Multination military base offers Afghans a lesson on getting along

The very nature of the troops at Camp Marmal seems to mock the idea that war makes sense.

MCCLATCHY FOREIGN STAFFSeptember 18, 2013 

CAMP MARMAL, Af-ghanistan - Of the 17 nations represented at the main northern base for the NATO coalition in Afghan-istan, 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."

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.

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.

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

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 .

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."

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