Thousands of U.S. troops are headed for Central
And they're not leaving anytime soon.
by J. Eric Duskin
In These Times magazine, April 2002
A giant statue of Lenin still towers over the central square
~ in Bishkek, capital of the former Soviet Kyrgyz Republic. A
Where once the statue's raised right arm pointed to a glorious
socialist future, today Lenin seems to be directing attention
to the American soldiers on the city's outskirts. But everyone
in this quiet little city of tree-lined streets and Stalin-era
apartment buildings is already talking about the Americans. No
one here can quite believe that thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds
of NATO planes will soon be based nearby.
At Bishkek's Manas Airport, Marat could only shake his head
as he watched an Air Force C-130 cargo plane thunder down the
runway. A university student and Bishkek resident with Russian
and Ukrainian parents, Marat was shocked to see American soldiers
occupying the main terminal's top floor and neighboring buildings.
Across the street from the terminal, hundreds of Gls were diligently
constructing a vast new complex of buildings and sheds. As he
peered through a fence, Marat said that until now he had considered
talk of American imperialism just to be Communist propaganda.
Yet the next day, Marat and his friends went to U.S. military
headquarters at the Hyatt Regency and applied for jobs.
Before the war in Afghanistan, few Americans had ever heard
of Kyrgyzstan-or the other new Central Asian states of Kazakhstan,
Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which all now figure
prominently in America's foreign policy plans. The State Department
and Pentagon have quietly cobbled together a bold strategy for
American military expansion into this region, building military
facilities in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and staking
claim to a land of deserts, vast steppe and towering mountain
ranges along the ancient Silk Road, where no Western country has
ever stationed troops before.
The five Central Asian countries, which comprise an area about
half the size of the continental United States, have been part
of a Russian sphere of influence since the 19th century. Most
Russians still consider these countries on Russia's southern border,
and the millions of ethnic Russians who live there, as essential
to Russian interests. China also views the prospect of permanent
American air bases with alarm. What's more, not only is the region
rife with religious and ethnic tensions, but all five countries
have authoritarian governments responsible for well-documented
human rights abuses. Yet neither the billions of dollars that
may be spent here nor the risks of antagonizing the neighboring
nuclear powers have attracted much critical attention from the
American military forces first increased their presence in
the region to prepare for the bombing of Afghanistan. In September,
the Bush administration asked Uzbek President Islam Karimov for
permission to operate out of the old Soviet Khanabad air base
near the Afghan border. By October, the United States and Uzbekistan
had announced an accord granting American use of multiple Uzbek
air fields in return for promises to protect Uzbek security. Two
months later, the Tajik government officially announced that it
would provide air bases for U.S. forces. And in mid-December,
the United States and Kyrgyzstan signed the agreement to build
a 37-acre base in Bishkek that will eventually house 3,000 troops
and an unspecified number of NATO aircraft.
A parade of U.S. officials-including Secretary of State Colin
Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Senate Majority Leader
Tom Daschle and Gen. Tommy Franks-has visited the Central Asian
countries in recent months to confer with the local leaders. Although
Franks stated in a recent visit to Bishkek that "we have
no plans to build a permanent military base" in Central Asia,
other evidence indicates that the U.S. plans to remain in the
region long after the end of the current fighting in Afghanistan.
While the lease for the air base in Kyrgyzstan is valid for
only a year, the extensive construction program at the site indicates
that the Americans do not plan to leave anytime soon. Kyrgyz President
Askar Akayev has already announced his willingness to renew the
lease for as long as necessary. Russian journalists have reported
that the United States and Uzbekistan signed an agreement leasing
the Khanabad base for 25 years. The Pentagon has denied this report
but refused to specify the nature of its agreement with Uzbekistan.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has said that building
air bases and conducting joint training exercises with local troops
will "send a message to everybody, including important countries
like Uzbekistan that ... we're not just going to forget about
them." This sentiment has been echoed by Colin Powell, who
told the House International Relations Committee in early February
that "America will have a continuing interest and presence
in Central Asia of a kind that we could not have dreamed of before."
Central Asia's strategic importance seems obvious when looking
at a map-but a closer analysis raises a number of troubling issues.
The new bases would place American forces on China's western frontier
where, in combination with bases to China's east and south, they
allow the U.S. military to surround the country. These same bases
also place American forces on Russia's southern border for the
first time. But presumably missiles already target all important
sites in Russia and China, so encirclement of these two nuclear
powers does nothing to enhance global security.
Bases in the region also would appear to be useful for continuing
American operations in Afghanistan-or even in neighboring Iran,
which Bush recently singled out as part of the "axis of evil."
Yet with aircraft carriers, long-range bombers, and inflight refueling,
these new bases would actually do little to extend the reach of
American air power. None of the bombers in the recent Afghan campaign
came from Central Asian bases.
Neither can the bases be justified by a need for large numbers
of ground forces, since no one in Washington is seriously contemplating
such a deployment. Nor would these bases do much to help get humanitarian
aid to those in need: That task falls mainly to the United Nations
and non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross, which
are not normally granted use of American bases.
Furthermore, most experts agree that the possibility of radical
Muslims seizing power in the region is remote at best. All five
countries have governments with secular orientations, and the
vast majority of the Muslims in the region are also largely secular.
Most men and women wear Western-style clothing, and alcohol and
pork, forbidden under Islamic law, are popular here. Only Tajikistan
has a substantial number of fundamentalist Muslims, but Russian
troops have been keeping order in that country since a civil war
in the early '90s.
If these new U.S. bases aren't necessary for American military
requirements, why is the Bush Administration pressing so hard
to build them? One high-ranking U.S. diplomat in the region, who
spoke off the record, told In These Times that "we now have
an opportunity to move these countries away from Russia."
Many observers also suspect that an important motivation for
U.S. expansion into the region is oil. Both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan
have substantial energy reserves. Kazakhstan has led the way in
development of its energy sector by encouraging foreign investment;
already, several Western oil companies are pumping oil from Kazakh
fields in and around the Caspian Sea. Last October, Kazakhstan
opened a pipeline that takes Kazakh oil through Russia to Western
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is already exploring
options for a second pipeline. Kazakh officials are most seriously
considering two possible routes: one that would go through Iran
to the Persian Gulf, and another that would go through Azerbaijan
and Georgia into Turkey. The United States is trying to influence
Nazarbayev's decision and has publicly stated its preference for
the pipeline that would send oil to world markets via Turkey,
its NATO ally. But Moscow isn't pleased by American prodding for
a second Kazakh pipeline. Industry experts predict that Kazakhstan
will not have enough oil to justify use of two pipelines for almost
a decade, so prompt development of a second pipeline would only
reduce the amount of oil piped through Russia, thereby limiting
Russian tax income from the oil crossing its border.
So far, Nazarbayev has maintained good relations with both
Russia and the United States. He has met frequently in recent
months with Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin
and Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov, and he has been an active participant
in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a loose coalition of
Russia, China, and four of the Central Asian states (excluding
Nazarbayev also has met with visiting American officials,
and in December he traveled to the United States to meet with
President Bush. While in Washington, the Kazakh foreign minister
signed an "Energy Partnership Declaration" with Colin
Powell that calls on the United States and Kazakhstan to cooperate
in the development of Kazakhstan's energy sector and reaffirms
U.S. support for the pipeline to Turkey. The Kazakh media claim
that the United States also pledged to support Kazakhstan's bid
for membership in the World Trade Organization.
"America will have a continuing interest and presence
in Central Asia of a kind we could not have dreamed of before."
The ring of new American military bases around Kazakhstan
in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan would help send a message
to Kazakh officials that they should consider American preferences
when making decisions regarding their oil and gas. But any move
away from Russia may anger Kazakhstan's large ethnic Russian minority,
which makes up 35 to 40 percent of the population. Moreover, American
officials would be wise to recall that Russia's oil and gas reserves
are far larger than Kazakhstan's and Turkmenistan's combined.
America's desire to develop new oil sources outside the Middle
East will require Russian cooperation.
Thus far, the most surprising aspect of America's newfound
commitment to Central Asia has been Russia's lack of objections.
Publicly, Putin has said that the countries of Central Asia are
independent and must make their own decisions. Putin has not,
however, surrendered Central Asia to the Americans. The Russians
have maintained their own strong military presence, with about
20,000 troops in Tajikistan along the Afghan border as well as
both troops and military research facilities in Kazakhstan and
Kyrgyzstan. Some analysts speculate that Putin has kept official
silence in the hope that the Bush administration might turn a
blind eye to Russian operations in Chechnya.
Yet some Russian generals are already blaming Putin for "losing"
Central Asia. Members of the Duma have spoken out against the
American military bases, and Moscow newspapers routinely decry
American advances into the region. Putin cannot ignore the growing
outrage forever. When he does decide to raise the issue, he will
likely have the backing of China, which has stated that it does
not expect the Americans to remain in the region after hostilities
in Afghanistan end.
American officials are quick to point out that their plans
for the region include aid for political and economic reform as
well as military cooperation. The need for . reform is clear.
All five countries have authoritarian regimes, and only Kyrgyzstan
has a leader who was not a Communist Party boss in Soviet times.
Opposition parties are allowed to exist in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan,
but even in these countries, elections are neither free nor fair.
In Kyrgyzstan, President Akayev had his most popular rivals kept
off the ballot in recent elections. The government of Kazakhstan's
President Nazarbayev has also routinely harassed the leaders and
supporters of rival parties.
Meanwhile, the leaders of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the
worst of the bunch, have created Stalinist personality cults and
ruthlessly suppress all dissent. In Uzbekistan's most recent election,
President Karimov ran against an unknown, handpicked opponent
who boasted on Election Day that he too had voted for Karimov.
Just days before a visit by Powell this past December, the Uzbek
Parliament announced its intention to name Karimov President-for-Life.
Thousands have been arrested in Uzbekistan by the National
Security Service (successor to the Uzbek KGB) simply because they
questioned government policies or were thought to practice Islam
too devoutly. Human Rights Watch claims that police torture has
resulted in the deaths of at least 15 Uzbek prisoners in the past
two years. Observers say that Uzbekistan's combination of poverty,
unemployment and brutal repression is pushing small but increasing
numbers of Uzbeks into radical Islamic groups that operate covertly
and stand opposed to Karimov's regime.
Bush officials say they are working to promote democracy in
the region, and they have spoken out against some human rights
violations and various perversions of the democratic process.
Yet on January 30, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher
confirmed that Uzbekistan could expect a three-fold increase in
foreign aid for the coming year. The Uzbek aid request is not
tied to any improvement in
the country's human rights record. Although Sen. Paul Wellstone
(D-Minnesota) added language to the Foreign Operations Bill requiring
the State Department to report on Uzbek human rights, few expect
much Senate opposition to the administration's request for increased
aid. There's certainly no discussion in Congress of the larger
question of whether anyone besides local dictators and oil company
executives stand to benefit from America's presence in Central
Back in Bishkek, Marat and his friends have waited several
weeks but still haven't received any job offers from U.S. officials.
The payoff for most other people in Central Asia and the United
States may prove equally illusory.
J. Eric Duskin is an assistant professor of history at Christopher
Newport University and the author of Stalinist Reconstruction
and the Confirmation of a New Elite. He is currently living in
Central Asia as a Fulbright Scholar.