The head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, has met with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev in Bishkek to discuss bilateral cooperation and the situation in Afghanistan.
The visit comes a day after U.S. diplomats confirmed Washington will provide $5.5 million to the Kyrgyz government toward the construction of a counterterrorism training center in southern Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, in a "talking points" memo issued on March 9, said construction of the center will begin next year, and that it will belong to Kyrgyzstan.
The memo also stated that "the U.S. does not have and is not seeking to obtain a base in southern Kyrgyzstan." Nevertheless, Petraeus's visit today came amid speculation that the planned training center could irritate Russia, which has plans for a military base in that area, as well as regional actors like Iran, which today expressed concerns over the presence of "foreign military bases" in the region.
The meeting was not open to the media and was not followed by a press conference, but a statement on the Kyrgyz president's website said Petraeus thanked Kyrgyzstan for its support of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
U.S. military cargo continues to move through the Manas "transit center."
Bakiev said that "all the main challenges and security threats to Central Asia" come from Afghanistan, adding, "Therefore, Kyrgyzstan is interested in providing security and stability in this country, and it will continue to offer its endeavor for rebuilding Afghanistan -- along with the international community."Bishkek's Role In Afghan Mission
Kyrgyzstan hosts a U.S. transit center in Manas airport outside Bishkek, which plays a key role supplying U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan and has been at the center of international attention for months.
A U.S. air base was located in Manas from December 2001, but during a visit to Moscow in early 2009, Bakiev announced that the base would be closed down within six months. The decision was reportedly due to Bishkek and Washington's failure to agree on a higher rent for the base. But speculation was rife that Moscow, which had expressed concerns over the duration of the U.S. stay at Manas, had won Bakiev over with pledges to provide more than $2 billion in loans, debt forgiveness, and other incentives.
That announcement was followed months later by an announcement by the Russian-dominated Collective Security and Cooperation Organization that it planned to set up an counterterrorism facility in the Batken region. Kyrgyzstan is already home to a Russian air base in Kant, some 40 kilometers from Manas.
Just ahead of the six-month deadline for U.S. forces to evacuate Manas, a series of negotiations between Kyrgyz and U.S. officials resulted in a new lease under which the status of the property was changed from "air base" to "transit center." Washington agreed to pay $60 million annual rent for Manas, three times more than previously.
However, the new Manas lease will expire in June 2010, prompting U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke during his recent visit to Bishkek to express Washington's willingness to extend the contract. The issue also was seen as a likely topic of conversation during Petraeus's visit today.New Counterterror Center
On the eve of Petraeus's visit, in announcing the planned funding for the construction of an counterterrorism training center, the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek said it was "part of broader U.S.-Kyrgyz security cooperation that has recently included the construction of the Besh-Kungei Military Hospital and the Special Forces, 'Scorpion' compound in the town of Tokmok."
The March 9 memo also said the United States has also undertaken several humanitarian projects in Kyrgyzstan, including the renovation of a school in Birdik and the planned construction of a women's shelter at a women's business development center.
President Bakiev has frequently expressed concerns over security in recent years. In June 2009, while the Pakistani government was engaged in a major offensive against Taliban insurgents dug in along its northwestern border with Afghanistan, he noted the seriousness of the situation. "If the conflict against the Taliban further deepens in Afghanistan, then toward which direction would they escape?" he asked. "God save us, but they would [move] toward Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan."Why Batken?
Bakiev has also in the past underlined the possible threats of extremist groups infiltrating southern Kyrgyzstan, which was once targeted by Uzbek militants.
Armed fighters from the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) entered Batken in 1999, kidnapping the local mayor and Japanese geologists. The hostages were subsequently freed after a large ransom was reportedly paid and a helicopter was provided to fly the militants to Afghanistan.
Located in the volatile Ferghana Valley, Batken also borders Tajikistan's Tavildara area, a onetime stronghold of Islamic opposition forces with close ties to IMU leaders. The U.S. plans for a counterterrorism training center will apparently bolster Kyrgyzstan's efforts to strengthen security in its southern region, but some observers believe the plan could upset Moscow.
Russia has not officially commented on the announced U.S. plans for a base in Batken. But Aleksandr Knyazev, a political analyst for the CIS Institute in Bishkek who is seen as favoring the Kremlin's point of view, says Bishkek is being "irresponsible," seeing as the Kyrgyz economy depends on Russian investment to a great extent.Throwing Down The Gauntlet
"Such a demonstrative act by the Kyrgyz side to agree -- or to initiate, most likely -- to [build the U.S.-funded counterterrorism center] is like throwing down a challenge to Russia and China," Knyazev says. "From a purely military point of view, any American military base on Kyrgyz territory cannot threaten Russian interests. Russia dominates in this region in any case. It's clear. But [Bishkek's plan] is only an irritation of a political nature for Russia, and a reason to withdraw from investment projects."
One country has officially commented on the presence of Western military facilities in Central Asia this week. Without mentioning any specific location, Iran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on March 8 that "foreign military bases in the region do not contribute to the strengthening of [regional] stability, but originate from interventional and expansionists aims."
Mottaki said regional leaders -- before signing agreements over hosting foreign military bases in their territories – should consider whether these bases wouldn't create threats to neighboring countries.RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report