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The US Footprint in Central Asia

Let’s imagine that the United States is home to a number of foreign military bases. Perhaps in Jacksonville, Florida an Uzbek airbase home to a small number of elite forces. Or somewhere in the Midwest a South Korean military outpost flanked by fields of corn and wheat. And in the northern stretches of Maine a little known Kyrgyz command center gathering intelligence and launching reconnaissance missions across the border into Canada.

Americans living close by are aware of the bases. They even know some of the soldiers who visit the towns and establish relationships with local residents. Aside from the occasional rape or diplomatic tussle, however, the activities behind the fences and walls of these heavily guarded institutions get little attention.

This, of course, is not the case and such a counterfactual serves little purpose beyond drawing attention to the US military presence throughout the world–largely unknown to the American people–and to the existence of an American empire more traditional than many would like to admit.

The war in Afghanistan and in Iraq extends well beyond the borders of those ravished countries and has allowed for a dramatic shift in US military strategy. It is a strategy that depends on shifting alliances, unpredictable and often anti-democratic regimes, and areas of the world US policymakers and bureaucrats have little experience in and knowledge of. Not that experience in a given part of the world allows for a more benighted approach or deeper understanding but it at least provides some practical assurances like knowing the language, the land, and the people.

In Central Asia the United States has taken over a number of military installations once occupied by Soviet forces. There are those who see the end of the cold war as an American triumph and thus the extension of American power into former Soviet territory as a necessary consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And the US did not hesitate to establish a presence in the Soviet successor states. Embassies were set up in the early 90s and in 1997 operation CENTRAZBAT marked the beginning of joint military exercises between the US and Central Asian States, when some 500 soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C., parachuted into Kazakhstan.

The extent of the US presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, however, is unclear. It has been acknowledged and expanded (through economic, military, and political alliances) but few details have emerged. This is in part due to the US policy of disclosing information only if it has been cleared with the host government.

As General Tommy Franks told a group of reporters at the Intercontinental hotel in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in October 2001, “Actually I won’t tell you how many supporting nations, American or otherwise, are located in Uzbekistan.”

This is in sharp contrast to comments made a year before prior to the shift in military strategy spurred by the 11 September attacks. At the time Franks was more open regarding US strategy.

“I believe that we will see an increase in the military-to-military activities and the training exercises that we conduct specifically with Uzbekistan, but also throughout this region. We will continue to see a level of what we call “foreign military financing” placed into this region. I believe we will continue to underwrite the attendance of students from this region in American military schools. And you will continue to see some funding placed for counter-narcotics efforts in this region. And I apologize to you that I can’t give you the overall number, but I do see a continuing level of effort in those categories here in Central Asia.”

What we do know is that by mid-October 2001 airfields in Uzbekistan were home to as many as 3,000 US troops. The main airbase at Karshi Khanabad named “K2,” served as a major supply conduit into northern Afghanistan equipped with air conditioned tents laid out on a grid with streets named after New York’s major thoroughfares (Fifth Avenue, Long Island Expressway, Wall Street.)

According to Global Security Alliance, ” President Islam Karimov received security assurances, and an implied US commitment to ignore complaints about human rights violations in the country.”

The United States was also permitted to review three former Soviet airbases in Tajikistan, a country with bases in the towns of Kulyab and Parkhar about sixty miles from the Afghan border. In September 2001 it was reported that up to three US transport planes landed at Dushanbe unloading reconnaissance equipment and 200 troops.

And the United States has a base in Kyrgyzstan outside of Bishkek, at Manas renamed Ganci air base after Chief Peter J. Ganci Jr., chief of the New York City Fire Department who lost his life on Sept. 11. It has a13,800-foot long runway and covers thirty seven acres, “fenced off by a concrete wall at the top of which coiled razor wire has been placed.” Like many questions posed throughout the war the duration of US military operations in any given area is unknown, whether it’s the Pankisi Gorge, the Philippines, or Qatar. The standard answer is that we will remain where we need to be until the objective of eliminating terrorism is complete. It’s a non-answer that allows military planners to avoid tackling more difficult questions. For example local attitudes toward a long term US presence, the kinds of regimes we are supporting, and in the case of Central Asia the impact of a US presence in Russia’s backdoor, which recently opened a base of its own in Kyrgyzstan 35 miles from the US airbase.

According to Lutz Kleveman, author of The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia, “Bush has used his massive military build-up in Central Asia to seal the cold war victory against Russia, to contain Chinese influence and to tighten the noose around Iran. Most importantly, however, Washington – supported by the Blair government – is exploiting the “war on terror” to further American oil interests in the Caspian region.” And a number of Russian officials have expressed concern about an open ended US military presence in the region and general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, General Fu Quanyou warned that a US presence in Kyrgyzstan poses a direct threat to China’s security.

But as the Bush administration continues to pursue its catastrophic war, US involvement in other countries will be more closely scrutinized, both at home and abroad. Perhaps the next time Bush sups with Islam Karimov–a despotic ruler who does not hide his penchant for torturing and killing opposition and Islamic groups–at the White House, it will receive more than the cursory attention it got at the time.

ADAM FEDERMAN can be reached at: adam@incamail.com

 

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Adam Federman is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal.He is the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a Russia Fulbright Fellowship. You can find more of his work at adamfederman.com.

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