BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Political unrest resurfaced this week in this Central Asian country, raising fresh questions about U.S. foreign policy in the region.
On Thursday and Friday, opponents of the interim rulers stormed regional government headquarters in the southern part of the country. A month ago, violent protests toppled Kyrgyzstan’s government, leaving 84 protesters dead.
If the protests this week spread to Bishkek, the fallout could again raise questions about the future of the U.S.-leased Manas air base, a major logistical hub for the war in Afghanistan.
It is the second time in five years that political instability has put the strategic U.S. military base at risk. While some analysts say that the presence of U.S. forces in the region is key to maintaining some semblance of security, others argue that the U.S. focus on the base has blinded it to serious human rights abuses in the region.
“U.S. policy here is the base,” said Paul Quinn-Judge, the Central Asia Project director for the International Crisis Group, who lives in Bishkek.
The U.S. opened Manas in 2001, choosing Kyrgyzstan for its strategic location near Afghanistan as well as its seemingly stable leadership. Since then, however, two successive governments have been knocked from power in violent revolutions.
In 2005, protesters angered by alleged vote-rigging in parliamentary elections stormed the presidential compound and ousted Askar Akayev, a former Communist who took power after the fall of the Soviet Union. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, threatened to shut down Manas before later relenting, and was ousted in a nearly identical revolution last month.
Also in 2005, security forces in Uzbekistan, a regional U.S. ally, opened fire on protesters, killing thousands of civilians, by some estimates. When American officials pressured Uzbekistan’s authoritarian leader, Islam Karimov, to allow an independent investigation, Karimov abruptly evicted the U.S. from a key base that was being used for the war in Afghanistan.
Cozying up with leaders like Karimov, long accused of egregious human rights violations, has hurt America’s image as a democratic leader, Quinn-Judge said.
“The messages are unambiguously conflicted,” he said. “‘Yes, we believe in democracy and the rule of law, but we’re also going to work with whoever’s in power at the moment.’”
Many on the streets of Bishkek say they see American policy in the region as driven by military interests at the expense of democracy.
The U.S. pays $60 million a year in rent to Kyrgyzstan. The current one-year lease — signed after Kyrgyz officials won a substantial increase from $17 million a year — expires in July. Some say the jobs and money the base brings to the country are too important to give up, but others are angry about U.S. support for Bakiyev and the millions of dollars he is thought to have siphoned for himself and family members from U.S. contracts.
“It’s very sad because the Central Asian people are very welcoming to the Americans and expected the Americans to come in after 9/11 and foster democracy and it just didn’t happen,” said Ahmed Rashid, a Central Asia expert who has written extensively about the region. “These countries in Central Asia had an enormous amount of goodwill toward the Americans, which has largely been wasted in this obsession with using Central Asia purely in the fight for Afghanistan.”
As the West focuses on Afghanistan, Islamic extremism has grown in Central Asia, especially in the volatile Fergana Valley, a region that spans parts of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and is stronghold for the al-Qaida-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. While the IMU is thought to have been weakened by heavy losses while fighting U.S. forces alongside the Taliban, precious little is known about the organization and other radical groups in the region.
With widespread poverty in Central Asia and growing discontent with regimes seen as deeply corrupt, extremist groups could take advantage, something the U.S. should be watching, Rashid said.
“It could become another seat for radicalism in the way that Yemen has become one or Somalia has become one.”
Mars Sariev, a political expert in Bishkek, said the U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan is keeping in check groups like the IMU. He worries when the war in Afghanistan winds down, the U.S. will lose interest in the region and open the door for extremists to assert themselves.
“America leaving Central Asia might cause chaos,” he said.