Closure of Central Asian Air Base Debated

The United States is under pressure to reduce its military presence in Central Asia. An airbase in Uzbekistan is already set to close. American officials say they can make do with another base in neighboring Kyrzygstan, but some experts question that.

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The US suffered a setback in Central Asia this summer. The government of Uzbekistan gave the American military six months to leave an air base in the south of the country. China and Russia have joined Uzbekistan in calling for an end to the US military presence in the region. That includes an air base in the small Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan. NPR's Ivan Watson traveled to Kyrgyzstan and sent this report.

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IVAN WATSON reporting:

At first glance Kyrgyzstan does not seem like much of a prize in a geopolitical contest. Unlike its much larger neighborhoods, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, it does not boast any significant natural resources or a sizable military. In the capital, Bishkek, locals herd farm animals on dirt roads just a few blocks from the house of government.

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WATSON: And yet this tiny mountain republic of five million people is home to both an American and a Russian air base. Analysts say the balance between the two former Cold War rivals here shifted five months ago when an angry crowd stormed government headquarters in Bishkek and sent longtime President Askar Akayev into exile in Russia. The Russian media called it an `American-backed uprising aimed at removing a Russian ally,' a claim that was denied by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the man who quickly occupied and was later elected to the post of president. Bakiyev and his interim foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva, have since vowed that Kyrgyzstan will not become a geopolitical football for superpowers competing for influence in Central Asia.

Ms. ROZA OTUNBAYEVA (Interim Foreign Minister, Kyrgyzstan): Some countries became like a platter for competition between big actors, and we do not like to be like that.

WATSON: In fact, analysts say rivalry in Central Asia has only intensified. Dan Goure, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, says the establishment of US air bases in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan after the September 11th attacks challenged Russian and Chinese interests in the region.

Mr. DAN GOURE (Lexington Institute): That was primarily a Russian-Soviet domain for decades, even a century. The Chinese are now moving in. And neither of them, Chinese or the Russians, really want a third competitor and somebody who might be a balancer for power in that region.

WATSON: The air bases were originally intended to support the US war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But Goure says the bases have since become part of a broader Pentagon strategy to set up a network of so-called lily pads throughout the oil-rich Middle East and Central Asia.

Mr. GOURE: The bases can be rapidly expanded, and from there US forces can then do whatever operations that are desired: humanitarian relief, counterterrorism or otherwise.

WATSON: But Washington's growing influence in Central Asia suffered a setback this summer following US criticism of Uzbekistan's bloody crackdown on an uprising in the town of Andijan. When hundreds of Andijan residents fled to nearby Kyrgyzstan, the US joined Europe and the United Nations in pressuring the Kyrgyz government not to send the refugees home, where they could have faced torture or execution. Michael Hall, a Central Asia analyst with the International Crisis Group, says the Uzbek government retaliated by ordering the US military to evacuate its air base in Uzbekistan.

Mr. MICHAEL HALL (International Crisis Group): This was huge, the request from the Uzbek government, that the Americans leave the so-called K2 Air Base.

WATSON: The downturn in US-Uzbek relations delighted some democracy activists, who had long criticized Washington's close alliance with Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov. Craig Murray is a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan.

Former Ambassador CRAIG MURRAY (Former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan): They have this terrible regime, which the United States was always making excuses for and saying, `It's not that bad,' and saying, `Reform is coming,' when all of those things were obviously untrue.

WATSON: Russia and China capitalized on the Uzbek-American spat at a regional summit in July, which ended with the call for a timeline for the withdrawal of US forces from the region. Kyrgyzstan's new president initially agreed to the declaration but backtracked just a few weeks later during a visit by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Kyrgyz interim Foreign Minister Otunbayeva now says the US air base in Kyrgyzstan is here to stay.

Ms. OTUNBAYEVA: I think for--US base will stay, according to our bilateral agreement.

WATSON: A Western diplomat in Bishkek says Kyrgyzstan will likely see a jump in US aid in the near future. The shaky, new Kyrgyz government has also taken care to maintain close ties with Russia, but it's too late when it comes to Uzbekistan. Kyrgyz officials say as punishment for not handing over the Uzbek refugees, they expect Uzbekistan to cut off the supply of natural gas, which could mean a very cold winter for Kyrgyzstan. Ivan Watson, NPR News.

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