Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
MANAS AIR FIELD, Kyrgyzstan -- At this long-abandoned Soviet bomber
base, the future of the U.S. military is taking shape.
Kyrgyzstan allowed the U.S. and its coalition partners to station jets
here in December 2001 to fight the Afghanistan war. Even though it has
been more than two months since the planes dropped a bomb, U.S. forces
aren't preparing to pull out. Last month, the Pentagon leased 750 acres
of land now populated with shoeless shepherds and curious children who
race past on horses without saddles. Kyrgyz officials calculated the
rent based on the amount of wheat the land could produce.
This summer the U.S. will begin installing water and sewer lines on
the property, 300 yards from the rows of tents where U.S. troops now
live. Next year, plans call for erecting mobile homes, temporary offices
and maybe a swimming pool. No one in the Pentagon can say how long the
U.S. will stay at this base. But Col. James Forrest, the base's deputy
commander, acknowledges, "this place is so deep into Central Asia you'd
hate to lose it."
The U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan reflects a major change over the past
18 months in the U.S. vision of who its enemies are and how to confront
them. This shift is pushing U.S. forces into far more remote and dangerous
corners of the world.
At the outset of the Bush administration, Pentagon planners and national-security
thinkers assumed China was the threat the U.S. would worry about for
years to come, and the military was adjusting accordingly. Today that
notion has been replaced by a radically different view. The danger,
it is now assumed, lies in what Pentagon officials call an "arc of instability"
that runs through the Caribbean Rim, Africa, the Caucasus, Central Asia,
the Middle East, South Asia and North Korea. Worries about this arc
of countries, largely cut off from economic globalization, increasingly
are influencing how the military trains, what it buys and where it puts
The new strategy carries risks. The more thinly U.S. forces are spread
around the globe, the less prepared they will be to fight a war against
a major power. U.S. officials are betting they will have time to react
if a major power emerges as a threat.
As the military becomes easier to deploy and closer to dangerous regions
of the world, it's also likely to become far busier. Some military officials
fret about the U.S. becoming embroiled in several simultaneous conflicts.
In many of its fights, the U.S. could be reliant on new friends with
poor human-rights records and far-different values.
Pentagon officials, however, insist the military must wade into this
new world. "The unprecedented destructive power of terrorists -- and
the recognition that you will have to deal with them before they deal
with you -- means that we will have to be out acting in the world in
places that are very unfamiliar to us. We will have to make them familiar,"
says Andy Hoehn, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy.
Military planning for the world as the U.S. now sees it goes on inside
a warren of Pentagon cubicles with views of an alley stacked with trash
and wooden pallets. A team of 10 analysts, led by Mr. Hoehn, has been
toiling since last summer on a new posture for U.S. forces. Their work
has been heavily influenced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
For the first few months, these planners didn't even think about where
they wanted to put troops. "We spent a lot of time initially on what's
changed in the world and what's changing in how we think about warfare,"
Mr. Hoehn says.
Their conclusions, which so far have received little attention, amount
to one of the biggest shifts in U.S. military thinking in the past 50
years. Since World War II, the Pentagon has focused on preparing for
the next big war. First it was the big war against the Soviet hordes.
In the early 1990s, the "big one" gave way to two smaller "big ones"
that could be waged simultaneously in Iraq and North Korea. Then, in
2000, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was pushing the military to
focus more on a confrontation with a resurgent and technologically advanced
Now Mr. Rumsfeld, chastened by the unprecedented power of terrorists
and the threat of weapons of mass destruction falling into the wrong
hands, is preparing U.S. forces for a future that could involve lots
of small, dirty fights in remote and dangerous places. The new strategy
assumes that the U.S. is far more likely to send troops into countries
that are disconnected from the global economy, either because they reject
the whole concept or because they lack the resources to compete, says
Thomas Barnett, a Defense
Department analyst. "Disconnectedness defines danger," he says.
To strike faster at these remote hotspots -- or prevent them from becoming
hotspots -- Mr. Rumsfeld is pushing U.S. forces out of their big garrison
bases in the U.S., Germany and South Korea, three countries that typically
host more than 80% of the 1.4 million U.S. troops. Instead, he envisions
a force that will rotate through a large number of bases scattered throughout
the world in places including Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, Singapore,
the Horn of Africa and Eastern Europe.
In some of these places, the U.S. might post a few dozen troops who
would keep the base in good condition and maintain equipment for use
by troops that occasionally arrive for training. In case of war, these
forward bases could be used as launching pads for strikes elsewhere.
Current bases in Romania, the Philippines or Kyrgyzstan might fall into
Other bases will be far more austere. The U.S. might rotate through
these facilities once every year or two for training or for attacking
terrorists. Such bases might be in places such as Azerbaijan, Mali,
Kenya or the Horn of Africa.
The goal is to cut the time it takes the U.S. to respond with an air,
ground and naval force from months to days or even hours.
Already the new strategy is driving the military to invest in new types
of equipment. In the war with Iraq the U.S. used high-speed, 100-foot
catamaran ships to ferry Army tanks and ammunition from Qatar to Kuwait.
The ships can travel 2,000 miles in less than 48 hours, twice the speed
of the Pentagon's regular cargo ships, and carry enough equipment to
support about 5,000 soldiers. Because they have a shallow draft, the
boats can unload in rudimentary ports, allowing troops to land closer
to the fight.
The Pentagon has only three of these ships, made by Bollinger/Incat
USA LLC, based in Louisiana. But it expects to order as many as a dozen
more starting in the 2005-06 budget, and it is pushing allies to buy
similar vessels. "These ships are really redefining how we look at the
world," says one senior military official working with Mr. Hoehn's team
The most pronounced changes are in the Army. For years the Army's annual
computer-simulated war game has focused on fighting a major war. This
year, however, the forces didn't face any single simulated enemy. Instead,
they juggled military actions in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and
the Caucasus, while monitoring unrest in Latin America and Africa.
In the simulated Southeast Asia conflict, set in 2015, a radical Islamic
separatist group, supported by funds from the Middle East and the drug
trade, seized large parts of a country allied with the U.S. Those parts
of the country became breeding grounds for terrorists. U.S. forces swooped
in quickly. They appeared to drive the enemy from the capital within
days and then mounted attacks on rebel strongholds elsewhere.
As soon as U.S. troops left the capital, however, the rebels there -
many of whom had simply taken off their uniforms and melded into the
city of five million -- re-emerged to storm the parliament, the government
television station and the airport. When U.S. forces counterattacked,
these guerrillas once again slipped into the shadows.
"We were never able to set up the conditions to make these disaffected
people fewer in number. We won and then we found we owned this nightmarish
place," says retired Vice Adm. Lyle Bien, who played commander of U.S.
forces in Asia.
The experience left a few, such as Adm. Bien, believing that the best
course of action would have been not intervening at all. "We're developing
a force that makes it almost too easy to intervene," says Adm. Bien.
"I am concerned about America pounding herself out."
Other participants insisted the military needed to develop a broader
array of policing and nation-building skills to deal with turmoil both
before a conflict begins and after it ends.
In Kyrgyzstan, many problems that commanders wrestled with in the simulated
war game -- troubles with partners' differing values, corruption, Islamic
extremism and poverty -- are playing out in real life.
The country boasts the largest number of U.S. and coalition troops,
about 1,500, of any nation in Central Asia outside Afghanistan. It's
probably the most progressive of the five former Soviet states in Central
Asia. It was the first among them to join the World Trade Organization,
and it has a relatively free press.
U.S. officials note that Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev keeps a bust
of Thomas Jefferson in his office and quotes him frequently when talking
to foreigners. Unfortunately, he is still struggling with some of the
basic tenets of Jeffersonian democracy. In 2001, Mr. Akayev jailed his
chief political rival, Feliks Kulov, for 10 years on corruption charges.
In March 2002, Kyrgyz forces opened fire on demonstrators near Osh,
in southern Kyrgyzstan, killing five. The shootings set off protests
that virtually shut down the capital.
"We are facing some problems with democracy and human rights," says
Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov. "But our country is evolving. Institutions
The U.S. military has tried to wall itself off from its messy surroundings.
At first, American military police ran regular patrols through the nearby
city of Marble, handing out candy to kids in the street. But the patrols
were canceled when the Americans stopped bringing sweets and the children
began throwing stones at them. Today, U.S. troops are allowed off the
base only on infrequent "cultural tours" or for organized community
service, such as a recent effort to refurbish a school near the base.
Still, U.S. commanders can't keep the less attractive aspects of the
outside world from intruding. Drunk townsmen and impoverished children
approach the guards at the base's gate begging for money or food. "They
hide their shoes in the woods," complains Airman First Class Kyle Richards,
who stands guard. U.S. base commanders had to begin dumping their garbage
far from town after local papers printed embarrassing pictures of townspeople
hoisting discarded packages of hot dogs and Aunt Jemima maple syrup
Corruption also is a problem. On any given day someone from the airport
authority might stride up to the U.S. or coalition commanders and demand
more airport fees, says U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tommy Goode, the base's
Kyrgyz opposition leaders complain that fuel for the coalition planes,
which costs more than $25 million a year, is provided by a company owned
by President Akayev's son-in-law. The contract was put out for competitive
bids, say U.S. and Kyrgyz officials. But Lt. Col. Goode concedes that
all of the airport contractors have some connection to senior government
officials or the president. "We have to work within that system," he
For Pentagon officials back in Washington, the critical question is
whether the U.S. military presence here will lead to a more stable and
democratic Central Asia.
It's too early to tell. Like many of its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan worries
about Islamic fundamentalists. In 1999, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,
or IMU, launched an incursion into the country from neighboring Tajikistan.
The Kyrgyz military repelled the attack only after taking heavy casualties.
"If we had this air base in 1999, the IMU would have thought twice before
indulging in our territory," says Mr. Aitmatov, the foreign minister.
More recently, Kyrgyz and U.S. officials have been concerned about Hizb-ut-Tahrir,
an Islamic separatist group, which has taken root in southern Kyrgyzstan.
If the group becomes a threat, the Kyrgyz won't need to rely solely
on the Americans. Last month, the Russians, driven by concerns about
Islamic extremists and the growing influence of the U.S. in the region,
moved into an air base about 15 miles from the U.S. base.
Critics of U.S. policy on Kyrgyzstan worry the military presence makes
it less likely that the Bush administration will lean on the Kyrgyz
government to become more open and democratic. "Recognizing a country
with governance problems as a strategic ally means you'll press less
hard because you need something from them," says Anthony Richter, director
of the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute, an organization
funded by George Soros that promotes democracy.
Kyrgyzstan probably needs some pushing. President Akayev has promised
he will step down in 2005 -- an important milestone in a region where
rulers have refused to cede power. But it isn't clear whether Mr. Akayev
will follow through with that pledge. A recent constitutional referendum
could give him the right to run for another term.
What is clear is that the U.S. military doesn't plan to leave Kyrgyzstan
any time soon. On a warm May afternoon the base held a ceremony to welcome
a new general. Before the ceremony, the old commander, Brig. Gen. Jared
Kennish, spoke of the expanding U.S. presence in the region. "Here I
am in a nation I had never heard of, couldn't pronounce and couldn't
find on a map six months ago, and my remarks are being broadcast on
television throughout the country," the general marveled. Later, he
handed the ceremonial guidon to his successor. Half a dozen Kyrgyz generals,
wearing Soviet Army-style uniforms, saluted.
Write to Greg Jaffe
URL for this article: