How the U.S. Lost a Vital Kyrgyzstan Air Base

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By Baktybek Abdrisaev
Friday, February 20, 2009

For two weeks, the U.S. struggle to hold on to its last air base in Central Asia has made headlines, and the vote in Kyrgyzstan's parliament yesterday to close Manas Air Base will spark still more coverage. Analysts have rushed to portray this as a new chess match between a resurgent Russian Federation and a recalibrating United States; just as a new American president seeks to bolster the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the principal land corridor from Pakistan is severed through a bridge bombing and the likely air base closure threatens the Obama administration's plan. The oversimplified but oft-repeated explanation is that Kremlin pressure is the source of Washington's predicament.

Having served as Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to the United States from 1996 to 2005, I know a great deal about the establishment of the base and the struggle to keep it open. It's true that our friends in Moscow were never happy that the base was opened and that they have exerted pressure to close it. But a nation's decision to offer a friend territory for military purposes involves a number of complex considerations. A base agreement rests on the shared interests of the host and the country that sends troops or supplies through it. When the base was opened in 2001, my nation was moved by several factors: Kyrgyz were deeply touched and saddened by the events of Sept. 11, and we were intent on showing support for our American friends. Moreover, we shared a common foe and a common pain: Fifty of our uniformed servicemen had been killed from 1999 to 2001 in gun battles with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an organization that formally allied itself with al-Qaeda and that operated out of bases in Afghanistan it maintained with al-Qaeda and Taliban support. The U.S. commitment to end those operations corresponded with the national security interests of my country. Kyrgyzstan also hoped to benefit economically from the base, a wish that was never hidden.

There is no doubt that my country gained from having the base on its territory. For us, the most important development was that allied forces dealt the IMU a devastating blow. But all has not proceeded as we had hoped. For one thing, economic arrangements relating to the base have always been obscure, and the employment and support relationships that many expected have not been realized. A couple of very troubling incidents, including the shooting death of a Kyrgyz man in 2006, have left many in Kyrgyzstan concerned about the candor of American officials and the attitude with which they approached their Central Asian partners.

Every relationship has its peaks and valleys. But one thing has consistently troubled me about the relationship between the United States and my country. Once the base was set up, I saw a fairly radical change in American attitudes. Before, Washington had consistently juggled a series of priorities -- broadly speaking, they were security concerns, economic concerns, and advocacy of human rights and democracy. But once the base was established, it became clear that while other concerns might be voiced from time to time, only one thing really mattered: the air base. In the end, this shift served neither country's interests.

Kyrgyzstan was the scene of a popular revolution in 2005 fueled by complaints about corruption and hopes for greater democracy. My people's hopes have receded as our nation has steadily become more authoritarian. Kyrgyzstan may still be the most democratic nation in Central Asia, but the ways in which it differs from its more authoritarian neighbors are steadily being erased. Millions of Kyrgyz dream of a better, more democratic future. They were long heartened by the criticisms that the United States used to voice against authoritarian regimes; they drew inspiration from unwavering admonishments to stay on the difficult path to democracy. That was the voice of a true friend. But after the air base opened, that voice was lost. Our constitution was changed several times to allow autocrats to consolidate their power. Political opposition has been criminalized, and corruption has grown more widespread. The country's economic mismanagement most recently manifested itself in a power crisis -- in a nation once expected to be a giant in hydropower production and a net exporter of electricity to our region.

I will be sad to see the Americans leave Manas. But if the base's closure results in the United States regaining its critical voice and once again taking seriously its advocacy of democracy and human rights, that would be a silver lining to this disappointing story. It would mean an America that values its allies' long-term stability more than a single military installation -- and that could be a better investment in a secure future for all of us.

The writer, a visiting professor of history and political science at Utah Valley University, was Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to the United States and Canada from 1997 to 2005.


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