U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan remains on track despite tensions

Map of Kyrgyzstan
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 7, 2010

The United States is planning to move ahead with construction of a $10 million military training base in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, the site of a bloody uprising in June against the new government that reportedly left more than 300 dead.

Called the Osh Polygon, the base was first proposed under former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev as a facility to train Kyrgyz troops for counterterrorism operations. After the ouster of Bakiyev on charges of corruption, discussions continued under the new Kyrgyz president, Roza Otunbayeva, with whose government Washington is trying to broaden relationships.

Home to an air base key to U.S. and coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan, the Central Asian country of 5.5 million is far from stabilized. On Thursday police in Bishkek, firing guns in the air, stopped demonstrations by supporters of Urmat Baryktobasov, the leader of an opposition party that government officials said was funded by the Bakiyev family. Otunbayeva told the Kyrgyz National News Service, "It was another attempt to destabilize the country."

Meanwhile, tensions remain high in the south between Kyrgyz government soldiers and the Uzbek minorities living there, according to Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs. Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Blake voiced concern about security of the southern border with Tajikistan and "the possibility that some militants from Afghanistan might try to come up through that border."

Though he talked about the United States helping "establish a more accountable and effective police force," Blake never mentioned the proposed training base.

Osh Polygon will consist of a secure garrison compound with officers' quarters and barracks for enlisted personnel, plus range facilities, firing pistols, rifles, crew-served weapons and explosive ordnance, according to the pre-solicitation notice posted last month.

Until now, the centerpiece of relations between Washington and Bishkek has been the U.S. and coalition forces' use of Manas Air Base, a key facility aiding the war in Afghanistan. Called the Manas Transit Center, it serves as the entry and exit points for troops. The base also hosts a fleet of coalition aerial tankers, which refuel fighter-bombers and surveillance aircraft being used over Afghanistan.

The U.S. position in Kyrgyzstan has been complicated by allegations that money related to the multimillion-dollar fuel contracts were part of the corruption charges that led to the overthrow of Bakiyev and his predecessor, Askar Akayev.

"Maintaining the Manas Transit Center is an important national security priority for the United States, but that center can only be maintained if Kyrgyzstan itself is stable and a reliable partner and we ourselves are totally transparent in the functioning of that center," Blake told a session of the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe last week.

He quickly added, "The center is an important part of our partnership, but our focus has been and remains developing our overall political, economic and security relationship." So far this year, the United States has contributed $45 million to the Kyrgyz government and paid $13 million in fees for use of the Manas base, according to the new Bishkek embassy Web site designed to show transparency for that facility.

In addition, Washington last week pledged an additional $8.6 million in humanitarian assistance to the Bishkek government as its contribution at a World Bank donors conference.

Blake said $5 million of that money would be for a democracy project meant "to support free and fair elections in October."

In an earlier appearance last week, Blake discussed plans to expand U.S. assistance to Kyrgyzstan, including support for deployment of some 50 international police advisers to be sent to Osh by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to prevent further fighting between the Kyrgyz government forces and Uzbeks who reside in the area.

Noting his own visit to Osh last month, Blake said there continues to be human rights abuse of the Uzbeks. "I think it's very important that the government [in Bishkek] itself be aware of these and that they take steps to stop them," he told the Carnegie Endowment audience.

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