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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kyrgyzstan’s uncertain future looms over fate of U.S. air base

MANAS TRANSIT CENTER, Kyrgyzstan – Taking advantage of an invitation to tour this small U.S. air base as a friend of a civilian Kyrgyz national who works here, tobacco producer Ulvgbek Abazgano took a moment to reflect as he struggled to describe what he was feeling.

The roads are paved and smooth. The buildings, primarily reinforced tents and other temporary quarters common among U.S. expeditionary bases, all have hot and cold running water, flush toilets, heat and air conditioning. Food is plentiful.

“It’s like a small America here,” said Abazgano, who speaks some English but relied on an interpreter to help him find the right words.

The strategically located Manas, where hundreds of airmen from Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane are regularly deployed, is a key supply and refueling hub for U.S. and coalition combat operations in nearby Afghanistan.

But after nine years in the former Soviet republic, and at least one scuttled eviction notice, the base’s future remains unclear.

Political turmoil, pitting pro-democracy reformers against pro-Moscow hardliners for control of the impoverished nation, has turned the base into a wedge issue.

U.S. military commanders insist their sole focus is the mission at hand, which is quickly getting troops, cargo and fuel into Afghanistan. They’re content to let the State Department and others tend to the internal politics of Kyrgyzstan, the only nation in the world to host both U.S. and Russian military bases.

Whether they like it or not, though, the roughly 1,000 military men and women deployed at Manas also serve as de facto diplomats, particularly with the Air Force embarking on expansion plans that put greater emphasis on large-scale permanent improvements.

Now under way, for example, is a $31 million tarmac expansion that will enable all military aircraft to be moved into secure locations away from the nearby commercial terminal at Manas International Airport. The base uses the commercial airport’s runway.

Col. Dwight Sones, commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing at Manas, defends the project and its cost while acknowledging he’s uncertain how long the base will be here.

Its one-year, $60 million lease for the land the base is built on expires next year, meaning the base’s future is in the hands of a new government being assembled from among the five political parties that won seats in Kyrgyzstan’s newly empowered parliament earlier this month.

“You can’t keep holding off on projects that need to be done,” said Sones, who took over as base commander in June and has launched ambitious efforts to engage and support the Kyrgyz population, with a greater emphasis on humanitarian assistance.

“Many times, people will ask, ‘Will the base be here next year?’ ” he said. “People have been asking that every year, and we’ve been here nine years now.”

Sones said he believes Kyrgyzstan is important to America, both for its proximity to the war effort in Afghanistan and as an emerging democracy in a part of the world ruled for decades under authoritarian control.

“Kyrgyzstan is the crown jewel of Asia,” Sones said last week during an interview with Spokane-area journalists in his briefing room at Manas headquarters.

Charismatic and confident, Sones has no trouble working a crowd even when he needs a translator to convey his message.

Earlier this month, he welcomed an estimated 2,000 Kyrgyz nationals, primarily friends and family of civilian employees from the Bishkek area who work on the base, drawing several rounds of cheers and applause.

He posed for pictures. Taught youngsters how to fist-bump. And rarely missed an opportunity to extol the benefits of U.S. and Kyrgyz partnerships: “With positive relationships, you get so much more done,” Sones told a handful of Kyrgyz journalists from Bishkek in an impromptu news conference near a barbecue pit where long lines of base visitors were waiting for American-style beef ribs.

Outside observers applaud the aggressive outreach efforts but said U.S. officials may have waited too long.

“One of the reasons that base is on tenuous grounds is because there’s been a failure by the U.S. to communicate the benefits to the residents of Kyrgyzstan,” said Sam Patten, senior Eurasia program manager for the Washington-based Freedom House, a nonpartisan watchdog group that promotes democratic values. “The United States offers them a better option than some of these other countries looking to influence them.”

Namely, China and Russia.

Kyrgyzstan, a nation of 5.5 million people, is at a crossroads.

Much of the civil infrastructure, from roads to schools to utilities, was built by the Russians when it was part of the USSR, and has gone largely neglected for nearly 20 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A revolution in 2005 swept into power a new coalition, which was ousted following violent street protests this past April. An interim government is in place until representatives of the five political parties that won seats in parliament can form a coalition government.

“My sense is the people of that country want results,” said Patten, who spent three weeks in Kyrgyzstan this fall. “They’re tired of elections, and talk of change. They want electricity and heat as winter comes.”

Fairchild airmen have taken on key roles in the community outreach efforts, volunteering to deliver humanitarian supplies and help rebuild decaying schools, emergency shelters and other community fixtures. The base’s doctors have organized educational seminars and training for Kyrgyz physicians.

“We actually make a lot of friends out here,” said Airman 1st Class Wesley Nesbitt, who helps oversee Kyrgyz contractors hired at the base and is among those volunteering to deliver humanitarian aid, sometimes digging into his own pocket to pay for needed supplies. “It’s really nice to get to know people and help where we can.”

Nesbitt is helping design many of the base improvements that military commanders are considering.

Base offices are located mostly in portables, including converted cargo containers for easy placement and removal. Many others are still in reinforced tents symbolic of short-term, expeditionary bases.

“Our hope, of course, is to make these facilities more permanent and be good partners with the Kyrgyz people,” Nesbitt said. “But they just had elections here, and that could factor in.”

Sultan Aiylchiev, 23, a recent college graduate and financial services consultant in Bishkek, acknowledged that Kyrgyz feelings about the U.S. base vary.

“It’s really complicated,” Aiylchiev said, using an interpreter to help him with his English. “For one side, it’s all political. But unemployment in our country is high, and there’s also the economic side of it.

“What the base shows is there’s another way of life.”