U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has obtained assurances from Kyrgyz officials that U.S. military forces supporting anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan will not have to withdraw from an airbase near the Kyrgyz capital anytime soon.
Secretary Rumsfeld traveled to Kyrgyzstan to secure agreement on U.S.-Kyrgyz military cooperation with the former Soviet state's new leadership, including incoming President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Mr. Rumsfeld wanted to win assurances that U.S. troops could continue to operate out of Manas International airbase in support of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan.
The airbase has become a hot issue since a recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization urged Washington to set a timetable for withdrawing its forces from the region, long considered a traditional zone of Soviet influence. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a regional security group that includes Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.
In a joint news conference, acting Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov said the the U.S. base could continue to operate out of Manas for as long as the situation in Afghanistan requires it. Mr. Isakov also said Kyrgyz officials agree with Secretary Rumsfeld that the situation in Afghanistan is still very unstable.
Secretary Rumsfeld declined to speak about future prospects for the base, saying it was a matter for the Kyrgyz government to decide.
The Director of Kyrgyzstan's Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, Edil Basailov, says the decision to keep U.S. troops in Kyrgyzstan is the right one. He told VOA from Bishkek that Kyrgyzstan must learn in the future not to become the middleman in regional conflicts. "Kyrgyzstan I think will continue to balance between the West and the Russian and the Chinese interests," he said. "We need to have all the great powers as our friends, but I do not think the political class of Kyrgyzstan understands that it is in the best national interest of our country that we do not choose sides in this great game. The best we can do is to defend our national interest."
Mr. Baisalov also says that if U.S. forces are pressured to leave before the Afghan situation normalizes, mainly-Muslim Kyrgyzstan could risk similar threats of terrorism and instability.
During the course of the visit, Secretary Rumsfeld also assured Kyrgyz officials that the United States plans to further expand cooperation with Kyrgyzstan, especially in fighting terrorism.
Mr. Rumsfeld later traveled to Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan. There, he is scheduled to hold talks with the president, Emomali Rahmonov, as well as leading defense and law enforcement officials in the capital, Dushanbe.
Tajikistan does not host a U.S. airbase, but it has granted the United States overflight rights through its airspace into and out of Afghanistan.
The United State also maintains a military base in Uzbekistan to support counter-terrorist operations in Afghanistan. The fate of that base is also coming under question from Uzbek authorities, reacting to what they see as U.S. interference in the region, following the recent unrest in the Uzbek town of Andijan.
The United States has called for an immediate international investigation into recent events in Andjian, where hundreds of Uzbek protesters were killed in what a recent United Nations report says looks like a massacre.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has refused U.S. calls to investigate and has since imposed new limits on the U.S. airbase.