A US task force is scheduled to conduct joint military exercises with Kyrgyz troops on January 24, outside Bishkek. In the first of several such planned exercises, US and Kyrgyz soldiers will practice anti-guerrilla operations in mountainous terrain. The joint maneuvers, along with a January 23 visit by Gen. Tommy Franks to Bishkek, the US commander of anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, provide further evidence that the United States is engaged in a rapid military build-up in Kyrgyzstan.
In recent days, the American military presence in Kyrgyzstan has become more visible. In the second half of December the first American military cargo-plane could be seen landing at Manas Airport. At first, the presence of the US military was hardly noticeable, but this started to change in early January this started to change as the military build-up gained momentum.
Groups of uniformed though unarmed American soldiers can be seen walking around the airport, waiting for chartered busses to transport them to the luxury Hyatt hotel in central Bishkek. The hotel, which has been largely empty since the September 11 terrorist attacks, serves as the temporary American barracks. The troops do not mingle with Kyrgyz citizens, but the appearance on Bishkek streets of many athletic-looking Americans, clad in civilian attire, suggests the build-up is steadily continuing. An estimated 200 American soldiers are now in Kyrgyzstan.
Around 3,000 soldiers are expected to be stationed in Kyrgyzstan. To accommodate them a 37-acre base is expected to be built. This base will also serve as administrative headquarters and contain warehouses to store humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, during the recent visit of a US delegation headed by Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota democrat, Kyrgyz officials announced that they had granted the United States the use of Manas Airport for 12 months.
"Without doubt, we should be involved until this issue is solved and terrorism is rooted out completely," President Askar Akayev said in a television interview January 11. "Maybe one year will not be enough. We believe that if one year is not enough, then in autumn 2002 we will reconsider and there may be a need to prolong the accord."
Manas is suitable for both military and relief flights, able to accommodate fighter jets as well as large cargo-planes and KC-135 refuelling planes. In addition, Manas has few regularly scheduled civilian flights every day, and thus can handle US military air traffic without much disruption. According to a report in the Kyrgyz newspaper Delo, the United States is planning to relocate fighter jets from Pakistan to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Favorable terms have reportedly been secured for the soldiers who will serve in Kyrgyzstan. They will be free to enter and leave the country, to wear uniforms and to carry weapons. They will also be immune from prosecution by the Kyrgyz authorities.
Construction of the US base, as well as the US Air Force's presence at Manas Airport, should help establish Kyrgyzstan as a hub for reconstruction operations in Afghanistan and for Central Asian stabilization efforts. In return for the granting of US basing rights, Akayev's administration clearly hopes for a large increase in American political and economic support for Kyrgyzstan. The country has a foundering economy, and, in recent years, has been bullied over a variety of political and economic issues by its larger neighbor, Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Public opinion on the American military presence in Kyrgyzstan appears mixed. According to some reports, many ethnic Russians living in Kyrgyzstan oppose the US presence. However, people that I interviewed on the streets of Bishkek - Kyrgyz as well as Russians - did not express any resentment. Most seemed apathetic about the development.
In Uzbekistan, many residents - especially in the Ferghana Valley - disapprove of the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, according to some reports. In Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, a large majority of those questioned expressed approval for the anti-terrorism campaign.
Nearly all the people I spoke to, though, did not believe that current conditions necessitated the construction of an American base in Kyrgyzstan. Many believe the Americans' real motive is to supplant the Russian influence in Central Asia. Others think the United States seeks to secure the safety of potential oil pipelines in the region.
Given that the US build-up in Kyrgyzstan is coming at a time when the anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan are moving into the reconstruction phase, it appears likely that the US military is settling in for an extended stay in Central Asia. Local analysts say that with Russia's grip on the region loosening, the United States is aiming to check the expansion of Chinese influence in the region.
Indeed, the US-Kyrgyz agreement on basing rights threatens to damage Bishkek's relations with Beijing. Apparently the Kyrgyz leadership believes that close cooperation with the United States offers the best chance of finding relief for the country's debt-ridden economy.
"I can firmly assure the entire population that this tactical [US basing rights] agreement will in no way damage our national interests in future," Akayev told Kyrgyz state television.
Daan van der Schriek is freelance a journalist based in Bishkek.