Thousands of U.S. troops are headed to Central Asia, and
they're not leaving anytime soon.
giant statue of Lenin still towers over the central square in Bishkek, capital
of the former Soviet Kyrgyz Republic. Where once the statues raised right
arm pointed to a glorious socialist future, today Lenin seems to be directing
attention to the American soldiers on the citys 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 Bishkeks 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 terminals top floor and neighboring
buildings. Across the street from the terminal, hundreds of GIs 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 Kyrgyzstanor
the other new Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and
Turkmenistan, which all now figure prominently in Americas 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 Russias
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. Whats 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 U.S. media.
merican 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. officialsincluding Secretary of State Colin Powell,
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Gen.
Tommy Frankshas 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 ... were
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.
entral Asias strategic importance seems obvious when looking at a mapbut
a closer analysis raises a number of troubling issues. The new bases would place
American forces on Chinas western frontier where, in combination with
bases to Chinas east and south, they allow the U.S. military to surround
the country. These same bases also place American forces on Russias 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 Afghanistanor even in neighboring Iran, which Bush recently
singled out as part of the axis of evil. Yet with aircraft carriers,
long-range bombers, and in-flight 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 arent 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.
any 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 markets.
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
Nazarbayevs decision and has publicly stated its preference for the pipeline
that would send oil to world markets via Turkey, its NATO ally. But Moscow isnt
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 Turkmenistan).
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 Kazakhstans energy sector and reaffirms U.S. support
for the pipeline to Turkey. The Kazakh media claim that the United States also
pledged to support Kazakhstans bid for membership in the World Trade Organization.
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 Kazakhstans large ethnic
Russian minority, which makes up 35 to 40 percent of the population. Moreover,
American officials would be wise to recall that Russias oil and gas reserves
are far larger than Kazakhstans and Turkmenistans combined. Americas
desire to develop new oil sources outside the Middle East will require Russian
Thus far, the most surprising aspect of Americas newfound commitment
to Central Asia has been Russias 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
merican 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 Kazakhstans 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 Uzbekistans most recent election, President Karimov ran against an
unknown, hand-picked 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 Uzbekistans 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
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 countrys 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 administrations
request for increased aid. Theres certainly no discussion in Congress
of the larger question of whether anyone besides local dictators and oil company
executives stand to benefit from Americas presence in Central Asia.
Back in Bishkek, Marat and his friends have waited several weeks but still
havent 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.
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