US Air Force Col. Don Berchoff is the commander of the Mission Support Group at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. Normally, this entails nuts-and-bolts affairs like lodging and feeding of the approximately 1,200 airmen based here. But in the case of Manas, Berchoff's job has taken on a more strategic role: making sure that public opinion in Kyrgyzstan a country much more accustomed to cooperating with Russia than with the United States remains favorable toward the base.
He runs a village partnership program, under which off-duty airmen visit six villages around the base and carry out small-scale development projects. The morning of our interview, Col. Berchoff had visited the village of Jhany Pakhta, where the mayor asked for help cutting holes in the cement walls of the school so that a ventilation system could be installed. Berchoff says if the base doesn't have the proper equipment to do such a job, he would try to find a local contractor to handle the work. He adds that he spends about 15 to 20 percent of his time on this and other projects managing relations with the Kyrgyzstan government and population.
"I take a strategic approach to the village partnership program," says Berchoff, a genial New Yorker with a Brooklyn accent. "I think we have a good news story to tell: Americans really do care about the Kyrgyz people and culture."
In addition to the village partnership program, US airmen also are involved in other volunteer activities around Kyrgyzstan. I visited one such activity, where two enlisted airmen visited sick children at a hospital in Bishkek, handing out toys and school supplies as well as hundreds of dollars for operations and post-operative treatment that the children's parents couldn't otherwise afford.
There is another air base near Bishkek, operated by the post-Soviet Collective Security Treaty Organization, and staffed by Russian officers. But its airmen aren't out handing out toys to Kyrgyz children. Berchoff acknowledges that the Russian troops in Kyrgyzstan don't have to do any community activities to maintain good relations. "We know we have to try harder and we'll get smaller results," he says.
An opinion poll carried out in May 2007 by the US International Republican Institute showed that, when asked towards which country Kyrgyzstan should orient itself, by far the top response was Russia fully 88 percent of respondents said relations with Russia should be the country's top priority. The United States ranked seventh, with less than 1 percent of the population saying Kyrgyzstan should orient itself toward Washington. Besides Russia, the United States finished behind Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, China and Germany.
The Americans are right to be concerned about their image, said Muratbek Imanaliev, Kyrgyzstan's former foreign minister and the head of the Institute for Public Policy, a Bishkek think tank. "This base is different from those in South Korea, Japan or Germany. This is the former Soviet Union and there has always been an anti-American feeling here, so the Americans need to take a different approach," he says.
Imanaliev said he believes that the base has strategic importance for Kyrgyzstan, as a bulwark against Islamist extremism that could threaten all of Central Asia. "The most important factor is Afghanistan, the situation there is very dangerous and if the Americans leave it will have bad consequences and the Kyrgyzstan government needs to understand that. Maybe the Americans aren't solving the problem there [in Afghanistan], but they're keeping it under control."
But he says his view is in the minority in Kyrgyzstan. Not only is the general public wary of military cooperation with the United States, but the new government also looks at Manas from a commercial perspective rather than a strategic one.
"[President Kurmanbek] Bakiyev and his team don't understand the political dimension of the base; they look at it as a means of making money," says Imanaliev, who served under Bakiyev's predecessor and rival, Askar Akayev.
So the government took advantage of several accidents and mistakes that have occurred at the base over the last year. American base guards shot and killed a local man at the entrance gates, a US plane collided with a Kyrgyzstan passenger jet on the runway (Manas is adjacent to Bishkek's civilian airport) and controversy arose over the US practice of dumping fuel before landing if the crew fears it might crash-land; the fuel was polluting crops near the air base. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Officials at Manas have taken several steps to try to prevent future problems with the Kyrgyzstan public. In response to the fuel-dumping controversy the new commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing has forbidden fuel dumping without his express consent. And as a result of the truck driver's death, the base security forces have been retrained and equipped with billy clubs.
When terms for use of the base were renegotiated, the United States ended up paying substantially more than the previous $2 million a year. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The precise amount has not been publicly disclosed.
"The Kyrgyz government has used every possibility to keep the heat on the Americans," said one western diplomat in Bishkek. "I think it was to get a higher price, and it was also a nice way to keep the Americans in line."
"I don't think Kyrgyzstan is interested in driving out the base," the diplomat continued. "The US is providing about $150 million a year in aid, and they have to expect that if the air base leaves some of that will disappear, and Russia and China won't be able to compensate for it."
"The government treats [the Russian base at] Kant [outside of Bishkek] as a part of its own security, while Manas is its contribution to the war on terror," said another western diplomat in Bishkek. "Part of the difficulty is in getting people to see it as a strategic issue rather than as a revenue source."
The United States dodged controversy when Bishkek hosted the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in August. A previous SCO summit produced a demand for Washington to develop a timetable for its military departure from Central Asia, and there was some speculation that Manas might come under the gun during this most recent summit. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But the issue did not come up publicly at the summit, at least in part due to US diplomatic efforts to encourage SCO member countries to keep the base off the meeting's agenda. Russia is also believed to be in favor of the base's presence, for the role it plays in containing the Taliban, although China is believed to be less concerned about Afghanistan and more concerned with a US long-term presence on its western border. "The Chinese are very wary of the US presence in Central Asia," says the second diplomat.
"We're not here to upset the Chinese and the Russians," says Berchoff. "Our goal is to stop the spread of extremism and terror around the world. If you look at the last terror attack that was in Kyrgyzstan, it was in 2003. I don't know if we can say that's because of our presence here, but there's definitely something to be said for hosting a base of a country that's fighting the war on terror," he says.
"And let's give the Russians their due that base might have the same effect," Berchoff adds. "Maybe the US and Russia don't agree on a lot of things, but one thing we agree on is extremism."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.