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Thousands of U.S. troops are headed to Central Asia, and they're not leaving anytime soon.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

A giant statue of Lenin still towers over the central square in Bishkek, capital of the former Soviet Kyrgyz Republic. 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 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 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 U.S. media.

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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

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, 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 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 Asia.

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.

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