It is now less than 100 days until the United States' presence at the Manas Airport in Bishkek comes to an end. After more than 12 years, the departure of U.S. troops is a symbolic moment in the larger drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan and, according to some, a reduced U.S. interest in Central Asia.
In recognition, I want to take a look at what has changed in Kyrgyzstan in the time that U.S. troops have been stationed at Manas and what the people of Kyrgyzstan have learned -- or at least believe -- about the United States, having hosted those foreign servicemen and -women.
The first U.S. troops arrived at Manas International Airport in December 2001 and the American flag has been flying discreetly there ever since. Tens of thousands of service personnel from more than a dozen countries have since gone through Manas on their way to and from Afghanistan.
Some warplanes have landed there, such as the French Mirage 2000D fighters in February 2002. But the planes coming and going from Manas have primarily been military cargo and transport planes, as a result of the agreement with the Kyrgyz government that only nonlethal cargo would transit the base.
When the first troops arrived, Askar Akaev was Kyrgyzstan’s president. He was ousted during widespread protests in March 2005 and his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was chased from power during unrest in April 2010. Roza Otunbaeva became interim president and just weeks later there were interethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead, thousands injured, and briefly displaced many thousands of people.
These turbulent events received added attention in the United States in no small part due to the presence of a U.S. base there. And while those events might have cast Kyrgyzstan in an unflattering light, a little more than a year after the ethnic violence Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian country to see a peaceful transfer of power when Almazbek Atambaev was elected president.
U.S. troops at the Manas base continued to perform their duties through all of these changes.
There were several reported plots to sabotage the Manas base, but Kyrgyz authorities claimed they foiled all these in the planning stages.
There were some unfortunate incidents also. Plane fuel was dumped over civilian areas on at least two occasions drawing the ire of locals. A U.S. KC-135 tanker plane crashed in northern Kyrgyzstan in May 2013.
A U.S. soldier killed a civilian employee at Manas in December 2006. Prior to that a U.S. servicewoman briefly went missing, and some U.S. servicemen had run-ins with locals in Bishkek.
Protests followed many of these incidents. There were also times when various political groups rallied against the U.S. presence at Manas.
Surprisingly, the presence of U.S. troops in Kyrgyzstan has left a very light footprint in the country. Operations have been confined to Manas. U.S. troops have not used any other bases in Kyrgyzstan despite rumors from time to time of a “southern” base being planned.
Certainly, many citizens of Kyrgyzstan can now claim to have seen Americans, either service personnel or those U.S. citizens who have followed the troops there for various reasons. The mountains of Kyrgyzstan beckon to all and my countrymen and countrywomen have followed the call into the Tien-Shan and Pamir.
Since I traveled all over Kyrgyzstan during the 1990s, I can appreciate this difference. Twenty years ago, I was almost always the first American anyone in Kyrgyzstan had seen. It is nothing like that today.
However, preconceived notions live on, and my travels in Kyrgyzstan between 2006 and 2010 showed me that some ideas have not changed, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan.
I was in southern Kyrgyzstan in April 2010, looking for ousted President Bakiev, who had fled to his native area of Teyit just outside Jalal-Abad.
He was due to speak on the central square in Jalal-Abad, right by the administration building. I was there waiting and people came up to me and asked, was I American? Several times the next question was "Is it true U.S. Special Forces are coming to capture Bakiev and take him to Bishkek?"
Even when I told them that was not going to happen, no one believed me entirely. I could tell by the way they looked at me, they simply believed I was protecting my own people.
Better was the young Uzbek man who approached me at dinner, the night before Bakiev left Kyrgyzstan for good.
“How long will U.S. troops stay in Kyrgyzstan?” he asked me.
“When we’re done in Afghanistan, we’ll leave Kyrgyzstan,” I said.
“No,” the Uzbek man replied. “U.S. soldiers never leave any place once they set up a base, not unless they are kicked out,” he clarified.
I mentioned the Philippines, Panama, told him about scaling back troop levels in Europe and South Korea -- but he wasn’t buying any of it.
I’d had similar conversations before. The most memorable was with a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, also in southern Kyrgyzstan, in 2006.
I had arranged an interview. I wanted to know about the Hizb ut-Tahrir plan for Central Asia. He was very polite, though many of his answers seemed like verses he had memorized (I had no idea they identified so closely with the story of Moses and the Pharaoh).
I finished my questions. Is that it? he asked. I said "yes," and he immediately said he had questions for me.
And he did.
Wasn’t it true that Kyrgyzstan is just a stepping-stone for U.S. conquest in Central Asia? How many more U.S. troops would be coming to Kyrgyzstan? Wasn’t it true that the United States wished to subjugate Muslims? And on, and on.
So once the U.S. troops pack up the last of their prefabricated buildings and the last military cargo planes take off from Manas, the majority of people in Kyrgyzstan will remain with essentially the same ideas about who Americans are and what they want.
A scrap from my memory book.
The first time I landed at Manas was early August 1992, when it was still the Bishkek International Airport. I arrived from Tashkent. What I remember most was the line of biplanes along the airport fence to the left of the terminal as you disembarked from the plane. All through the 1990s, they were there when I arrived at the airport.
Those vintage aircraft were the source of more than one joke about Kyrgyzstan’s air force.
But I always thought about the people who were lucky enough to fly them. It must have been magnificent to fly slowly into the mountains in one of those on a summer day, a temporary escape from the Soviet Union for those few moments when all one could see was the mountains all around.
The first time I flew into Manas after U.S. troops arrived, all the biplanes were gone.
-- Bruce Pannier