In Central Asia, a new headache for U.S. policy

A boy carries his brother near a destroyed house on the outskirts of Osh in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.
A boy carries his brother near a destroyed house on the outskirts of Osh in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. (Vyacheslav Oseledko)
By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010

BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN - Beset by mounting casualties on the battlefield and deepening disquiet at home over the United States' longest war, President Obama's Afghan policy now faces another big headache: the unraveling of central authority in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian nation that hosts a U.S. air base critical to the battle against the Taliban.

Just a month after agreeing to extend for a year a $60 million lease on a U.S. air base here, Kyrgyzstan's generally pro-Western but increasingly impotent president, Roza Otunbayeva, has retreated from U.S.-backed security programs that Washington hoped would help fortify a fragile Kyrgyz government. These include a counterterrorism and anti-narcotics training center and an international police mission.

The government's paralysis, most notable in its inability to control truculent Kyrgyz nationalists in the south of this former Soviet republic, does not pose any immediate physical threat to the U.S. air base, which is about 20 miles from the capital, Bishkek, in the north. But it does raise the prospect of prolonged and possibly bloody clashes ahead and strengthens forces inimical to Washington's interests in the region.

What diplomats and local analysts describe as perilous political drift in Bishkek has been compounded by the approach of parliamentary elections in October, a vote that will probably amplify nationalist voices wary of the West and further enfeeble Otunbayeva.

Otunbayeva, a former Kyrgyz ambassador to Washington, came to power in April after the country's second so-called "revolution" in five years and had been seen by Western capitals as the best hope for a restoration of stable, democratic rule. Instead, the government she heads has been hobbled by crises, most notably a June explosion of ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad. The official death toll is nearly 400. Many more are thought to have died.

In a severe and humiliating blow to the president's authority, the mayor of Osh, a rabble-rousing Kyrgyz nationalist hostile to what he sees as foreign interference, defied an order last week that he give up his post. "I am going nowhere," the mayor, Melis Myrzakmatov - who was appointed by Otunbayeva's ousted predecessor - told supporters at a rally late last month. A minister from Bishkek sent to calm the crowd was roughed up and fled the city.

"The president has lost face and also power," said one Western official. "This is a catastrophe." Otunbayeva had earlier in the week contacted the European Union's senior diplomat for Central Asia and others to tell them that the mayor would be gone within hours, said people familiar with the conversations. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek said it was not informed of the abortive plan to remove the mayor.

The failure to bring the Osh mayor to heel has heightened fears that Kyrgyzstan - a poor mountain nation of 5.3 million that once touted itself as the "Switzerland of Central Asia" - has effectively split in two. It shredded the credibility of a feud-riven and barely functioning government in Bishkek. One of Otunbayeva's nominal allies, Deputy Prime Minister Azim Beknazarov, traveled to Osh and boasted of backing the defiant mayor. "I was one of the people who supported him," he said.

"The damage to the government in general and the president in particular is incalculable," said a report on Kyrgyzstan issued recently by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. The Osh episode "underlined the government's impotence and incompetence."

Russian newspaper Kommersant Daily reported that an elite paramilitary police unit tried to arrest the Osh mayor but had been repulsed by his bodyguards. Government spokesman Farid Niyazov described this as "unrealistic" but added that the mayor is a "problem person" who needs to be removed.

The U.S. base outside Bishkek, operated by the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing, plays a central role in Obama's Afghan surge. It "is critical to all our mission sets" in Afghanistan and is "the crown jewel of Central Asia," Col. Dwight C. Sones, base commander, said in an interview.

Located at Bishkek's Manas International Airport, the facility is a staging post for U.S. troops entering and exiting Afghanistan. In May, it handled a record 55,000 transiting troops.

The base also acts as a giant gas station, with a fleet of KC-135 aero-tankers that are sent into the sky over Afghanistan. Through in-flight refueling, these tanker planes provide gas for about a third of all U.S. air operations inside Afghanistan.

Set up in December 2001, the base was originally called the Ganci Air Base in honor of Peter J. Ganci, the New York fire chief killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but its name was changed last year to the Manas Transit Center, partly in deference to Moscow's concerns of a U.S. military presence on former Soviet territory.

"It changed its name, but we know what is going on," said Felix Kulov, a Soviet-era security officer and now head of a pro-Russia Kyrgyz party that is expected to do well in the October elections. Kulov, in an interview, said that any decision on whether to end or extend the base's lease must be taken in concert with the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a grouping of seven former Soviet republics that is dominated by Moscow. Russia, which also has a military base near Bishkek, has told Kyrgyzstan that it expects the U.S. Air Force to be out next year.

A U.S. congressional investigation into the fuel deliveries to the Bishkek base has added another layer of cloud over this key logistics hub for the Afghan war. A team of investigators from a national security subcommittee visited Bishkek last month to investigate the dealings of two Gibraltar-registered companies, Red Star Enterprises Ltd. and Mina Corp., which have supplied fuel to the base since 2003.

Nationalist rhetoric has been rising steadily in Kyrgyzstan in the run-up to the October election. This is mostly directed at the country's Uzbek minority but often also has an anti-Western edge. Many Kyrgyz see the West as unduly sympathetic to the plight of Uzbeks. There is also anger at what is widely seen as Washington's past coddling of the ousted authoritarian leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev so as to hang on to its military base here.

The International Crisis Group report warned that the withering of central authority, particularly in the south - where more than 40 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population lives - emboldens organized crime, particularly trafficking in drugs from Afghanistan, and may increase the appeal of militant Islam to minority Uzbeks, who suffered most during the June violence. Many Uzbeks are terrified by the unchecked power of hard-line Kyrgyz nationalists such as Myrzakmatov, the Osh mayor.

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