In 2011, the Alaska National Guard (AKNG) devised a colorful ribbon to present to its soldiers in recognition of their contributions to strengthening the partnership between Mongolia and the State of Alaska. To earn the State Partnership Program (SPP) Ribbon, the recipient must either have deployed to Mongolia or served with Mongolians in another country.
The Mongolia-Alaska SPP was launched in 2003, when the AKNG agreed to share its expertise in peace support operations, disaster management, and military reserves with the Mongolian military. Within a short period of time, the partnership grew immensely, including the embedding of two Alaskan guardsmen—an officer and senior non-commissioned officer—with each Mongolian contingent that served in Iraq (nine rotations from 2003 to 2008) and then in Afghanistan from 2009. As deployments with Western forces were new for the Mongolian military, the embedded Alaskan guardsmen played a significant role not only in facilitating tactical interoperability but also contributing knowledge-sharing and building partnerships between the two militaries. These joint deployments further increased the Alaskan Guards’ participation in the annual peacekeeping exercise, Khaan Quest, as well as a disaster relief exercise, Gobi Wolf, in Mongolia, while also inviting Mongolians to participate in Alaskan National Guard exercises and training. In 2007, for example, over 80 Alaskan guards participated in the Khaan Quest exercise alongside 1,000 troops from a dozen other countries, including Mongolia.
The Alaska National Guard-Mongolia partnership also yields results in non-military areas. Alaska has hosted high-level political visits, shared its experience of redistributing natural resource revenues to citizens through the Alaska Permanent Fund, established a Sister City Partnership, and hosted business community exchanges. As a result of the sister city partnership between Fairbanks and the Mongolian copper mining city of Erdenet, academic exchanges and the number of Mongolian students coming to Alaska have increased significantly. Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski ensured that the US-Mongolia partnership was honored with a resolution on its 20th anniversary in 2007.
Because members of the AKNG are also civilians with expertise in other areas, the partnership has expanded quickly – from the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan to schools and cities in Mongolia and Alaska. AKNG doctors have helped their Mongolian counterparts by showing them remotely located Alaskan civilian hospitals and clinics, as many communities in Mongolia are also very distant from major infrastructure. Alaskan police officers who serve in the AKNG have also set up new cooperative programs between civilian law enforcement agencies in Mongolia. This dual nature of Alaskan guard members has played a key role in strengthening the partnership between Mongolia and the State of Alaska. The many shared characteristics between Mongolia and Alaska, such as geographic and population sizes, landscape, and climate, have helped the citizens of both places to relate to each other, and the Alaska-Mongolia relationship has flourished as a result.
Mendee Jargalsaikhan is a Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia.