By Janyl Chytyrbaeva/Don Hill
Two hundred U.S. troops have already deployed in Kyrgyzstan -- with 3,800 or more to follow -- as part of what the U.S. military describes as a mission of delivering humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The American government has praised Kyrgyz cooperation and the Kyrgyz government has issued warm statements of welcome. But there are undercurrents of concern among the Kyrgyz people about what the impact of the foreign troops will be.
Prague, 27 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this month, five U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft roared into Manas international airport in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. They discharged more than 100 U.S. airmen and -women and tons of snow-clearing equipment and materials for setting up a U.S. airbase.
In the remote Central Asian republic -- dwarfed by its neighbors Kazakhstan to the north and China to the east -- officials welcomed as a shining opportunity the arrival of the vanguard of what is expected to be a 4,000-person force.
U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Christopher Kelly said that Manas airport, some 1,000 kilometers north of Kabul, will be a transit point for millions of dollars' worth of aid for the Afghans. France, Australia, Italy, Canada, and South Korea have reportedly also requested use of Manas for aid shipments to Afghanistan.
The increase in air traffic means big money for Kyrgyzstan. The American air freighters buzzing in and out of Manas will pay $7,000 for each takeoff and landing. That is a considerable windfall in a country whose per capita annual gross domestic product is about a third of that. Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev says the U.S. presence will be like a gold mine for Kyrgyzstan.
"They [the American military] will, for example, pay for using the airport. They will pay for the departure and arrival of planes and other services. It is not for free; it is all money. Secondly, be it 2,000 or 3,000 soldiers, they will be living in our hotels, using our products. This will be an additional source of income."
U.S. officials issued their request to Kyrgyzstan early this month for permission to establish bases there. President Askar Akaev presented the proposal to parliament, and within a week the permission was granted. The only dissent in the lower house of parliament came from Communist Iskhak Masaliev, who protested that Kyrgyzstan was turning its best airport into a U.S. military post.
President Akaev countered that the agreement to welcome the U.S. military actually was "a wonderful chance" to modernize the airport.
The chairman of the Kyrgyz parliament's committee on security, General Ismail Isakov, says he sees other potential benefits.
"If there are more flights with the coming of foreign troops, our specialists in the airport would improve their professional skills. Kyrgyz soldiers and the population in general also will benefit. This military force comes from stronger democracies, and we hope that we will see reduced unlawfulness, and that our government officials will restrain themselves from irregularities."
But RFE/RL correspondents in Kyrgyzstan, conducting interviews with local residents, report an undercurrent of doubt that the sudden descent of thousands of U.S. military personnel will be entirely a blessing. A Kyrgyz Technical University student expressed these reservations: "In my opinion, the deployment will not bring much benefit to Kyrgyzstan, because American soldiers may exploit little Kyrgyzstan as a mere base. One hopes there will be no other bad things happening."
A secondary school teacher expressed anxiety about a boom not only in commerce but also in prostitution: "I'm against it because our girls will be having relationships with American soldiers. It is well-known how they [the U.S. military] behave in the other parts of the world. In Okinawa, [Japan,] there are conflicts all the time with the local population. We are an independent, sovereign state, but a big power will definitely try to oppress us."
These anxieties have a basis in past experience. After an incursion of Tajik guerrillas last year and in 1999, the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry stationed about 10,000 Kyrgyz soldiers near the small southern Kyrgyz town of Batken in the south of the country. The town soon was plagued by prostitution and public drunkenness.
Isakov of the parliamentary defense committee says he worries also that radical Islamic elements might seek to provoke confrontations with the U.S. military. But Abdulla Asrankulov, deputy to the Grand Mufti of Kyrgyzstan, says he believes that concern is unfounded.
"In our country there are no people who openly support other countries or the Taliban. Muslims in Kyrgyzstan mind their own faith and busy themselves only with issues within Kyrgyzstan."
U.S. General Kelly said last week that the humanitarian mission in Afghanistan will be an extended one, suggesting that the U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan likewise will be long-term. "The war on international terrorism is a marathon and not a sprint."
One official concern of the Kyrgyz hosts is the security agreement negotiated between U.S. defense officials and Kyrgyz authorities prior to the deployment of the U.S. troops. Some critics have said the agreement was hastily drafted and that the Kyrgyz legislature failed to adequately analyze it. The agreement contains a provision -- often a source of contention where U.S. forces are stationed overseas -- providing that any criminal offenses committed by U.S. troops will be prosecuted and tried only by U.S. authorities.
(RFE/RL correspondents Bubukan Dosalieva and Aidanbek Akmatov in Kyrgyzstan contributed to this report.)