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US Military Presence in Kyrgyzstan Hopes To Bring Stability But Annoys Russia - 2003-08-21

Firefighter Peter Ganci died trying to save lives in the September 11 attack on the New York World Trade Center. In his honor, a U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan has been named after him.

It is intended to combat the kind of terrorism that took his life and close to 3,000 others on that infamous day. With 1,500 troops and 30 planes, it is the largest U.S. base in Central Asia. There are two others in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The Ganci installation can serve a number of purposes, says longtime analyst Vladimir Socor, a Senior fellow with the Washington-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Policy Studies. He calls it an historic breakthrough, even a geopolitical revolution that has put the U.S. military in a region once controlled by its Soviet antagonist.

From there, the United States can keep a closer watch on neighbors' activities: “In the longer term, this base could play a major role in U.S. contingency planning for the possible containment of a possibly expansionist China in the future. This can never be ruled out. Washington planners envisioned the possibility of bringing American tactical air power to bear on China's strategic nuclear missile arsenal, most of which is stationed in western China close to the borders of Central Asia.”

Considering current problems, that is definitely looking ahead, says Mr. Socor, at the expense of antagonizing Russia. President Vladimir Putin urged the Central Asia countries to reject the U.S. bases, but Washington could make the irresistible offer of both more security and more aid: “On that basis, the three central Asian governments defied the will of President Vladimir Putin. As a result, the Kremlin simply had to stand aside. It deserves underscoring that this diplomatic breakthrough for the United States in Central Asia was achieved by the Pentagon and by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally after the State Department had expressed reservations.”

But Moscow reacted by establishing its own military base not far from the American one, though it will contain fewer troops and planes. Still, Mr. Socor notes it has a certain strategic importance: “The Russian base has a political role in the first place-- to show the Russian flag and more importantly, from an operational standpoint, to force the United States in certain situations hypothetically, to negotiate with the Russians with respect to the use of the American base. Russian airplanes will soon be stationed only 30 kilometers away. That creates potential problems in terms of safety of the air traffic.”

In a crisis, says Mr. Socor, Russian planes could go aloft and interfere with the U.S. mission.

The Kremlin is also fighting back in other ways: “Moscow is financing certain political groups within Kyrgyzstan, mainly the local urban-based Russian language media, to propagandize against the American base. All of a sudden, there is a spate of articles in that press alleging, for example, that American planes pollute the environment or that safety requirements around the base interfere with Kyrgyz road traffic or things of that nature.”

Mr. Socor adds that the central Asian base is only one element of U.S. Russian relations. Perhaps to compensate for this affront to Moscow, Washington has added a Chechen rebel leader against Moscow -- Shamil Basayev -- to its terrorist list with the restrictions that entails.

Don't count Moscow out in Central Asia, cautions Russell Zanca, Professor of Anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Its influence continues among Kyrgyz, who do not seem to harbor any deep resentment of their former ruler:

“While the relationship is hardly harmonious, I would not really characterize it by animosity. People will always point out the fact that the Kyrgyz and the Kazakhs are much more Russified than any of the other Central Asians, and that is generally true. Lots of Kyrgyz people, unless they are coming from very remote villages, speak Russian with great facility in comparison to many of the other Central Asians.”

More than that, Kyrgyzstan's grinding poverty stirs nostalgia for the better days of Soviet rule when freedom was lacking but goods were more abundant. So the U.S. presence must offer some material benefits along with discreet behavior, says Mr. Professor Zanca: “The important thing is to keep a really low profile. When personnel from that base, for example, interact in any way with local people or official people, they should really exercise a sense of humility, and they should be willing to learn from local people and very importantly, they should do something for the local and regional economy.”

Americans are doing that. Their military base is already a major contributor to the Kyrgyz economy. In addition to an annual $92 million in aid, the United States has budgeted $37 million for construction and operations at the base and pays $7,000 for every plane that takes off and lands at the international airport runway that it shares with Kyrgyzstan.

Even so, Kyrgyz are somewhat ambivalent about the U.S. presence, says Professor Zanca: “They are a little bit wary of it. On the other hand, they are very welcoming of Americans in general. Since the early 1990s, they have experienced Americans coming in there in the capacity of advisers, in the capacity of business people, Peace Corps volunteers and teachers of English. And in general, I think relations between residents of Kyrgyzstan and America are very, very strong.”

But if things go wrong, says Professor Zanca, attitudes can quickly change.

To avoid that, the United States can offer more protection to Kyrgyzstan, advises Vladimir Socor. Its own forces are the weakest in Central Asia, where none are very strong. Earlier, armed Islamist groups made periodic raids on Kyrgyzstan and were beaten back only after the United States and other countries sent in supplies and logistical support.

Since then, the United States has provided Kyrgyzstan with training in mountain warfare and anti-terrorism tactics. Joint U.S.-Kyrgyz training exercises are scheduled for next year.

The United States will not be dealing with the democracy that was once envisioned for Kyrgyzstan. It has gradually adopted the repressive policies of the other Central Asian countries. For that reason, some question such close military cooperation. It may be a case of over-reach in the wrong place.

Other analysts say a discreet projection of military power without necessarily having to use it makes sense in an uncertain region. It is better, they advise, to have a strategy of anticipation rather than to face armed conflict and then have to deal with its destructive aftermath.