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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania) July 26, 2004

U.S. Bases Overseas Show New Strategy

By Michael Mainville

MANAS AIR FIELD, Kyrgyzstan -- As he supervised a crew of mechanics working on a C-130 Hercules supply plane, U.S. Air Force Capt. Dale Linafelter marveled at finding himself at a dusty, long-abandoned bomber base in what was once the Soviet Union.

"I'd never even heard of Kyrgyzstan," Linafelter said.

The captain has got a lot company.

Manas Air Field near the capital of Kyrgyzstan now hosts more than 1,150 U.S. servicemen, the largest American military presence in Central Asia outside Afghanistan.

Yet "some of them still don't know where they are," joked Lt. Col. Stan Giles, the base chaplain. "You know, there's an old saying: 'War is God's way of teaching geography to Americans.' "

More geography lessons are on the way.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon is planning the greatest shake-up in America's overseas military deployments since the end of the second World War.

Gone are the days of massive bases in places like Germany, Japan and South Korea that look like small U.S. towns. Replacing them will be a global network of what Pentagon planners call "lily pads" -- small forward bases in remote, dangerous corners of the world that can act as jumping-off points when crises arise.

Bases like the one at Manas Air Field, Kyrgyzstan.

"This marks a new epoch in American force posturing," said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a Washington clearinghouse for strategic intelligence. "It's one of only a half-dozen similar reposturings since the American Revolution. It's a very significant change."

On July 13, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, Andy Hoehn, said in Washington that defense officials will present their redeployment proposals to President Bush within several weeks. Hoehn said he expects the changes to start taking effect in late 2005 or early 2006.

The strategy, experts say, is to position U.S. forces along an "arc of instability" that runs through the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and southern Asia. It is in these parts of the world --generally poor, insular and unstable --that military planners see the major future threats to U.S. interests.

The Pentagon believes that spreading U.S. forces through a large number of small, flexible bases within this arc would better position them to strike faster at remote hot spots. The U.S. military presence in these areas also could act as a stabilizing factor, preventing them from becoming hot spots in the first place.

"We don't know exactly where the next threat will be. It could be Iran, North Korea, China or other parts of the world. This redeployment is designed to allow us to quickly respond to any of those challenges," Pike said.

The U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan --a mountainous Muslim country bordering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China --provides a glimpse of what is to come.

U.S. bases abroad cannot be named after individuals, but unofficially this facility is known as the Peter J. Ganci base, after a New York fire chief killed when the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Unlike the big garrison bases that have traditionally housed more than 80 percent of U.S. forces overseas, the Manas air base is small, simple and largely isolated from the surrounding community. There are no families, schools, fast-food chains or department stores.

Contact with local villagers and access to the nearby capital city of Bishkek are strictly limited. Postings rarely last longer than three or four months and accommodations consist of eight-man tents.

Initially set up as a temporary staging ground for incursions into neighboring Afghanistan, today the base serves primarily as a strategic airlift hub and launching area for air refueling missions -- exactly the kind of "lily pad" Pentagon planners envisage for other parts of the world.

About 10 flights a day depart from Manas -- either C-130 Hercules planes ferrying troops and supplies to bases in Afghanistan or KC-135 Stratotankers refueling American planes over Afghan airspace.

Whether the base is having the kind of stabilizing effect military planners are hoping for still isn't clear.

Kyrgyz officials credit the presence of U.S. forces with helping deter attacks from Islamic fundamentalists based in the Ferghana Valley, which straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

One extremist group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is believed to be responsible for a string of attacks that left 47 people dead in Uzbekistan in April, launched incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000 that the Kyrgyz military repelled only after taking heavy casualties.

"There haven't been any incursions since we got here," said Capt. Jason Decker, public affairs officer for the Manas base. "It's not why we're here, but we're happy to make it a more stable world."

Still, radical Islamic groups have condemned the Kyrgyz government for cooperating with the Americans, and in April four men were jailed for plotting to blow up the base. Two other attacks were averted over the past year, Decker said. Earlier this month, the Kyrgyz government also arrested six people, including four government employees, for allegedly spying for Islamic extremists abroad.

The presence of U.S. forces also has increased tensions between Central Asian countries and their former imperial master, Russia. Disliking American troops in its backyard, Moscow has pressured Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan --all of which now host U.S. forces --to ask them to leave.

Last year, the Kremlin convinced the Kyrgyz government to allow the Russian Air Force to set up its own base less than 70 miles from Manas. The Kant base marked the first foreign deployment of Russian forces abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is home to Su-27 fighter planes, Su-25 ground-attack aircraft and Mi-8 helicopters, which conduct training exercises in Kyrgyz airspace. Decker said there has been no contact between American and Russian forces.

For ordinary Kyrgyz, the presence of the American base is less of a political issue than an economic one, said a senior Western official who has spent the past seven years in Bishkek.

In poverty-stricken Kyrgyzstan, the presence of even a relatively small number of American troops can have an enormous impact. The base employs more than 500 locals, paying them up to 10 times the average monthly wage of about $100. The base is pumping about $156,000 a day into the local economy and last year accounted for 5 percent of Kyrgyzstan's entire gross domestic product.

"The general attitude among people here is that they'll take it for what it's worth" the Western official said. "The advent of the American base has actually helped to create something of a middle class in Bishkek."

There are no signs that U.S. forces might abandon Manas any time soon. In fact, the Air Force is spending $60 million this year to replace the base tents with more permanent buildings constructed from shipping containers.

"This is not any kind of indication of moving to a permanent base," Decker insisted. "On the other hand, we're not leaving tomorrow. Our mission is going on until the global war on terrorism is done, until the Kyrgyz government doesn't want us here or until America decides to send us home."

NOTES:

Michael Mainville is a freelance journalist based in Moscow. He can be reached at michael_mainville@yahoo.ca.


Copyright 2004, P.G. Publishing Co.