To Kyrgyz and local Russians in the Bishkek area, familiar with the look and condition of the Russian army, the sight of American soldiers must open a new perspective on the world. “They are well groomed, smart, confident; they carry assault rifles and portable radio sets. They are making themselves at home, going to cafes, exchanging money, leafing through the newspapers. United States soldiers. They are the good guys, who beat the terrorists. So far there are just over 200 of them at the capital city’s [Manas] airport, but there will be 3,000 soon…. They [go] to the village of Manas to stock up on goods. Local people are hoping for dollar opportunities” (Argumenty i Fakty Kyrgyzstana, January 9).
Construction work is in full swing on the U.S. military station at Manas. Owing to its strategic location and the quality of its Japanese-renovated airstrip, Manas is the fastest-growing in the emergent network of Western military installations in Central Asia. By March, the station should accommodate some 3,000 Americans–both air force and ground troops–as well as some 550 French and about as many Canadian troops, along with some forty planes. These are to include large-capacity military cargo planes, refueling planes, fighter-bombers and assault jets.
Officially, the Manas station is designed for flying humanitarian relief missions to Afghanistan, as well as combat missions there, in the event that Taliban and al-Qaida forces regroup and resume hostilities. Along with U.S.-led coalition forces stationed in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, those at Manas can provide logistical and combat support if required by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
The location of Manas, however, makes it equally if not even more relevant to possible operations in theaters other than Afghanistan. It gives U.S. forces flexibility to operate in a variety of hypothetical situations in Asia. For example, contingency plans are said to envisage air operations over China, in the event that Beijing directly threatens Taiwan later in this decade. From Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. tactical aviation has China’s west within its range. This is where that country’s main strategic missile forces are located. Thus, Manas is relevant to the U.S. deterrence capacity vis-a-vis China in the medium term, amid uncertainty over Beijing’s intentions and pending the development of a U.S. antimissile defense system.
American troops are already in charge of security around the perimeter of the 37-acre Manas station. Amid the tight security, that unit has allowed local journalists some glimpses inside, demonstrating equipment and weaponry. While erecting tents and other presumably temporary structures, the troops are also planting tree saplings. The station command has offered to conduct joint firing practice with Kyrgyz troops, so as to familiarize those using U.S. weapons with them.
A flight control center of the U.S. Air Force has been set up, and is already handling all takeoffs and landings by American and allied planes. These flights do not interfere with the operation of the Manas civilian international airport, which remains fully under Kyrgyzstan’s control.
At President Askar Akaev’s insistence, the Kyrgyz parliament placed no restrictions on U.S. operations out of Manas. While American troops in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are, at least pro forma, barred from engaging in offensive combat, those at Manas can operate at their discretion. The Kyrgyz parliament approved Akaev’s initiative overwhelmingly in authorizing the military presence for one year and signaling a willingness to prolong it for another. Yet, Akaev is taking an extremely cautious line in explaining the situation to the public. In a January 11 phone-in appearance on national television, Akaev seemed to go out of his way in describing the U.S. military presence as “temporary” and as a “tactical” move in Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy. He went on to describe Kyrgyzstan’s relations with “neighboring” [sic] Russia and neighboring China as long-term and “strategic.” And he made a reassuring bow in Beijing’s direction.
Akaev used this rhetorical packaging to explain to the public the economic and security benefits that Kyrgyzstan stands to gain. And he made clear that the U.S. presence should, in Kyrgyzstan’s interest, be extended. Kyrgyz officials and many residents hope that the American military would bring trickle-down benefits to an economy otherwise in near-distress. Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev has described the military presence as “the equivalent of a gold mine.” The pro-presidential deputy Karabai Karabekov, chairman of the Legislative Assembly’s information policy committee, has emerged as an active proponent of a long-term U.S. military deployment in Kyrgyzstan, in the host country’s own interest.
Akaev’s caution can be explained by his concern to reassure Moscow and Beijing, by the appearance of some mixed reactions from some local Russians–who form a large and active voting bloc–and by sudden second thoughts on the part of parliamentary leftists, once they began realizing that the U.S. deployment will last beyond the one or two years that the leftist opposition had envisaged when voting to authorize it (Roundup based on recent reporting by Kyrgyz Television, Bishkek Educational Radio and Television, Argumenty i Fakty Kyrgyzstana, Institute for War and Peace Reporting [London], Western news agencies; see the Monitor, December 11, 2001, January 2; Fortnight in Review, December 14, 2001, January 4).
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