Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kyrgyzstan: US Bolsters Strategic Plans for Region
US forces in Kyrgyzstan are establishing a strong military presence which could afford significant strategic leverage in Central Asia. This is needed for Washington to achieve two political goals: loosening Russia's grip on the region and keeping a close eye on the "sleeping giant of Asia", China.
A US-Kyrgyzstan agreement, signed late last year, provides the Americans very favourable conditions for their military deployment here. They will have extensive use of the country's only international airport at Manas, near Bishkek, and have been allowed to build a 37-acre base to accommodate some 3,000 soldiers, complete with an administration headquarters and housing. Warehouses are going up to store munitions and humanitarian aid.
American military personnel will be immune from prosecution by the Kyrgyz authorities, answering only to US disciplinary control. They will be free to enter and leave the country without hindrance, and to wear uniforms and carry arms.
All this has convinced many Central Asian analysts that the Americans are set for a long stay in Kyrgyzstan. Otherwise, they ask, why should such a strong presence be required at a time the war in Afghanistan is almost at an end and a largely pro-Western provisional government has begun to operate in Kabul?
The neighbouring Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, were used as strategic bases for dropping American Special Forces into Afghanistan and as a refuelling stop for long-range US bombers.
Unlike these countries, Kyrgyzstan has no border with Afghanistan. Until now, its role was limited to assisting in the flow of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
But Kyrgyzstan does sit next door to China and some local commentators view this an important factor in US long-term policy in the region.
According to a new CIA report released on January 9, China is expected to have as many as 100 long-range nuclear missiles aimed at the US by 2015. Beijing sees its plans for expanded Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles force as a way to overcome a US missile defence system. It will enable China to have a deterrent in any conflict over Taiwan.
There's also a view that the American deployment here together with that in neighbouring Central Asian states is an attempt to undercut Russian influence in the region. Legislative assembly member Adakham Madumarov said the US wants to pull Central Asia away from Moscow.
Washington has already given hints about its intentions in Kyrgyzstan. A Pentagon representative announced on January 3 that the American deployment "will be long-term, rather than temporary".
A significant factor here is that the US has found it much easier to deal with Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev than his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov. "It would be hard to imagine Karimov giving the West his capital's airport and accepting all those conditions for the presence of the foreign soldiers," said the editor-in-chief of the Tribune newspaper, Yrysbek Omurzakov.
The spectacle of US warplanes coming and going and the sight of uniformed GIs driving freely around the streets have disturbed some sections of Kyrgyz opinion.
A major concern for the Kyrgyz is that bombing raids might be launched from Kyrgyzstan in future anti-terrorist campaigns against Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. Many fear Kyrgyzstan could become a military theatre with unforeseen consequences. Madumarov commented, "We could become a main target for terrorists. The US presence is a strategic handicap for Kyrgyzstan."
The prominent Kyrgyz journalist, Beken Nazaraliev, said, "The Americans may ruin our good relations with neighbours like China. Washington, because of its own interests, could at some stage sacrifice little Kyrgyzstan, leaving it to face the anger of the Arab world."
The members of the Islamic Khizb-ut-Takhrir party, whose cells sprang up in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan in the last few years, have already called for "the overthrow of leaders who have turned Kyrgyzstan into a humiliated colony".
Other experts believe the American presence will be good for Kyrgyzstan. Parliamentary deputy Ismail Isakov predicts it will benefit the economy which is deep in crisis. "After all," he said, "these people will be buying goods here. They'll live in hotels, buy fuel. All this will bring gains for the exchequer."
Kazak academic Professor Nurbulat Masanov believes the Americans will bolster their military and political presence with significant economic investment. "The Americans will bring security and investment," he said.
It is difficult to predict whether Kyrgyzstan will really benefit or lose out as a result of its growing US ties. What's clear is that if this cooperation means alienating its big neighbours China and Russia, the consequences for this small Central Asian country could be serious.
Chinara Jakypova is IWPR country director in Kyrgyzstan
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