Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 88

On December 6, 2006, U.S. soldier Zachary Hatfield shot and killed 42-year-old Kyrgyz citizen Alexander Ivanov, a fuel truck driver, at the entry gate to the Manas airbase outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Subsequent U. S. intransigence about submitting Hatfield to the Kyrgyz justice system has soured relations between the United States and Kyrgyzstan and threatened the continued U.S. presence at the airbase, Washington’s last remaining facility in Central Asia north of Afghanistan.

Bishkek’s initial response to the shooting was swift. A week after the incident, on December 15, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament passed a resolution calling on authorities to take tough action, with MP Kubanychbek Isabekov saying, “Our assessment of this tragic incident has been too soft.” (24.kg, December 15, 2006). The Main Directorate of Investigations of the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry has filed charges against the U.S. soldier under Article 97, Part 1, of the Criminal Code, covering deliberate homicide. However, Hatfield has reportedly been returned to the U.S. despite Kyrgyz requests for access. While U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Marie Yovanoich said that Hatfield remains under investigation, the 24.kg news agency reported that he was spirited out of Kyrgyzstan on March 22 (24.kg, May 3).

The normally quiescent Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry picked up the issue, sending three notes to the U.S. State Department insisting upon having access to Hatfield for the detectives pursing the investigation, to the weapon Hatfield used to fire the two fatal shots, as well as to a set of his fingerprints. All requests were rejected. In January Ivanov’s widow, Marina Ivanova, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the U.S. government.

The situation remains murky, with Ambassador Yovanovitch, stating that Hatfield remains under investigation in connection with the incident. A Kyrgyz inquiry reportedly concluded that Hatfield had committed a crime, but the serviceman, who reportedly shot Ivanov after he saw him with a knife, is apparently beyond Kyrgyz justice. Reportedly, Ivanov had threatened U.S. personnel manning the checkpoint with a knife, forcing Hatfield to fire in self-defense.

U.S. forces have been posted to Manas since a December 4, 2001, Status of Armed Forces (SOFA) agreement was concluded between Kyrgyzstan and the United States. The Bush administration initially negotiated a one-year SOFA agreement, which defined Manas as a coalition base for attack operations, refueling, and search-and-rescue work over Afghanistan. The agreement built on previous U.S.-Kyrgyz cooperation, as U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers had quietly been training Kyrgyz soldiers since 1999.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, provided the United States with a unique opportunity to establish bases on former Soviet territory in Central Asia. On February 9, 2002, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the House International Relations Committee, “America will have a continuing interest and presence in Central Asia of a kind that we could not have dreamed of before.” Among the reasons that the Pentagon chose Manas was its 13,800-foot runway, originally built for Soviet bombers. The airstrip’s geographical position was also of prime consideration — while Manas is 400 miles from Afghanistan, it is only 20 miles from Kazakhstan, and China is about 200 miles to the east. Manas also had better supporting infrastructure than Tajikistan’s Kulob airbase in Dushanbe, which was briefly considered. The initial SOFA agreement was for one year, but it has been repeatedly extended.

Relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States have become steadily more complex since March 2005, when a populist uprising forced Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev from power. Two months later, a rebellion in neighboring Uzbekistan’s Andijan province was harshly repressed. Tashkent subsequently voided its SOFA agreement with Washington, ending the Pentagon’s use of its Karshi-Khanabad airbase in Suhkhandariya province, less than 100 miles from northern Afghanistan. Washington’s expulsion from K-2 only increased the value of Manas.

Yet Washington continues to prevaricate about Hatfield. According to a U.S. Embassy e-mail, “The airman departed Kyrgyzstan on March 21. The U.S. investigation into the shooting continues, and we continue to collaborate closely with Kyrgyz authorities about it.” Hatfield was a member of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing, which fields about 1,000 personnel at Manas. The U.S. Embassy maintains that Hatfield departed Kyrgyzstan and would face an investigation by his home base commander, a solution that is clearly unacceptable in Kyrgyzstan.

The incident has potentially massive repercussions. Manas not only remains the sole U.S. base north of Afghanistan, it shares nearby airspace with Russia’s Kant airbase, Moscow’s first post-Soviet military facility established under the Collective Security Treaty Organization in October 2003. Kyrgyzstan is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which in the aftermath of Andijan called for Washington to establish a timetable for withdrawing its forces from Central Asia.

The issue here is whether removing a single U.S. serviceman from regional justice is worth a potential retreat from this vital link to Afghanistan in former Soviet Central Asia. Washington and Bishkek have a great deal to discuss. Kyrgyzstan may be part of a wider agenda, as on May 2 Russia’s Interfax quoted a Kyrgyz secret service agent, speaking on condition of anonymity, that Washington might be stockpiling low-yield nuclear weapons at its airbase at Manas for potential use against Iran. Whatever the truth of such allegations, it would seem that the U.S.’s relations with Kyrgyzstan will be a primary element in bilateral relations for some time to come.