February 9, 2002
Footprints In Steppes Of Central Asia
New Bases Indicate U.S. Presence Will Be Felt After Afghan War
By Vernon Loeb, Washington Post Staff Writer
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- In a remote corner of Central Asia in a country that didn't even exist a decade ago, the U.S. Air Force is building a base that within months will be home to 3,000 personnel and nearly two dozen American and allied aircraft.
While the intensity of the war in Afghanistan has slowed, the base going up outside Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, tells a much different story. It embodies what senior U.S. defense officials say is a major commitment to maintain not just air operations over Afghanistan for the foreseeable future but also a robust military presence in the region well after the war.
Just how long the United States plans to remain is anyone's guess. Senior military officials say they have no plans for a permanent American presence. But if the construction here at Manas International Airport is any indication, the Pentagon, rather than searching for an exit strategy for Afghanistan, is focusing on the opposite: establishing a foothold.
"I think it's fair to say there will be a long-term presence here well beyond the end of hostilities," said Air Force Col. Billy Montgomery, commander of a team of engineers, technicians and planners that is proceeding apace with construction of a tent city, surgical ward, gym, hot showers and kitchen facilities at the airport.
Six weeks from now, he said, even a military exchange could be up and running.
The Pentagon's expanded footprint in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia has taken on added urgency as Saudi Arabia expresses unease about the U.S. military presence in the kingdom. It is a sentiment that could force the United States to withdraw from the bases it first occupied in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War 11 years ago, leaving a potentially huge void in the military's ability to operate in the region.
But U.S. officials say the deployment of American forces eastward from the Gulf to the doorstep of China since Sept. 11 also underscores a significant shift in the Bush administration's thinking about the role of the military in projecting American power.
Having come into office expressing concern that the military was being stretched too thin, the administration is now giving the armed forces the ability to conduct anti-terrorist operations on a near-permanent basis across much of the Muslim world. It also is establishing a broader political and security relationship with the republics of Central Asia, a strategic region rich in oil and gas reserves.
"America will have a continuing interest and presence in Central Asia of a kind that we could not have dreamed of before," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday.
In addition to Kyrgyzstan, the war has led to basing agreements with Uzbekistan, where about 3,000 Americans are deployed near the Afghan border, and Tajikistan. Discussions are underway with Kazakhstan for use of an airfield there, according to Kassymzhomart Tokaev, the Kazakh foreign minister. The Defense Department also has been using three bases in Pakistan and across the Gulf region, most notably in Oman and Kuwait, which have emerged as major centers of U.S. military operations.
All told, more than 50,000 U.S. military personnel now live and work on ships and bases stretching from Turkey to Oman and eastward to the Manas airport, 19 miles outside of Bishkek and 300 miles from the Chinese border.
"The imperial perimeter is expanding into Central Asia," Thomas Donnelly, deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century, wrote in a recent e-mail circulated among leading military analysts.
Noting the lessons of Bosnia and Kosovo, where the United States still has several thousand troops stationed years after the Balkan wars ended, Donnelly says the Pentagon appears to be moving into Central Asia for the long run. "This commitment strikes me as even greater than the Balkans, in all kinds of ways: farther, nastier neighborhood, closer to China," he wrote. "Setting up shop in Tashkent [the Uzbek capital] and Bishkek is not something I would do without careful consideration."
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz has left little doubt that the United States will maintain a military presence in the region after the war to demonstrate to allies in the anti-terrorism campaign that Washington will reengage its military if terrorists reemerge as a major threat to regional stability. But ultimately, Wolfowitz has said, the bases being built by the Air Force at Manas and by the Army in Uzbekistan "may be more political than actually military."
A one-year Status of Forces agreement negotiated with the Kyrgyz government by the State Department gives the U.S. military broad authority to use the airport for "combat and combat support for operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom."
Under the agreement, which the Kyrgyz government has said could be extended, the United States pays landing fees and costs. Kyrgyzstan has not been promised any foreign aid, but a U.S. official here said that it would not be unusual if U.S. funding increased substantially in return for permitting the military presence.
"I don't think there's an agreement that says that, but if you look historically at places we've gone into, I think that would be a reasonable assumption," the official said.
Some foreign policy and military analysts contend that maintaining bases in largely Muslim Central and southwestern Asia could backfire by stoking the same kind of resentment that gave rise to Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden after the Gulf War, when the U.S. military remained at bases it created for the campaign against Iraq.
Indeed, at the forefront of the concerns of commanders at the new bases is a terrorist attack. Many point to the lessons learned from the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen.
Capt. Eric Rundquist, who commands a security force of 77 soldiers at Manas that is about to be replaced by a far larger contingent, called Khobar Towers a "watershed event" for the Air Force.
In and around the U.S. compound here, Rundquist uses thermal imaging sensors for surveillance of the tent city, requires stringent identification checks at entrance points to the compound, and has deployed heavy mobile and stationary security around the aircraft. "Seeing a U.S. Air Force aircraft being attacked on the ground is a very strategic event I would just as soon not have to deal with," Rundquist said.
The expanding U.S. deployment into Central Asia is raising eyebrows in Beijing and Moscow, both of which have strategic interests in the region. President Bush plans to visit China next month and Russia this spring.
Russia considers the five former Central Asian Soviet republics to be in its sphere of influence. President Vladimir Putin and Konstantin Totsky, director of Russia's Federal Border Service, have recently said they do not see why the United States should remain in the region after the end of hostilities in Afghanistan.
China, looking to expand its influence, spearheaded creation of a six-nation group of its Central Asian neighbors to fight terrorism and Islamic extremism. Chinese analysts have expressed concern that the United States is seeking to use the war on terrorism to expand its influence in Central Asia and the Pacific.
Mindful of these sensitivities, Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command who is in charge of the war in Afghanistan, chose to create a coalition base at Manas involving the United States and as many as six allied partners.
The plan is to base six Marine F/A-18s and six French Mirage 2000s here for combat air operations in northern Afghanistan. In addition to the fighters, France and other U.S.-allied nations will base five KC-135 tankers and four C-130 transport planes at Manas that can resupply troops and deliver humanitarian aid in Afghanistan.
The base is already serving as a refueling hub for C-17 transports coming out of Afghanistan, according to Air Force Brig. Gen. Christopher Kelly, commander of the base construction effort.
"It is a way to get air power closer in whatever form that air power needs to be, by being able to project it from a much closer distance than Germany or Kuwait or some of the other places where we're trying to project it from now," Kelly said.
Engineers from Central Command settled on Manas after surveying several other bases in Central Asia. A large former Soviet air base at Kulyab, Tajikistan, less than 100 miles from the Afghan border, was rejected because it was in such poor condition.
Although Manas is 400 miles from Afghanistan, it is a functioning international airport with a long runway originally built for Soviet bombers, navigation aids that are up to commercial standards, good fuel facilities and a large ramp for parking aircraft. Manas also offers abundant space for housing and an ammunition storage depot.
The intent of Franks, according to Lt. Gen. Michael E. Zettler, Air Force deputy chief of staff for installations and logistics, "is to have a base in that part of the world where we can base some forces to help support the war on terrorism. The force structure that we're going to put in there is not fully defined yet, and I think that's pretty reasonable, given that as the war develops and unfolds, if you will, we'll make adjustments."
About 350 military personnel -- mostly from the Air Force -- are here now, but the ranks are expected to grow to 2,000 by March, once the coalition aircraft are based here, and to more than 3,000 by June.
"I don't see anything that we're doing that indicates that we're going to be here for three months," Kelly said. "I see what we're doing and the kind of guidance I'm getting from higher headquarters that indicate that we'll be here for a long period of time. How long, I don't know."
Copyright 2002 Washington Post