In central Asia, US bid to be a 'friendly' base

The US reaches out to gain popular support in Kyrgyzstan, where it hopes to retain use of a key airbase.

Jumagul Cyradinova has worked at the Infant Home orphanage in Bishkek for 24 years, but the facility, she says, has never looked so good. In the kitchen, there is a new sink. The bathroom has a big, shiny tub. In every room, fluorescent ceiling lights glow off the freshly painted walls.

The improvements, Ms. Cyradinova says, have been steady since December 2001. That's when the Pentagon established the Manas Coalition Airbase at Manas International Airport to support combat operations in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. "The Americans donated all the money [for the renovations]," says Cyradinova, the assistant director of Infant Home. "And then they came here and built this," she adds, pointing to a massive new oven.

Infant Home is just one of many places in Bishkek where the Manas Airbase Outreach Society (MABOS), the volunteer community service arm of the base, is active. On weekends, MABOS works with the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, as well as the Babushka Foundation, an NGO that "adopts" Kyrgyz pensioners.

MABOS's efforts represent part of Washington's campaign to keep the Kyrgyz government, and the people, on its side. The airbase is set to become the only American military base in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia at year's end, following a diplomatic scuffle with Uzbekistan that resulted in Tashkent evicting the US from Karshi-Khanabad Airbase.

Over the past four months, two high-level delegations - led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in July and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this month - to this mountainous country of 5 million people, show its increasing importance to US strategy in "the war on terror." The airbase hosts more than a dozen aircraft responsible for logistical support - fuel, cargo, and people - in Afghanistan.

Both Mr. Rumsfeld's and Ms. Rice's visits followed a provocative statement issued on July 5 by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security and economic bloc made up of Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.

The statement called on the "appropriate participants in the antiterrorist coalition to decide on the final timeframes for the temporary use ... and the maintenance of military contingents on the territory of SCO member states." American military installations in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were clearly the target, though Russia keeps military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. After a meeting in Moscow last week, the SCO sought to clarify that the request for timeframes for withdrawal from the bases was not an ultimatum.

By the end of July Uzbekistan announced that Washington would have 180 days to clear its personnel, aircraft, and equipment off Uzbek territory. Tensions had risen between Washington and Tashkent over the US push for an international investigation into the bloody crackdown by Uzbek authorities on demonstrators in Andijan in May.

Amid high-level diplomatic efforts to stay close with Kyrgyzstan, MABOS's community projects emphasize "street-level" diplomacy - often a tough job.

"Seven decades of Soviet propaganda," says Edil Baisalov, president of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, "have left many Kyrgyz skeptical of America's every move." The Russian press, which is the most widely read in Kyrgyzstan, is unsympathetic to America. "This society has been indoctrinated to be suspicious of Americans," he says.

The youth, however, tend to be less skeptical of the US than older generations. "Most people I know are proud that we have an American base in the capital," says Rostam, a university student.

While the "Tulip Revolution" here in March suggests a population deeply concerned with politics, many people don't think the base affects their lives significantly - unlike many residents in South Korea, Japan, and the Middle East, where the issue of US military bases is a major topic of debate.

But Mr. Baisalov warns against relying too much on public opinion here. While the Tulip Revolution has heightened the perception that "people power" matters in Kyrgyzstan, "Public opinion is not the decisive force on the future of the base," he says. "Russia and Uzbekistan are."

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