No Comment — February 4, 2009, 10:51 am

The Mess at Manas

Just as the Obama Administration prepared to beef up the American presence in Afghanistan as evidence of its commitment to fighting Al Qaeda, bad news arrived from two fronts. Afghan insurgents destroyed a bridge in the Jalalabad region that is a vital link on the land supply route used by the United States and its NATO allies, and at the same time, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced his government’s decision to shut down Ganci (or Manas) Air Force Base, located just outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, which has been one of the principal resupply corridors for U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan.

The New York Times carried a good report on the struggle over the Ganci base this morning. The Times report puts the matter in the context of a broader struggle between the United States and Russia. There is no doubt that Russia is less than enthusiastic over the establishment of a sustained military presence by the United States on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

“The fact that a rather little country has decided to take the payoff is intriguing,” said Paul Quinn-Judge, a Central Asia expert with the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to resolve deadly conflicts. “But what is really striking is that the Russians seem to be at this point tightening the screws and trying to get D.C.’s attention in the nastiest possible way.”

But this is far from the whole story. In fact at the time the Kyrgyz agreed to let the United States open the base, the two nations enjoyed excellent relations and the Kyrgyz public was arguably the warmest and most pro-American of the region. That changed rather dramatically, and the change did not result as much from Russian propaganda as it did from American ineptitude and misconduct. For a decade, American advisors and aid contractors had lectured the Kyrgyz on the need for budgetary transparency and anti-corruption measures. Yet when the United States Government first arrived in country with a serious contract to negotiate—for the creation of the air base—it wound up concluding an under-the-table deal with the president’s family under which most of the financial benefit from the airbase wound up parked in offshore bank accounts. That deal was cut by Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon with Rumsfeld’s direct involvement. Had a private U.S. company cut such a deal it would probably have found its officers on the other end of an indictment under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act brought by a U.S. attorney. However, following an FBI investigation that confirmed these depressing facts, the Bush Administration concluded that in this as in other areas, it would hold itself immune from the criminal law standards it applied to ordinary citizens.

But the longer-term problem was with the Kyrgyz. A prominent Bishkek lawyer discussing the dealings over the base with me pronounced a judgment that I heard consistently: “We finally got an up-close look at your government. You’re a bunch of hypocrites, no less corrupt than our own government–just a lot bigger.”

Off to a bad start, things quickly got even worse. In 2006 U.S. serviceman Zachary Hatfield shot and killed Aleksandr Ivanov, a truck driver employed by the base’s aviation fuel contractor. The incident was catastrophically mishandled by U.S. military and diplomatic personnel. U.S. spokesmen issued a statement claiming that Ivanov had physically threatened Hatfield with a knife, and that Hatfield shot him in self defense. While making vague and unconvincing statements of “regret” about the “incident,” the soldier was whisked away back to the United States. That was flight to avoid prosecution and to block a homicide investigation–such flight, of course, a serious crime unto itself. While offering vague assurances that the soldier would be dealt with under the military justice system (something which, in the eyes of the Kyrgyz, never occurred), American officials did little to atone for the crime. Kyrgyz newspapers made mincemeat of the proffered excuse, reporting that Hatfield’s claims that Ivanov was armed with a knife were untrue and establishing that Ivanov had made numerous prior deliveries to the base, and was known to the soldier. The Kyrgyz media fanned suspicions that the homicide was an unprovoked act, accounts that American officials only fueled by issuing a false report and failing to convincingly show either contrition or an intention to bring the soldier to justice. The U.S. government offered a $2,000 damages payment to Ivanov’s family on account of his death, an act widely viewed in Kyrgyzstan as a calculated insult. Although the U.S. embassy later clarified that this was an interim payment only and that a larger sum would be paid later, the damage was done.

The American management of the incident was totally bungled, leaving the local population with the idea that the Americans on the base were arrogant and not accountable to the law. The public’s view of Americans underwent a radical and sudden transformation. A nation once seen as generous benefactors now were seen as arrogant bullies.

“This base is doomed,” I was told repeatedly. It is only a matter of time before public opinion forces its closing. The question at this point is whether America will learn any lessons from this experience.

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

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