- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2009


If you haven’t ever heard of Kyrgyzstan, the pivot of our newest foreign policy problem, don’t feel embarrassed - most Americans have not.

When I traveled there in 1992 on a curious adventure through the new “countries” of Central Asia, I found a largely forgotten little country of 4 million Kyrgyz tribesmen, along with the various descendants of German, Polish and Russian political exiles sent there by Moscow as punishment in the 1930s and ‘40s. The country itself is hidden between the glorious snow-capped mountains of China and the rolling plains of Kazakhstan.

The capital, Bishkek, gave new dimension to the word “gray.” Ramshackle wooden buildings, a few Soviet-style government “palaces” and dreary streets - all gray, gray, gray - provided background to the diplomats’ refrain, “It may not be the end of the world, but you can see it from here.”

After it became independent in 1991 following the collapse of its Soviet masters, Kyrgyzstan was out of the news - except for one amazing historic event: After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Americans came and established an important air base in the north in Manas to supply and reinforce the American/NATO war in Afghanistan.

Now, just as the new American President Obama is taking charge - and proceeding on his campaign announcements that troops would be withdrawn from Iraq, and 30,000 of them would be sent to Afghanistan - the Kyrgyz government announced it would close the base. Why? Quite simple, really. Because old patron/dictator Moscow announced it was giving Kyrgyzstan $2.15 billion in credits and $150 million in Russian aid.

It may seem strange to Americans that such a small, remote place might cause problems, but about 1,000 Americans are based there and 15,000 personnel rotate in and out of Afghanistan from there every month, and without this base, the United States will have to seek other entry points to George W. Bush/Dick Cheney/Donald Rumsfeld’s deeply troubled Afghan war.

Even as we and the Russians replayed the old “Great Game” in these countries of the ancient Silk Road, the Russians could not resist another poke in Washington’s eye. Why not, they suggested, send troops and supplies through Russia?

Veteran and experienced foreign correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor at large of The Washington Times and United Press International, wrote of mysterious negotiations, apparently between Russia and the West, to take supplies to Afghanistan instead from German ports by rail through Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and then by truck into Afghanistan. Which is, quite clearly, an incredible idea!

So here’s where we are: The Russians, not at all unexpectedly, are making their first foray into the mental airspace of the new administration. The Kyrgyz gesture came just before the annual Munich Security Conference where, not incidentally, Vice President Joe Biden delivered a speech carefully modulated between toughness (we’ll “think” about the missiles in Poland, which the Russians strongly oppose) and a new openness (Washington will “press the reset button” on the relationship with Moscow).

At the same time, in a series of initiatives designed to pique Washington’s intentions, the Russians leaked details of new naval and air bases to be established on the shores of the Black Sea in the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia and signed an air defense treaty with Belarus, apparently setting the stage for an anti-missile defense system to counter Washington’s “anti-Iranian” one in Poland.

Big foreign policy problems often start in small places (World War I, remember, started in Sarajevo). So the big problem Kyrgyzstan presents is that the United States must now find some other way to supply American troops in Afghanistan - and at a time when the NATO lifeline from Karachi in Pakistan through the Khyber Pass and across southern Afghanistan to Kabul and the rest of the country, has been seriously disrupted, if not destroyed, by Taliban attacks.

Every day brings new reports that NATO and American trucks and containers have been demolished along these dangerous roads by attacks from the Taliban, which is now not so much one big, coherent organization as a grouping of anti-American and anti-foreign radical Islamic organizations. A recent attack near the Khyber Pass on a key bridge, which collapsed, backed up some 1,000 trucks all the way back to Karachi.

The bigger question in this entire equation is the future of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan - and the picture is not rosy. The United Nations and other responsible groups now say 70 percent to 73 percent of the country is effectively Taliban-controlled. Correspondents I have talked to who have just left Kabul report few Westerners go out now unaccompanied by military escorts. Anger against the American-supported government is on a dangerous rise.

So here is the dilemma that now faces President Obama, even as his attention is focused intensely upon America’s economic disasters:

He was one of the very first to speak out against the Iraq war and, despite the reasonably good outcome of that conflict, he was right: It has been far too costly to Americans in innumerable ways, and it has played a major role in the economic fallout. But even as Iraq has succeeded in holding rather impressive elections, he is still faced with George Bush/Dick Cheney/Donald Rumsfeld’s second “great war,” and he insists he will carry it through. Will it now become the “Iraq” - an endless and unwinnable war, draining our manpower and resources as he and so many of us originally feared?

All the indicators are unbelievably negative. Even Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s capable point man on Afghanistan and Pakistan, was quoted after the Munich conference as saying of Afghanistan: “I have never seen anything remotely resembling the mess we’ve inherited. In my view, it’s going to be much tougher than Iraq.”

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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