On April 8 the issue of pollution from the U.S. Manas Airbase once again resurfaced in the Kyrgyz Parliament. It was alleged by one member of parliament that foreign military personnel stationed at Manas were polluting the atmosphere, and this view was supported by others when it was presented to the committee on defense, security, law and order, and legal reform. This will be considered in more detail by representatives of the Ministry of Defense, Foreign Ministry and Prosecutor-General’s Office in the next session of the committee (Kabar, Bishkek, April 8). Notably, there is no controversy over the Russian air force components at Kant, which are under the authority of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The Kyrgyz mass media intermittently focuses on the Manas issue, but at the political level it seems merely to rumble on with no clear decision for or against the long-term continuation of the base.
Kazakhstan’s Khabar television broadcast a rare profile of the Manas base on April 7, which illustrated how the base functions, its military importance, and its role in operations in Afghanistan. Manas rarely allows foreign journalists inside the closely guarded installation, but these journalists were given an insight into the intensity of activity at the base. Round-the-clock movement of military personnel, military aircraft and supporting structures results in an estimated 2,000 soldiers flying over the base daily; either into action or returning home. The 1,200-strong workforce at Manas includes, of course, not only U.S military personnel but also French and Spanish. A short profile was given on the commander of the base, U.S. Air Force Colonel Thomas Harrison Smith, who explained that although he began his career as a pilot, he now focused on different tasks, dictated by his command responsibilities. The report concluded by saying that although the Kyrgyz authorities had talked about ending the arrangement at Manas, this had not happened nor was it likely to in the near future (Khabar TV, Almaty, April 7).
Unfortunately, despite this example of handling the media positively in order to project a better image of the base, it does little to defuse the nature of the existing tension. Bishkek’s close defense and security relations with Russia, combined with the “zero-sum” thinking in U.S.-Russia relations, ensures the longevity of such tension. Despite the absence of U.S. efforts to engage Russian support and assistance in its defense and security initiatives in Central Asia, however, there are more positive signs emerging indicating that some aspects of U.S. engagement in the Kyrgyz Republic could yield constructive results.
Washington has recommended that Bishkek create a body on establishing civil control over the police, as part of its continuing efforts to promote Kyrgyz police reform. Charles Undeland, coordinator of USAID’s Millennium Challenges Account threshold program, announced this initiative after a meeting with Police Colonel and First Deputy Interior Minister Melis Turganbayev on April 4 in Bishkek. The proposal involved setting preliminary conditions for cooperating in this area and sending special advisors to work alongside the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry. Undeland expected to secure funding of approximately $5 million for a two-year program to support this transition in Kyrgyz police control. Turganbayev offered his support for such an ambitious program, describing its scope as consistent with Bishkek’s own police reform plans. “It must be taken into account that the interior ministry is a restricted body and civil control is not relevant everywhere. The fight against corruption is continuing and it has to be stepped up, as well as the selection of staff for the police. There is the possibility for doing this. Measures proposed by the threshold program to strengthen the investigative potential through providing equipment will also promote the common purposes,” Turganbayev said (AKIpress, Bishkek, April 8).
Severe challenges still face the Kyrgyz government, however, in addressing even the most basic needs of its current security system. Central to this, are the current problems concerning recruitment not only for the weak Kyrgyz military but also for its other security agencies. According to Kyrgyz law, citizens between the ages of 17 and 27 will be called up in the period from April 1 to July 30 for service in the various service branches or in the Interior Ministry, National Guard and the Border Service. Conscription figures are lower than needed throughout the country in the spring mobilization, but the shortage of recruits is particularly acute in Osh and finding sufficient numbers is proving too much for the authorities. Talypdzhan Bodzhokov, head of the Osh recruitment office explained, “One of the urgent problems in the recruitment office is the lack of citizens subject to military service in the country. The thing is that more than 70 per cent of the young men [in the city] work abroad” (Kabar, Bishkek, April 8). Depleted numbers of recruits result in undermanned units, lower morale and a much reduced level of readiness to respond effectively to sudden crises.
As the Kyrgyz authorities struggle with such basic security agency requirements, the occasional rumbling about the foreign military base at Manas will likely amount to no more than positioning for additional funding and greater levels of international security assistance rather than a departure from the multi-vectored approach to defense cooperation. Almost seven years after Operation Enduring Freedom commenced, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan–the countries in Central Asia with the most pressing security problems ranging from drug trafficking to militant threats–have only weak and limited security capabilities. U.S. assistance can develop these capacities if there is a willingness to promote realistic programs involving dialogue, planning and training, while remaining conscious of the challenges emanating from internal corruption and a low skills base. These programs could, however, be far more productive if they were locked into a cooperative frameworks with Russia or the regional multilateral bodies, thereby not only defusing tension in the region but offering ways of maximizing the capacity building potential.