Beddown in Bishkek

July 1, 2002

Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, now improbably boasts an elaborate temporary air base built by US military engineers atop a boneyard for Soviet-era aircraft. It’s not just the base that is new. The country itself didn’t exist until a decade ago.

It’s an unlikely posting in the US war on terrorists. The base lies adjacent to a commercial airport in the shadow of vaulting, snowcapped mountains. Kazakhstan lies 20 miles away in one direction, China about 200 miles away in another. The region was once part of the Soviet Union, the most dangerous adversary ever faced by the United States.

“For half my career, this was the enemy,” mused Lt. Col. Kevin Rumsey, who commanded the Air Force civil engineering squadron that constructed the base earlier this year.

The first planeload of Air Force personnel arrived at Bishkek last December, not long after the rout of Taliban forces in neighboring Afghanistan. Members of the 86th Expeditionary Contingency Response Group, primarily from Ramstein AB, Germany, worked together at the Manas airport to build a tent city and set up an airfield for coalition forces supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

Work soon began, and it now has become one of the more prominent of the dozen or so expeditionary airfield sites that the Pentagon has established in nine Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries in the Afghan neighborhood.

Defense officials have not publicly acknowledged the existence of bases in Muslim nations where a US military presence would set off a local political storm. Kyrgyzstan, however, has welcomed the economic and diplomatic advantages of an association with the United States. All signs are that US forces will settle in for a long stay.

Two Selling Points

The base at Manas holds two main attractions for the anti-terror coalition. It is relatively close to the war in Afghanistan, and it has an unusually long–13,800 feet–runway built to accommodate Soviet heavy bombers. The base carries the name of Ganci Air Base in honor of Peter J. Ganci Jr., the New York City fire chief who perished in the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11.

Bishkek lies more than 1,000 miles from Kandahar, Afghanistan, a three-hour flight for transport aircraft. If the United States engages Iraq in the continuing war on terror, as the Bush Administration appeared poised to do, the base could play a supporting role there, too.

Manas has some limitations. Commercial aircraft use the site, and customs agents in Soviet-style olive uniforms engage in lengthy scrutiny of each visitor’s identification papers. There is only enough ramp space to park four C-17 or C-5 transports, so crews are discouraged from staying overnight. As with some other allies in the anti-terrorism coalition, Kyrgyzstan has internal political problems. Human rights are sometimes regarded as optional; American diplomats are pleading with their Kyrgyz hosts to free a jailed opposition member of parliament.

Nevertheless, the Bush Administration negotiated a one-year status of forces agreement, establishing the Bishkek facility as a key coalition base for attack operations, refueling, and search-and-rescue work. The arrangement could continue after this year unless one of the two signatory nations pulls out.

Military aircraft continue to arrive, with some due in late this year. That suggests a lingering American presence amid a war on terrorism that defense officials estimate could last more than five years.

“After what we’ve done here, we’re not going to want to tear it down after a year and bulldoze it,” said Col. Billy Montgomery, who commanded the 86th ECRG. “I think we’ll stay here as long as the relationship is good.”

Some analysts say the United States is unlikely to station forces permanently at Manas but would establish a presence there that could be reactivated periodically for training and operations. The American military can be expected to leave behind a great deal of equipment useful in later operations.

The base exemplifies the cooperation between coalition nations. At last count, US forces had been joined by elements from seven other countries. Six French Mirage 2000s were the first coalition fighters assigned to the base. French pilots flew from Kyrgyzstan to bomb suspected al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan’s mountainous Shahi Kot Valley. Next to the Mirages stood six US Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet fighters. Also at the base were Australian KB-707 and French C-135FR tankers and C-130 cargo aircraft from Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, and Spain.

These countries and South Korea provided support personnel as well. In late May, coalition forces at Manas numbered some 2,000–about half were US troops. Italy plans to deploy aircraft and personnel there later this year.

Manas has also been crowded with C-5, C-17, and C-141 cargo aircraft, Turkish refueling tankers, commercial 747 liners, and Russian-built Antonov 225s. The facility is a regular stop for airplanes coming to and from Kandahar, Bagram, and Mazar-e Sharif–all Afghan cities.

Kyrgyzstan and the United States cooperated for at least two years before Sept. 11, with US Army Special Forces soldiers training local soldiers. That cooperation has been enhanced with new training of border guards, carried out through the State Department. The relationship between the two governments remains cordial, despite misgivings about the American presence among Kyrgyzstan’s Chinese and Russian neighbors.

The Money Pit

The US military is expected to pump more than $40 million annually into the weak local economy. That doesn’t include money brought in during troop visits to Bishkek, where $30 buys dinner and caviar for four at one of the capital’s classiest bistros. Most of the money comes through purchases of local aircraft fuel, but an unusual arrangement also calls for the US-led coalition to pay landing fees of $5,000 to $10,000 per transport.

Kyrgyzstan has moved more enthusiastically than other ex-Soviet states toward free-market economics. It appears to have stabilized. Inflation went from 88 percent in 1994 to 15 percent in 1997. Nevertheless, about half of its 4.7 million citizens live below the poverty line.

When Brig. Gen. Christopher A. Kelly, the first 376th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, and a vanguard of 26 Air Force personnel arrived the day after Christmas, every major city in Afghanistan had already fallen to anti-Taliban forces, leaving US and coalition forces searching for them in the caves and bunkers that line the mountainous border with Pakistan.

At Manas there was no cargo yard, no US or allied aircraft, and none of the hundreds of temporary structures that today make up the coalition’s tent city. It took 100 dump truck loads each day for a month to unload $300,000 worth of gravel needed to construct a 420,000-square-foot compacted gravel aircraft maintenance area.

Airmen on the base said they never expected to be there. Senior personnel marveled at the prospect of operating out of a former Soviet republic. Shortly after arriving at the base, Kelly met several times a week with his Kyrgyz liaison, Gen. Boris Polluto, who served as a Soviet soldier during the Cold War. Back then he was poised to do battle with the man who now calls him a good friend.

“I grew up in an age where this was indeed the big bear,” said Kelly. “And to have imagined even 10 years ago that I would be in a former Soviet republic starting up an airbase and doing military operations was just inconceivable.”

Some airmen were less than enthusiastic. “My recruiter left this part off the video,” said A1C Ben Frankenberry, a 19-year-old from Seattle, diverted to Manas from an expected posting in palm-lined Guam.

No one at the base had ever been to Kyrgyzstan, said Lt. Col. Bertrand Bon, a French military spokesman.

Their First Time

“For almost all the military people, it’s the first time they’ve come to Kyrgyzstan,” Bon said. “Of course, for us, the people didn’t have much info about Kyrgyzstan before coming here so they were quite surprised by the welcome of the local population.”

Compared with the spartan base in Kandahar, established by the Marines and operated by the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, the tent city next to Manas is palatial. Inside one of the two cement-floored tents on base is a cafeteria. Troops in Afghanistan still dine on boxed meals, ready to eat.

French troops erected a second cafeteria to accommodate their tastes. There is a hospital, recreation center, and gym. The difference in comfort doesn’t stem totally from Kyrgyzstan’s distance from the war zone. The same airplanes that deliver to Kandahar also deliver the equipment to Manas. While Army troops pride themselves on their ability to withstand austere conditions, one Air Force official quipped, “We can too–but we realize we don’t have to.”

Pallets of rations are ferried in on 10,000-pound forklifts. There is a post office and laundry. Local shopkeepers are setting up booths. Unlike Kandahar or Bagram, where jacket-clad 101st Airborne soldiers crowd the portable heaters at night in the handful of tents that have them, every tent at Manas has a vented heating system that evenly distributes warmth. Comparing the American base with the permanent facilities in which all Kyrgyz men are required to serve for two years of mandatory service, a headline in a local Kyrgyz paper dubbed the Americans “The Ideal Military.”

Lt. Col. Rich Houston, who headed the 376th AEW’s services squadron, managed to find a local restaurant to deliver 300 pizzas in the middle of the night for a Superbowl party. The frills have little to do with recruiting, Houston said.

“Really, it’s mission capability,” Houston said. “If you’re here for 120 days and you’re cold and haven’t done your laundry in 120 days, you’re not going to be as effective.”

Not all of the base’s conditions are equally praised. Kelly’s first order–Command Rule No. 1–barred the airmen from drinking alcohol in a city where Soviet-era drinking customs have resulted in numerous roadside liquor stands and downtown taverns. Since mid-February soldiers have been allowed to doff their battle dress uniforms and enter a very limited area of downtown Bishkek for up to 12 hours a day, escorted in groups by a superior officer.

“I need these young men and women to stay extremely focused on what they’re doing,” Kelly said. Besides, “we talk to the young folks … about being good ambassadors. We’re in somebody else’s house.”

Opposition Forces

That house is not entirely hospitable. The presence of the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, whose goal is to carve out a Muslim republic in the Fergana Valley (with parts in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), largely explains the presence at Manas of a group of well-armed Air Force troops that routinely patrol rural hamlets around the base.

“We understand that not everybody likes us here,” said Lt. Col. Donald Derry, the soft-spoken commander of the 376th Security Forces Squadron.

The security forces at Manas want to avert a repeat of the terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex that killed 19 US service members in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Yet their nonthreatening style is more akin to that of British commandos in Northern Ireland and NATO forces in Yugoslavia.

“We’re doing things a little differently, in my opinion, than we’ve done in the past,” said Derry, whose cross-training earned him Army Ranger and paratrooper badges.

To develop intelligence and scour the rural hamlets within about four miles of the US base, airmen from the 820th Security Forces Group, Moody AFB, Ga., performed routine patrols.

As more than a dozen troops in desert camouflage rolled through an agricultural village called Vostuchny that consists of little more than a dirt road lined with ramshackle houses, they encountered watchful scrutiny, handshakes, and children who stretched to touch the airmen’s rifles. Most people were friendly.

“They should have come long ago,” Alec Kurbanov said in Russian through a translator. He served in the Soviet army from 1972 to 1974. “We don’t hold anything against them, as long as they have peace in mind.”

Others were more skeptical. One who identified himself only as Sergei, dressed in a black leather cap, brown leather jacket, and Adidas sweatpants, expressed concern about the Americans.

“You carry guns as you are surrounded by all these kids,” he said. “I believe you could have talked to the villagers without your weapons.”

The troops no doubt realize US forces will be there awhile. The first question Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fielded when he visited troops at the base came from an Air Force staff sergeant who wanted to know how long they’d be staying at Manas. “As long as necessary,” Rumsfeld replied. The crowd cheered loudly.

Military analysts suggest US forces are likely to stay in the country for at least another winter, in which temperatures dipped this year to minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold caused the fuel mixture to gel, shutting down the base’s heating system.

The cold marked a dramatic change of life for airmen such as A1C Jassid Marwan, a 23-year-old firefighter from New Mexico, who said he was still trying to get used to the weather. Across the tent, Frankenberry was on the phone, using one of his two weekly 15-minute telephone calls to pine for the assignment from which he was diverted.

“I’ve got to get to Guam,” he said.

John Hendren is a Washington, D.C.-based defense correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.