Letter From Kyrgyzstan: The U.S. Moves In

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Murad Sezer/AP

Rumsfeld says the U.S. will stay as long as necessary

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's sleek blue-and-white jet touched down late last week on the 13,000-foot, Soviet-built runway at Manas International Airport here, bringing him for the first time to his key base in the war on terror. The base is well on is way to becoming the central staging area for U.S. military operations in this part of the globe. Hammers clatter and saws whine across the post, dubbed Ganci Air Base after New York City Fire Chief Peter Ganci Jr., who died at the World Trade Center. Engineers are busy putting up housing for 2,000 troops, half of them American.

Even as the Afghan war winds down, U.S. bases are spreading like a rash across the soft Islamic underbelly of the former Soviet Union. U.S. officials say the new bases are "expeditionary," meaning their U.S. presence won't be constant or permanent. Some support only small contingents of special forces troops, while others — like this one just outside Kyrgyzstan's capital of Bishkek — are substantial. The steppes of central Asia — a no-go zone for the U.S. military until last year — could become home to U.S. troops for years to come. Minutes after Rumsfeld arrived here last Friday, an impatient airman demanded to know how long U.S. troops would be in Kyrgyzstan. "As long as is necessary," Rumsfeld shot back.

U.S. military cargo planes have been off-loading tractors, cargo loaders and other gear as engineers patch runways and refurbish rusty lighting and communications deep inside the tiny republic of Kyrgyzstan, tucked amid the mountains in what used to be the Soviet Union's southeast corner. Two weeks ago, the first U.S. warplanes — six Marine F-18 fighter-bombers — moved in, relieving the strain on Navy pilots stretching 600 miles from carriers in the Arabian Sea.

U.S. officials say the growing U.S. "footprint" here will be used to battle terrorism in the region — and to ship in humanitarian supplies — but acknowledge they could play a supporting role in any confrontation with Iraq, assuming the blessing of the host nation. But the bases also could trigger the anger of nearby Russia and China, who have long viewed central Asia as being firmly within their spheres of influence. They might also antagonize Islamic fundamentalists in the oil-rich region. U.S. troops know the risk, and patrol the 16 villages within three miles of the base, trying to make friends with the locals and listening for any signs of trouble. Rumseld spent Saturday aboard an MC-130 special-operations plane, hopping around U.S. bases in Afghanistan and meeting with Afghan leaders and the U.S. troops there to defend them.

The central Asian states where the U.S. now has bases — in addition to three in Afghanistan, there are about a dozen U.S. military outposts (the Pentagon isn't eager to detail its presence in the region) polka-dotting Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — are pleased by Washington's interest. It shows they are truly independent of Russia, and the money's not bad, either (this base alone pumps an estimated nearly $1 million a week into the anemic local economy).

"We have activities in a number of the neighboring countries," Rumsfeld says. "Our basic interest is to have the ability to go into a country and have understandings about our ability to land, or overfly, and to do things that are of mutual benefit." He declines to discuss the specifics of the U.S. presence in the region, beyond saying the U.S. military "prefer to be arranged in ways that give us more options rather than fewer options."

But all these nations, with the exception of Afghanistan, are run by autocrats. "The first encounter a nation has with the U.S. shouldn't be a military base," says Husain Haqqani, an adviser to Pakistan's two democratically elected leaders before Pervez Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup. "The U.S. has more to offer than that, and its presence at military bases in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere is intimidating — seen as supporting the elite — and could lead to restive populations who don't like the U.S. presence in their countries."

The tides of history slosh following defeats. The U.S. rushed in to East Asia in the wake of Japan's World War II surrender and — among other things — harvested wars in Korea and Vietnam. Following the Soviet Union's loss in the Cold War, Washington — with help from al-Qaeda — is now setting up shop in central Asia. Whether there will be any bitter harvests here remains to be seen.