one of Mongolia’s first female peacekeepers. Munnkh-Orgil joined the Mongolian military in 1997, in part to follow in her father’s footsteps. While she appreciated the chance to serve her country, she recalls her frustration at being sidelined and passed over for promotion. Assigned to oversee a warehouse of mouldy uniforms and battling a severe dust allergy, Munnkh-Orgil tried to resign multiple times, only for her resignation to be denied by her superiors.

 
 

When her wish for a more challenging posting was eventually noticed, the response from command surprised even her. “At the time, high ranking officers [were discussing training] the second female peacekeeper [...] I was told to attend an English language course. I was shocked because female officers couldn’t attend language courses [...] They were simply not granted with kind of opportunity. Among the few applicants for the language course three female officers were unintentionally selected because they had masculine names.”

Munnkh-Orgil went on to become Mongolia’s second female peacekeeper, travelling to Western Sahara as a military observer in 2008. “[It turns out that once] I was driving over large mortar shells in Western Sahara, but an Arabian [man] with two camels was shouting and waving at us. Apparently we had entered an area with land mines. The Arabian man was trying to tell us to get out of there. [Apparently] bombs move underground following sand movement [...] That was my first sudden shock [sic]. Munnkh-Orgil’s deployment in Western Sahara was followed a tour in South Sudan as a food supply officer in 2012. In 2015, she returned to South Sudan once again, this time as a fuel officer and was promoted to Lt. Colonel upon her return to Mongolia.

The Bottom Line

When the Soviet Union crumbled, so too did the reasoning that had underpinned the Mongolian military for most of the 20th century. Buffeted by the trials of economic liberalization and democratic transition, the Mongolian government had little time or resources to spare for the country’s armed forces. No longer part of a continent-spanning military pact - while never technically a member of the Warsaw pact, Mongolia was heavily aligned with Moscow, with the latter stationing troops there after 1966 - Mongolia’s military needed to find a new mandate.

The decision in the late 1990s to place significant emphasis on peacekeeping was a novel one, one that, on the surface, Mongolia was ill-prepared to execute. Despite the country’s initial handicap, Ulaanbaatar’s severe lack of military hardware and training was gradually rectified following growing international cooperation, especially with the United States. Deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo provided the Mongolian army with vital operational experience and earned the small nation the America’s gratitude and monies.

Soon thereafter, Mongolia undertook its peacekeeping pledge in earnest, sending teams across Africa from Western Sahara to the Congo to Ethiopia and beyond. The deployment of almost 900 troops to South Sudan in 2012 marked the culmination of Mongolia’s years of preparation and training. Accolades from the United Nations and the international community buoyed Mongolian politicians to continue to expand their efforts to make the country a leader in PKO, both in Asia and abroad. Furthermore, Mongolia’s efforts to increase the number of female peacekeepers has been in lock-step with wider UN campaigns on the same issue.

As the borders of the Mongol Empire spread and more domains fell under one authority, within the empire there developed a state of relative safety, where commerce was protected and travellers unmolested. Eventually it became possible to travel from Korea to Poland without fear of wandering into hostile lands or petty bandits - a ‘Mongolian peace’ or Pax Mongolica as it has become known. With Ulaanbaatar’s commitment to peacekeeping, perhaps - in some small way - Mongolia’s blue helmets are helping create a new ‘Mongolian peace’ in Africa and beyond.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.