It’s hard to study the situation in Kyrgyzstan and not come away with the sense that the Pentagon and CENTCOM horribly misplayed the strong hand they had. The result: a supply base that is essential to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) used to fuel U.S. forces in Afghanistan is now in jeopardy. But the major question now is whether the Pentagon has learned anything from the recent developments. An article by two right-leaning analysts with tight defense community connections, Ilan Berman and Jeff Smith, in Defense News provides a good glimpse into the current thinking of what passes for Central Asia expertise at the Pentagon. In their article, the developments in Kyrgyzstan of April 6-7 were a “coup” that “caught almost everyone by surprise.” The “coup” was “likely at Russia’s instigation.”
The term “coup” is usually reserved for relatively quiet maneuvers in which one group of elites, most frequently the military, seize power from another. What happened in Kyrgyzstan was a popular uprising. Following the arrest of key opposition leaders, thousands took to the streets in protests, staring down police and storming government buildings while hundreds fell from gunfire. And while there is no doubt that analysts inside the Pentagon were “caught by surprise,” that’s hardly the case for others who study Kyrgyzstan, like those who testified before Congress last week, who widely expected a repeat of the events of 2005.
In the Defense News article, the entire controversy is understood in geopolitical terms as a power and influence contest between the United States and Russia, and everything revolves around the Manas Transit Center. Notice how perfectly this mirrors the principal complaint the new Kyrgyz leaders make—that the Americans care about nothing except the base. The leaders of the new government are not identified by name, nor is any effort devoted to understanding them or their national agenda. There is no effort to present what made Kurmanbek Bakiyev the focus of so much anger in his country—the nepotism, corruption, assassination of political opponents, undermining of human rights, and election rigging, all against the background of American dictator-coddling of the worst sort. The fuel contracts awarded by a Pentagon shell company to Bakiyev-controlled companies, which engendered enormous anger in the country, breeding charges now formally leveled by the new government that the Pentagon was bribing Bakiyev in an effort to hold on to its base, get no mention.
In sum, this article presents a two-dimensional world with a dangerous information vacuum, which is exactly how the Pentagon backed itself into its current dilemma. It shows very well why the relationship between the United States and the new Kyrgyz government should be managed by professional diplomats with a broader view and a deeper understanding of the region, and it shows us how letting the Pentagon pursue its own foreign policy can be a formula for disaster.