Khan Wilhelm

by Nathan Hamm on 2/21/2004 · 6 comments

This month’s Atlantic Monthly is up now, meaning that I can now link the story on Colonel Tom Wilhelm, former defense attache to Mongolia and one of the most valuable kinds of ambassadors the US has in the modern world, the soldier-diplomat. Both the story (which is part of a series by Robert Kaplan on US deployments around the globe) and the man it’s about are fascinating and worth your time.

Wilhelm’s assignment to Ulan Bator occurred against the following backdrop: Mongolia, with one of the world’s lowest population densities, is being threatened demographically by the latest of Eurasia’s great historical migrations—an urban Chinese civilization is determined to move north. China—which ruled much of Mongolia from the end of the seventeenth century until the early twentieth century, during the Manchu period—covets the oil, coal, uranium, and empty grasslands of its former possession. Given that a resurgent China has already absorbed Tibet, Macao, and Hong Kong, reabsorbing Mongolia—a country that on the map looks like a big piece of territory bitten away from China—seems almost irresistibly a part of China’s geopolitical intentions.

Only three full-time defense attachés serve in Ulan Bator—representing Russia, the United States, and China, the three countries with past or future imperial interests in Mongolia. Americans, of course, are uncomfortable with the idea of having or running a global empire, but that responsibility is being thrust upon them nevertheless in Mongolia as elsewhere. And unconventional men like Tom Wilhelm, largely out of sight, are the ones carrying the load and transforming the world order. I went to Mongolia to see him in action.

If you’ve read about the first Great Game (if you haven’t, start here), this should sound a little familiar. Sure, the details are different, but the politics and the competition are being spearheaded by the same types of people, highly-educated and experienced soldiers working in extremely remote places.

When Wilhelm arrived in Mongolia, in 2001, U.S.-Mongolian defense relations had no focus. All that existed was a hodgepodge of unrelated aid and training programs that had not been staffed out in detail in Washington or in Ulan Bator. Mongolia’s post-communist military had no realistic vision of its future. It wanted a modern air force but wasn’t sure what such an air force would do, or how it would be sustained, or its aircraft maintained. Wilhelm, with the active support of Ambassador John Dinger, quickly provided a sense of purpose. He and Dinger developed a “three pillars” strategy for the country and persuaded the Mongolian military to sign on. The three pillars are:

1) Securing Mongolia’s borders not against a conventional military threat from China (such security would be impossible) but against illegal border incursions, criminal activities to finance terrorism, and transnational terrorism itself, particularly by the Uighur separatists of western China. Aided by the Chechens and the broad militant Islamic network, Uighur extremists represent the future of terrorism in Central Asia.

2) Preparing the Mongolian military to play an active role in international peacekeeping, in order to raise its profile in global forums and thus provide Mongolia with diplomatic protection from its large, rapacious neighbors. The dispatch of Mongolian troops to post-Saddam Iraq elicited shrill cries of annoyance from Russia and China, but it was the first building block of this pillar.

3) Improving Mongolia’s capacity to respond to natural disasters, most notably drought.

Wherever he is, the mission is everything for Tom Wilhelm. In his eyes, to avoid taking bureaucratic risks, or to shade the truth for the sake of a diplomatic advantage, is unmanly, the worst of offenses. “I’m the guy who gutted the [Department of Defense] environmental program for Mongolia, because it was unimplementable, and I didn’t see what DOD was getting out of it,” he told me almost as soon as we had met. One of Wilhelm’s early moves in Ulan Bator was to scrap many existing military-assistance programs and replace them with new ones—including a humanitarian dental project in a key Mongolian-Chinese border area—that would support the three-pillars strategy. “I chose to come here and not to work at the JSTAFF [Joint Staff] at the Pentagon, because in Mongolia I knew that I could make a difference,” Wilhelm told me. Even as a military officer he was a policymaker by another name.

This extraordinary man has had an incredible history in the military including tracking SPETSNAZ infiltrators in Alaska in the early ’80s, study at the Canadian Land Force Command and Staff College (don’t bad-mouth the Canadian military around him…), Special Ops training, Russian immersion, study at Leningrad State University in the mid-80s (on his own money and with a wink and nod from the military). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he served as the first US military attache to Tajikistan, and served in Bosnia, integrating Russian troops into NATO operations. It’s interesting to hear what he has to say about the Bosnia mission:

There were American generals saying the Balkans were a waste of time, that we should have been doing Bradley-combat-vehicle exercises in Germany instead. What a bunch of crap! Finally, we’re actually using our training, and these Cold War dinosaur generals want us to train for a war that would never happen. I’ll bet you the re-enlistment rate for the soldiers who served in the Balkans was greater than that of those who stayed in Germany. The Balkan deployments were the best thing for the morale of U.S. soldiers at the time. And they paved the way for how we fight now.”

He has great things to say about the Russians:

“The Russians were in Uglevik, Republika Srpska,” he said, “to patrol their sector for the U.S.-led division. They had American brigades on either side of them. Again, there was no doctrine for this. Daily patrols were the guts of the Dayton agreement, and I went on a lot of patrols with the Russians, enduring their combat rations of tinned fish and buckwheat.

“We went to one village where the church had been destroyed and the Serbs had their headquarters on the wrong side of the street. They had had twenty days to move it to the right side of the street, as stipulated by Dayton, and they hadn’t. I took out the copy of Dayton that I carried around with me, and read it out loud. The Russian lieutenant with me repeated it to the Serbs. I told the Serbs we would bomb their headquarters with an Apache if they didn’t move it. I called in an Apache to do a flyover. The Serbs were in disbelief that they couldn’t drive a wedge between us and the Russians. ‘Let’s go now,’ my Russian companion told me. ‘Let’s give them their own space to absorb the bad news.’ An American would have stayed and drunk tea with the Serbs. But the Russians live more in an ambiguous world of negotiations without rules, especially because of their experience with civil wars in the Caucasus and Central Asia. They have a better sense of these things.

“My Russian lieutenant and I seized weapons that were hidden in haystacks. We destroyed anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks. We called in Apache missions. The Serbs began calling me ‘Mean Mr. Tom’ because I kept threatening them with Apaches if they didn’t abide by Dayton, by disarming and dismantling their checkpoints. I’ve logged more hours in a Russian ACV [armored combat vehicle] than in an American one over my lifetime. I was taken in and accepted by a brotherhood that had seen exceptional combat in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and listened to them bitch about lousy chains of command and problems in Russia.

“Many national armies in Europe wouldn’t fight when push comes to shove. I’ve seen them corrupted by too much UN work and not enough real combat. But hell, the Russians would fight!”

In the Russian military calling in an air strike is a decision that no one below a colonel can make. Yet in Wilhelm’s opinion, the Russians have mid-level officers almost as good as those in the U.S. military: the result of combat experience in complex environments like Transdniestria, Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Tajikistan. And because their empire is collapsing, the Russian military today frequently finds itself in combat situations that encourage reform at the lower and middle levels. “I would have followed Colonel [Alexander] Lentsov into combat anywhere,” Wilhelm said, referring to his Russian commander in Bosnia. “On a tactical level we have more in common with the Russians than with a lot of our allies.” And yet the general staff in Moscow remains locked in a Cold War mindset.

There’s a lot of good in there for our relations with Russia. His experiences seem to suggest that the Russian military is a reliable and effective partner when its leadership lets it be.

There’s a lot at stake in Mongolia and it certainly is threatened by China’s slow creep northward. We also can’t ever hope to be able to protect Mongolia should China invade, hence Wilhelm’s strategy of raising Mongolia’s international profile and boosting its credentials. Wilhelm knows that an American empire can’t rest on fortresses and troops.

Overlooking a field of broken glass, where the last tenement block met the flat and empty Gobi, was a gargantuan concrete statue of a generic Soviet commissar, fashioned in the sneering, aggressive image of Lenin. The statue had begun to flake and crumble, but its size and substance meant that it might well be around forever, like the abandoned statue in Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” It brought to mind ideas not just of brutality and domination but also of cheapness. “Everything the Soviets built looks like it was constructed by a high school shop class,” Wilhelm said, laughing.

“We should be careful of our own ambitions,” I said. “We don’t want to end up like the Soviets.”

“There is nothing we need to build here,” he answered, “except relationships.”

If knowing that our military is made up of men like this doesn’t make you an optimist, I don’t know what will.

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Mark Hamm February 22, 2004 at 12:54 pm

I read the article, it was quite interesting. The Great Game parallel is good, I can almost see him being threatened with beheading by some warlord someplace. In view of his experience, his politics are interesting. I wish there was some more on that.


Andy February 22, 2004 at 5:36 pm

Its a fascinating article, isn’t it? Your posting it has reminded me of an article on Chinese expansion into Siberia that I’ve been meaning to write for a while. Maybe I’ll finally be inspired to finish it, now.

But I thought one of the most interesting things in the article, which you didn’t quote, was Col. Wilhelm’s view on how the zeal of Christian fundamentalism reshaped the US army. I wonder if he thinks Muslim fundamentalism and its strict prohibitions on alcohol would also steer Middle Eastern armies along the path to professionalism???

Matt February 23, 2004 at 10:26 am

Since he talks so much about the inherently conservative nature of military culture, I love it when Kaplan tips us off to a liberal soldier’s personal politics. It was especially relevant in this case, where Wilhelm is attributing the military’s post-Vietnam recovery to the born-agains.

I found it interesting that US strategy in Mongolia presupposes a future threat from Uygur separatism, and I’d like to hear a little more about the imagined scenarios. Is the big threat from a Chechnya-like scenario in China, in which a jihadi hotspot turns into a terrorism hub, or does the Pentagon lose sleep over the the prospect of chaos in its own right? In other words, are we afraid of the separatists, or of the spillover from separatism? Seems like that question will influence how we react to Chinese actions against the Uygurs.

Horace Jeffery Hodges March 2, 2004 at 5:30 pm

I doubt that anyone will scroll this far down to read my comment, but I have been waiting for an email from my cousin, who’s an upper-level officer in the air force — and an evangelical Christian, which gives relevance to his response to the reason that ‘Kahn’ gives for the new, improved American military. Here are his remarks:

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