Ringing in the Lunar New Year in Afghanistan, Mongolian style

By ALEX PENA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 1, 2014

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — U.S. and coalition forces based at Camp Marmal in Mazar-e-Sharif celebrated New Years twice this year: once on Dec. 31, and again on Jan. 31, with the Mongolian contingent based here.

It was the Lunar New Year, widely celebrated across Asia, and the Mongolian armed forces based in Camp Marmal rolled out the welcome mat for their coalition counterparts to join them in celebration.

“This will be to show our coalition force our tradition. For us it’s really important to cooperate with coalition force,” said Lt. Zerkhembayar, the Mongolian liaison officer at Camp Marmal.

U.S., German and Croatian officers were invited into a Mongolian yurt, or ger, a circular tent made of wood and felt. Zerkhembayar explained that, in Mongolia, a large part of the population is still nomadic.

He served traditional tea and a popular lamb dish that is shared among families on the Lunar New Year.

Coalition troops clapped and cheered along as they took in the event, which included a wrestling tournament.

“It builds unit cohesion,” U.S. Marine Capt. Gabriel Sanchez, the coalition support chief for Regional Command North, said of the joint celebration. “It also strengthens our relationship with them. We get to know about their culture, which makes it easy for us to understand how they think and how they solve their problems here.”

The Mongolian soldiers are part of a 17-nation coalition in northern Afghanistan. Camp Marmal, run by the Germans, is the most international base in all of Afghanistan.

The Mongolians have about 40 troops supporting the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, according to the International Security Assistance Force website.“ They are a non-member of NATO, and they provide force protection for the base under sponsorship for Germany and the United States,” Sanchez said. “They guard the perimeter. They guard the entry checkpoint, as well as the runways and the base in general.”

The base is located in the comparatively safe north of Afghanistan, where the Taliban have never had a strong hold.

Twitter: @Alexandermpena

U.S. Army Col. Wallace Steinbrecher, garrison commander for Camp Marmal Regional Command North, sits with a Mongolian soldier in his traditional wardrobe as he serves his coalition counterparts traditional Mongolian tea and a lamb dish prepared to bring in the new year.