Elizabeth Jones, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Eurasian Affairs, has attempted to dispel speculation concerning how long U.S. military forces will remain deployed in Central Asia to support Operation Enduring Freedom. Responding to fears, particularly from Russian security circles, that the deployment may in fact presage long-term U.S. bases, Jones was unequivocal in her assessment, “We are not aiming to establish military bases in Central Asia and we will stay in Central Asia as long as the situation in Afghanistan requires this. And therefore our presence is of a temporary nature (AKIpress, July 30). She said nothing that differed in substance from previous statements by American officials on the matter. However, given that the “temporary” U.S. deployment to Saudi Arabia in 1990 in advance of the first Gulf War in 1991 has actually lasted for over a decade, the statements remain vague on timescale — stabilizing Afghanistan could take many years — and also in the concept of “base” as used in public statements.
There are four key factors that expose the deeper U.S. basing strategy in Central Asia. First, Washington wants the continued military access to Afghanistan provided by bases in Central Asia; notably Kharshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan and Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. These supply an important jumping-off point for differing mission requirements in Afghanistan, ranging from search-and-rescue to humanitarian operations. Second, U.S. military-to-military training and support for the Central Asian forces has been increased since 9/11 as the strategic importance of the region has been more fully appreciated. Third, the U.S. global re-basing strategy is facing its largest transformation in scope and structure since the end of the Cold War. Finally, the continued frequency of American military and diplomatic visits to the host countries suggests little indication that American forces will pullout soon. On the contrary, the quantity of fiscal spending, training, and assistance, and the focus on military infrastructure all point to a longer-term commitment of U.S. forces to the region.
General John Abizaid, Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) placed high value on Kyrgyzstan’s decision to provide its territory for the Ganci air base at Manas, recognizing that it played a crucial role in the success of Operation Enduring Freedom. As part of his visit to the region, Abizaid held meetings with senior Kyrgyz government officials in late July, including President Askar Akaev. Akaev linked the stabilization of Afghanistan with his country’s efforts to forge stronger economic links with Kabul and the ongoing Kyrgyz contribution to the war on terror by means of Manas air base. The purpose in these meetings was to enhance military cooperation, which Abizaid believes to be developing well. He went on, “If a country has a good education system and appropriate security system, one can speak out and say that it is capable of countering modern threats, and Kyrgyzstan is a good example in this regard” (AKIpress, July 28). American security assistance aims at improving Kyrgyzstan’s security structures, stressing border security and rapid reaction capabilities against terrorist groups.
Assistant Secretary Jones was partially expressing an accurate representation of U.S. intentions. But her use of the concept of “base” concealed the reality that the older concept of large permanent American bases staffed with large numbers of personnel, incurring high costs, is giving way to the “lily pad” concept. This entails no permanent, large-scale U.S. military presence at any given base, but rather a skeletal staff and bilateral agreement that the lily pad can be used in a time of crisis as a forward operating base, through which large quantities of military hardware and troops could be moved. Current reporting on the location of these bases suggests that it will take into account the “arc of instability” running through Central Asia, the Greater Middle East, and South Asia, reflecting the uncertainty as to where the next conflict may emerge: Iran, North Korea, or China.
Locating such lily pad bases in Central Asia would be of strategic value to the United States. If an agreement can be reached with individual governments, it will permit American politicians to sidestep the accusation that America has established military bases by stealth in Central Asia. This is a potentially convenient solution to the longer-term question over the status of U.S. forces in the region, and it partly explains the intense diplomacy and security assistance aimed at improving the host militaries. Kyrgyzstan is not only a suitable candidate given its geographical location, but also politically since the Akaev government is supportive of U.S. assistance and a continued military presence. Moreover, it is the only country in the world that hosts U.S. and Russian military personnel in close proximity, as the Russian air force is deployed at Kant near Bishkek. Careful handling will defuse any great power rivalry and assuage the fears of many within Russian security structures about the U.S. agenda in Central Asia.