HONOLULU (Army News Service, Feb. 28, 2008) - Sprawling territory, extreme cold and rich natural resources are among shared conditions that have created a perfect marriage for Alaska and Mongolia in the National Guard's State Partnership Program.

The two paired up in 2003 and formalized the relationship in 2005. What they lack in longevity they have been making up through initiatives.

"Our partnership has grown dynamically," Lt. Gen. Tsevegsuren Togoo, the chief of staff of the Mongolian Armed Forces, said during a break at the first two-day Pacific State Partnership Program Regional Workshop here in late January. "We have done a lot in a very short time."

Mongolia's president visited Alaska in 2007, bringing business leaders and other VIPs. Alaska and Mongolia train together. Alaskan medical teams have treated people in Mongolia. Mongolia has hosted bilateral exercises.

Military-to-military exchanges have been catalysts for civilian-to-civilian initiatives beyond the SPP. The partners' mining industries are cooperating. The Mongolian city of Erdenet has a sister relationship with Alaska's Fairbanks. Mongolian students are enrolled in Alaskan universities.

"Only the National Guard can do this," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Craig Campbell, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard. "It can't be done by the active duty military. It can't be done solely by the civilian community. The reason is, the National Guard brings significant civilian expertise. We're Citizen-Soldiers. The majority of us have civilian jobs. We have that experience and skills from doctors to engineers to carpenters. We're the only ones that have that military and civilian combined in one package."

"The [beneficiaries] of our partnership are not only the military but also the civilians," Togoo said. "The partnership opened the way for the businessmen of the two countries. In the future we will see Alaskan investment in Mongolia, and also we will ship our products to Alaska."

Common ground

Alaska and Mongolia have similar geography, topography, sparse population and weather challenges.

Aca,!Ac Alaska covers 663,267 square miles. Mongolia covers 603,909.

Aca,!Ac Alaska has the lowest population density of any state. The density of its 626,932 residents is 1.09 per square mile. Mongolia has the lowest population density of any country. The density of its 2.9 million residents is 4.41 per square mile.

Aca,!Ac Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is Alaska's highest peak. Khuiten Peak, Mongolia's highest, is 14,350 feet.

"There are a lot of things that bring together Mongolia and Alaska," Togoo said. "The desire to work and know each other is the driving force of cooperation and partnership. The most important thing is democracy. Mongolia established democracy in 1990. We are a young democracy. Alaska is a part of America, and America is a democratic country. That's the most important thing uniting us."

"Alaska, too, is a young state," Campbell said. "We're just going to celebrate our 50th year of statehood in '09, so we too are evolving in a democracy - two young states and countries working through democracy together to do the right thing."

Shared risk

Mongolians and Alaskans also stand side-by-side in the front lines of the war on terror.

"Our partners in Mongolia, they're on their ninth rotation to Iraq. They're one of [our] most steadfast friends in this Global War on Terrorism," Campbell said. "But even in Mongolia the discussion of Iraq can be difficult, and they've had discussions ... about whether they should continue. I was asked when I was over there, 'If we continue our engagement with Iraq, will you continue to send Alaskans with us''

"I made the commitment that as long as Mongolia is serving in Iraq, we will have Alaskans go with Mongolians to Iraq. I don't think that was the answer that made the parliament decide to go, but it helped."

Maj. Steve Wilson, Alaska's SPP coordinator, was the liaison officer for Mongolian troops in Iraq for two rotations. "I had the opportunity to interact with probably 10 different coalition partners," he said. "The Mongolians were the most professional. Everybody slept well in that camp at night knowing the Mongolians were up on the wall."

The Mongolians also excel as peacekeepers, Wilson said. "The Mongolians have a depth of experience that we're just now tapping into. Besides Iraq and Afghanistan, they have Soldiers in the former Yugoslavia, Western Sahara, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia. They're all over the world. They look at solving these conflicts from a different view than we traditionally do ... and that's given me a perspective that sometimes a soft approach or an indirect approach is the solution, not always kicking down the door."

The Mongolians incorporated that worldwide experience into lanes training during Conquest 2006, a joint training exercise with Alaska.

"The comment I got from one of the platoon leaders was, 'My platoon received better training than we received before we went to Iraq'," Wilson said. "Part of it was the Mongolians taking their experiences and creating real-world experiences that were stressful and challenging. There was an actual language barrier, and that creates tremendous problems when you deploy, and the Soldiers had to deal with it."

Campbell said Alaskan Guardmembers have learned multiple lessons while observing Mongolians in Iraq. "There was an attack on a base, and the Mongolians were part of that base," he recalled. "They had gone to the chow hall in full gear. While the rest of the people, Americans and others, who were not in full gear were recovering from the attack, the Mongolians already in full gear were going into position to fight the fight. We learned from that. We learned they're ever-vigilant of what the threat could be, and they're always prepared. That's something we're training our Soldiers to be aware of."

Campbell said the Alaska-Mongolia partnership blossomed quickly. "Normally, there's a hesitancy to step forward with a partner until you've kind of done the dance for a while," he said. "We didn't do the dance in Mongolia. We were together as partners from my first trip over there. I could tell this was a sincere partnership that was going to go far."

Having full-time project officers devoted to the nascent relationship helped, the adjutant general said. "Those that just take it as a part-time job, they won't achieve the accomplishments that we've achieved because it takes that full-time dedication of a person that understands the country, has been there a number of times and works on the priorities that the host country places on you."

More to come

"The successes that we have in this partnership is that both sides have a great interest to work together and that is the main basis of our partnership," Togoo said, predicting further growth. Both sides expect increased cooperation on emergency management and response and natural disaster relief operations.

"Alaska would be more than eager to ... start deploying full time a member of the Alaska National Guard over to Mongolia and have that person embedded there for a year or two working as our liaison," Campbell said. A bilateral affairs officer stationed in Mongolia would better understand Mongolian needs, better prepare joint training and help further improve U.S.-Mongolian relations, he said.

For his part, Campbell has found personal satisfaction in the SPP. "In 1974, I graduated from college with a political science degree," he explained. "I went into the Air Force. I was an air-traffic controller. Where does political science relate to air traffic control' It doesn't. Fast forward to today. Taking this political science background and seeing nation-state building going on in a positive way and having the ability to do it through the National Guard, it's damned exciting."

Under the SPP, 58 foreign countries are matched with U.S. states. Some states have more than one partner.

Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill writes for the National Guard Bureau.)