U.S. Military's Plan of 'Lily Pad' Deployment Taking Shape in Kyrgyzstan
AIR FIELD, Kyrgyzstan - U.S. Air Force Captain Dale Linafelter was dumbfounded when he first found out he was being deployed to the Manas
air base in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. "I'd never even heard of Kyrgyzstan," said Captain Linafelter, the flight safety investigator at the base, which hosts the largest number of American forces in Central Asia outside Afghanistan.
He wasn't alone. Very few of the more than 1,150 American servicemen at Manas
, a dusty, long-abandoned Soviet bomber base, could have found Kyrgyzstan on a map before they arrived here, said the base chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel Stan Giles.
"Some of them still don't know where they are," Colonel Giles joked. "You know, there's an old saying: War is God's way of teaching geography to Americans."
Yet it is in places like Kyrgyzstan - a mountainous Muslim country bordering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China - that the future of the American military is taking shape.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks and combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon is planning the greatest shake-up in America's overseas military deployment since the end of World War II. While the full details of the plan will be disclosed only later this year, one thing is already clear: the days of the massive "small-town USA" bases in places like Germany, Japan, and South Korea are over. Replacing them will be a global network of what Pentagon planners have dubbed "lily
" - small forward bases in more remote and dangerous corners of the world that can act as jumping-off points when crises arise.
"This marks a new epoch in American force posturing," said the director of a Washington clearinghouse for strategic intelligence, globalsecurity.org, John Pike. "It's one of only a half dozen similar reposturings since the American Revolution. It's a very significant change."
The deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, Andy Hoehn, said in Washington that defense officials will be presenting their redeployment pro posals to President Bush within weeks. Mr. Hoehn said he expects the changes to start taking effect in late 2005 or early 2006.
The strategy, experts say, is to position American forces throughout a so-called arc of instability that runs through the Caribbean, Africa, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia. It is in these parts of the world - generally poor, insular, and unstable - that military planners now see threats to American interests.
The Pentagon believes that spreading American forces through a large number of small, flexible bases within this arc would better position the military to strike faster at remote hotspots. The American military presence in these areas could also act as a stabilizing factor, preventing them from becoming hotspots in the first place.
"We don't know exactly where the next threat will be. It could be Iran, North Korea, China, or other parts of the world. This redeployment is designed to allow us to quickly respond to any of those challenges," Mr. Pike said.
The American military presence in Kyrgyzstan provides a glimpse of what's to come.
Unlike the big garrison bases that have traditionally housed more than 80% of American forces overseas, the Manas
air base is small, simple, and largely isolated from the surrounding community. There are no families, schools, fast-food chains, or department stores. Contact with local villagers and access to the nearby capital, Bishkek, is strictly limited. Postings here rarely last longer than three or four months and accommodations consist of eight-man tents.
Initially set up as a temporary staging ground for incursions into neighboring Afghanistan, today the base serves primarily as a strategic airlift hub and launching area for air refueling missions - exactly the kind of "lily
" Pentagon planners are envisaging.
About 10 flights a day depart from Manas
, either C-130 Hercules planes ferrying troops and supplies to bases in Afghanistan or KC-135 Stratotankers refueling American planes over Afghan airspace.
American bases abroad cannot be named after individuals, but unofficially this facility is known as the Peter J. Ganci base, after a New York fire chief killed when the World Trade Center collapsed.
Whether the base is having the kind of stabilizing effect military planners are hoping for still isn't clear.
Kyrygz officials credit the presence of American forces with helping deter attacks from Islamic fundamentalists based in the Ferghana Valley, which straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
One terrorist group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is believed to be responsible for a string of attacks that left 47 people dead in Uzbekistan in April, launched incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000 that the military repelled only after taking heavy casualties.
"There haven't been any incursions since we got here," said the Manas
base's public-affairs officer, Captain Jason Decker. "It's not why we're here, but we're happy to make it a more stable world."
Still, radical Islamic groups have condemned the Kyrgyz government for cooperating with the Americans, and in April four men were jailed for plotting to blow up the base. Captain Decker says two other terrorist attacks on the base were averted in the last year. Earlier this month, the Kyrgyz government also arrested six people, including four government employees, for allegedly spying for Islamic terrorists abroad.
The presence of American forces has also increased tensions between Central Asian countries and former imperial master Russia. Seriously concerned about the presence of American troops in its backyard, Moscow has been pressuring Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan - all of which host American forces - to ask them to leave. Last year, the Kremlin convinced the Kyrgyz government to allow the Russian Air Force to set up its own base less than 70 miles from Manas
. The Kant base marked the first foreign deployment of Russian forces abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is home to Su-27 fighter planes, Su-25 ground-attack aircraft, and Mi-8 helicopters, which conduct training exercises in Kyrgyz airspace. Captain Decker said there have been no contacts between the American and Russian forces.
For ordinary Kyrgyz, the presence of the American base is less of a political issue than an economic one, said a senior Western official who has spent the last seven years living in Bishkek.
In poverty-stricken Kyrgyzstan, the presence of even a relatively small number of American troops can have an enormous impact. The base employs more than 500 locals, paying them up to 10 times the average monthly wage of about $100. The base is pumping about $156,000 a day into the local economy and last year accounted for 5% of Kyrgyzstan's entire gross domestic product.
"The general attitude among people here is that they'll take it for what it's worth," the Western official said. "The advent of the American base has actually helped to create something of a middle class in Bishkek."
And there are no signs that American forces will be abandoning Manas
any time soon. In fact, the Air Force is spending $60 million this year to replace the base tents with more permanent buildings constructed from shipping containers.
"This is not any kind of indication of moving to a permanent base," Captain Decker insisted. "On the other hand, we're not leaving tomorrow. Our mission is going on until the global war on terrorism is done, until the Kyrgyz government doesn't want us here or until America decides to send us home."
By Michael Mainville Special to The Sun