Multi-nation military base offers Afghans a lesson on getting along

McClatchy Foreign StaffSeptember 17, 2013 

— The very nature of the exotically multinational force at Camp Marmal in northern Afghanistan seems to mock the notion that war makes any sense.

Of the 17 nations represented here, the main northern base for the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, most were at war with at least one of the others at one time or another. There are troops here who tried hard to kill each other in the former Yugoslavia. Several who were rivals during the Cold War are present, as are forces that fought on opposite sides in both world wars. Some can trace their enmity back much further. Who, after all, could forget the war between Sweden and Norway in 1814?

Well, apparently the Swedes and Norwegians can. And that’s one of the messages of this base, in a country where ethnic and tribal rivalries are a source of tension and violence.

"This is the example I am always giving to the Afghans if they are having some problems with ethnicity in some quarrels they are having,” said German Maj. Gen. Jorg Vollmer, the commanding officer of all coalition forces in the north. "I tell them, look, my father and my grandfather were fighting in World War I and World War II against the Americans and French, and now we’re serving together here in one mission. And 20 years ago, we had the war in Yugoslavia, and we have officers who served here who were on both sides, so surely you can overcome your problems."

Forty-nine countries contribute troops to the international coalition, but nowhere else in Afghanistan is that more obvious than at Camp Marmal, where 6,000 foreign troops are based. A little more than half are Germans, the rest are in a variety of strengths, with one lone officer representing Turkey.

"You can see it the minute you drive onto the base," said Stephen Olsen, who acts as a spokesman for the Norwegian contingent. "The Mongolians are working security at the gate, then you drive onto this base with all this infrastructure built by the Germans, and you see all these troops from other countries, too."

Many of the forces represented here have been working together in oft-shifting roles and combinations for years as the mission has evolved from fighting to fighting side by side with Afghan forces as they trained them and now mainly to mentoring and training. Some of the forces have been moved from one end of the country to the other; some have been here for much of the war.

Now they’re working on drawing down their numbers, as the coalition’s combat role is due to end next year. It’s a bit complicated, with every country having its own concerns. Even the loan of a single piece of equipment used to move shipping containers at a base in Kunduz that’s being collapsed into Marmal required a bilateral agreement between the Netherlands and Germany, for example.

But overcoming the differences is mainly a matter of remembering that everyone in the camp has the same kinds of problems, said Lt. Col. Samdangekeg Sandagsuren, the commander of the Mongolian contingent.

"There are sometimes a language barrier or a cultural problem, but usually if there is some issue, it happens once only, and we are all able to work it out," he said, sipping hot salted milk and nibbling pungent dried chips of a kind of dried yogurt while seated in a ger, or yurt, that the Mongolians built for social events.

In the recreation building next door, a flat-screen television boasts what’s likely the only hookup to Mongolian TV in all of Afghanistan.

Dutch troops languidly pedal down to their jet hangars on bikes that deployed with them. Their commander boasts of a one-to-one bike-to-troop ratio, and large numbers of similarly bike-loving Germans also use two wheels to get around.

The Germans’ dining hall serves pickled fish, dumplings and a host of variations on cabbage and pork, all on china. Everyone is welcome at the Norwegian post exchange store, which offers a startling array of European cookies and smokeless tobacco.

And no place inhabited by Germans and Belgians would be complete without beer. They and troops from a few other nations whose regulations allow it may buy two cans per night, much to the envy of U.S. troops, who can only watch from a courtyard called the Atrium at the center of several nightspots and sip near-beer.

Usually troops from a given nation stick together when they’re off-duty. But they all take advantage of the variety, of moving between the high-quality German chow hall, with its espresso bar, and the less-buttoned-down American, with its wider variety of choices. While the Norwegian chow hall is by invitation only, everyone is welcome at the Norwegians’ four “beach” volleyball courts and artificially surfaced soccer field .

Within the base, the 100 or so Norwegians have their own area, which they call Camp Nidaros, after a famous cathedral in Norway, and share with about 200 other troops including Swedes, Finns, Latvians and Americans.

The searing Afghan summers apparently aren’t toasty enough for the heat-loving Scandinavians. Not only do they have three sun decks at Nidaros, but the Finns also have saunas.

The arrangement probably wouldn’t be possible if many of the nations weren’t already part of NATO, several commanders from various countries said.

That’s because the standard language for NATO operations is English, which cuts down on confusion, and the NATO countries use similar equipment and communications standards.

Still, even the most experienced soldiers on the base sometimes marvel at its diversity.

"I would never have thought when I became an officer candidate in the ’70s, during the last century and during the Cold War, that one day I would be together with a Hungarian chief of staff here in Afghanistan," Vollmer said. "It was just unthinkable at that time."

CORRECTION: A story on the many nationalities of troops stationed at Camp Marmal in Afghanistan misspelled the first name of a Mongolian officer, Lt. Col. Samdangeleg Sandagsuren.

Email: jayprice@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jayinkabul

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