Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a plea last week to visiting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the US military make itself at home with a long-term presence in his country.
The often poker-faced Mr. Rumsfeld was noncommittal, as well he should be.
It is one thing for the United States to liberate Afghanistan of Taliban rule and Al Qaeda terrorist camps, as it did in 2001 after Sept. 11. And the 17,000 US forces still in that Central Asian nation are helping it fight jihadist remnants, rebuild the country, and curb the opium trade.
But the US should resist the temptation to leave a big American footprint in Afghanistan or, for that matter, any of the five other "stans" - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan - in the center of Eurasia.
Large US military bases in this vast land mass of rich hydrocarbons and Muslims that lies near Russia, China, India, and the Middle East would only create more targets for further attacks on Americans by the very extremist Islamists the US seeks to suppress.
A century ago, a British geographer and founder of modern geopolitics, Sir Halford Mackinder, stated in a historic speech that "the Eurasian heartland" that's now called Central Asia and the Caucasus is the "geographical pivot of history." Whoever controls this region, he said, "commands the World." Many in Washington and other capitals often cite his words in their global strategic think.
For much of the 20th century, the Soviet Union controlled most of these nations. Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, each "stan" has tried to chart an independent course, wary of being a pawn in a renewed great game of big-power rivalry along this silk road of petroleum riches. But Russia, China, Turkey, Japan, and the US have all vied for influence, mainly through economic competition.
US footprint so far
Last month, the US had a role in the largely peaceful uprising in Kyrgyzstan fomented in part by US aid to pro-democracy civic groups. It keeps a small military presence in Kyrgyzstan with nearly 1,000 troops supporting military aircraft operations in Afghanistan. In addition, the US has access to a military airfield in Uzbekistan and, last week, made an agreement with the nearby Caucasus state of Azerbaijan to have mobile American forces "temporarily deployed" in that country.
For the US, these nations with their large Muslim populations are a front line in the strategy to prevent terrorists from finding a new home base, as Al Qaeda did in Afghanistan. The US commander overseeing the area, Gen. John Abizaid, told Congress in March that each country runs the risk of becoming both a failed state and a safe haven for terrorists. He said Al Qaeda and other extremist groups are active in the region.
But General Abizaid said the Pentagon's current "strategic basing" plan is to have only a few, small permanent bases and to rely mainly on local forces and US units that rotate in and out. The US, he said, must "effectively synchronize all elements of US national power to assist moderate Muslims in their fight against extremists."
This mix of light "hard" power and stronger "soft" power such as commerce, aid, and civic support is the best way to uplift the region while not turning the US into an imperial meddler. It's not an easy task. Central Asia is rife with poverty and corruption, and easily prone to tyranny.
As for US bases in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld did respond, "We think more in terms of what we're doing rather than the question of military bases and that type of thing."
The temptation for the US, however, may be to create a robust military presence in Central Asia to counter Iran, which is developing the capacity for making nuclear weapons. Abizaid says Iran is building a military force "capable of regional power projection." It already has the largest military force in the area, and a record of aggressive military acts.
A small US military role in the region is possible with today's high-tech American forces that are faster and more flexible than in the past. Protecting both the region's oil resources and its Muslims from extremists doesn't need many boots on the ground. Rather, the US must be present but not very visible.