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US Keeps Central Asian Bases

Donald Rumsfeld wins a temporary reprieve for the country’s military operations in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
By Leila Saralaeva

Kyrgyzstan has agreed that the American military base near Bishkek can stay, at least for now.


The announcement came following a two-day visit from US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld who also secured an agreement with neighbouring Tajikistan on the continued use of an air base near Dushanbe for brief refuelling stops and emergency landings.


The bases are vital for US efforts in Afghanistan and have become more important since Uzbekistan placed restrictions on flights from the American base there in response to pressure from the Bush administration for an investigation into the Andijan massacre.


The Pentagon was alarmed earlier this month when a regional security group including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and China suggested the US set a date for withdrawing from the region.


That was followed by comments from Kyrgyzstan’s newly-elected president Kurmanbek Bakiev that Afghanistan was now stable enough for the US to re-evaluate its military activity in the country.


However, there was an abrupt about face following meetings with Rumsfeld on July 25 and 26 during which acting defence minister Ismail Isakov and Bakiev were persuaded that the base at Manas airport, 30 kilometres from Bishkek, could remain.


"The stationing of the base depends entirely on the situation in Afghanistan. And today the situation in Afghanistan has not fully normalised," said Isakov.


Rumsfeld added, "Are our bases in the region under threat of being closed? I would answer no. We have a number of agreements with countries in the region, which showed their mutual benefit.


“It is quite clear that these bases and agreements on cooperation significantly help our efforts in Afghanistan." Local opinion on the US presence in Kyrgyzstan is divided.


Valentin Bogatyrev, director of the Presidential Strategic Research Institute, told IWPR that the US should pull out as it already has its own airbases in Afghanistan. However, he accepts that is unlikely to happen until the situation there is more stable.


Political analyst Nur Omarov is also doubtful that the American base on Kyrgyz soil is beneficial, suggesting that it provides a lure for “Islamic terrorists”.


“The Americans say that the presence of the base is a stabilising factor for security in Central Asia, which I doubt,” said Omarov. “The situation shows that in the four years that the US base has been present, it has not had any clear positive effect on security.


“Above all, the presence of the US military base here does not correspond to the national interests of Kyrgyzstan. Military, technical, economic and political cooperation can be deepened with the US but without the base."


Omarov accepts the current chill with Uzbekistan could mean that US operations will actually be beefed up. This could have a negative affect, despite the American aid that will be offered in return, he said.


"There are attempts to adapt our armed forces to US standards. When we receive any equipment, when our border guards learn English, this is all adaptation to the West. This is all done to distance Kyrgyzstan from its traditional allies," continued Omarov.


Chief among those allies is Russia with many analysts speculating that Bakiev’s earlier suggestions that the US base should go was an attempt at toeing Moscow’s line.


Russia’s own airbase, at Kant near Bishkek, is not under review and Bakiev has worked hard to patch up relations with Moscow that were damaged by the March revolution.


Some Kyrgyz, however, support the American presence in Kyrgyzstan and urge the government to maintain good relations with this powerful western ally.


“In the world today, all … countries are competing for the attention of Washington. And having this military base here is a resource which helps us receive the attention of the US,” said Edil Baisalov, leader of the NGO For Democracy and Civil Society.


"We are living on Washington time. This is not a question of money at all - it is a question of whether we will be marked on the map of the world. So US attention is in our national interests. Kyrgyzstan is more interesting for Washington with the base than without it."


Topchubek Turgunaliev, leader of the Erkindik party, also agrees the US base “brings great benefit”.


"It was the US which helped to bring democracy to Kyrgyzstan,” he said. “They invested hundreds of millions of dollars unselfishly. Now that the people's revolution has triumphed, we cannot say goodbye to them.


“Furthermore, the presence of the US base helps to a certain degree to support democracy in the region."


Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.


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