Distant base signals Pentagon's new anti-terrorism strategy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 12:00am

Named after a New York fire chief who was killed when the twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed, the Peter J. Ganci airbase is a lonely outpost in the heart of Central Asia. Many of the 1,200 US servicemen who call the base home were flummoxed when news arrived of their deployment to far-off Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic.

'I'd never even heard of it,' admitted Captain Dale Linafelter, a flight safety officer, as he watched a team of engineers installing a new engine into a C130 Hercules cargo plane on the runway at Ganci last week. Yet it is in places such as Kyrgyzstan - a patch of craggy mountains bordering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China - that the shifting of US military tactics is evident. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001, US forces have fanned out to the world's most remote corners as part of a major shift in thinking at the Pentagon.

More US servicemen are leaving behind the relative comfort of huge garrison bases in Germany, Japan and South Korea for smaller bases in places like Kyrgyzstan, Romania and the Philippines. The idea is to give US forces the ability to strike faster in remote hot spots and deter new threats, such as radical Islamic groups that have carried out attacks in countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Last week, senior defence officials in Washington confirmed that they would soon present US President George W. Bush with proposals for a 'global force-posture realignment'.

The plans are expected to reinforce changes already in motion, such as the withdrawal of 12,500 troops from South Korea by 2006 - about one third of the US contingent stationed there.

Instead, the Pentagon envisages a worldwide network of what analysts call 'lily pads' or 'warm bases': small outposts with weapons and supplies that would stand ready to receive rapid reaction forces if violence flared nearby.

Mr Bush signalled the change last November when he said: 'The once-familiar threats facing our nation, our friends and our allies have given way to the less predictable dangers associated with rogue nations, global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. It remains for us to realign the global posture of our forces to better address these new challenges.'

Central Asia is seen as a key region in the 'arc of instability' which the US is seeking to stabilise; a swathe that stretches from Africa through the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

And Ganci - known officially as the Manas airbase - is a perfect example of a warm base that can kick into action when called upon.

Until last year, coalition fighters flew sorties to Afghanistan every day. This dusty, heat-soaked base is quieter and all-American now. It operates mostly as a transport hub for cargo and jet fuel. But its population frequently swells to 3,000 as infantry units and marines pass through, headed 'downrange' to join the war on the last remnants of the Taleban.

Most airmen come on a 90-day stint, and a few never leave the base during their stay. 'Some of them still don't know where they are,' jokes the base's Protestant chaplain, Lieutenant-Colonel Stan Giles. 'There's an old saying: War is God's way of teaching geography to Americans.'

Situated 32km from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, Manas is technically a temporary base, established in December 2001, by agreement with the Kyrgyz government.

Few, however, expect it to disappear any time soon. 'Our mission here will continue until the global war on terror is over, unless the Kyrgyz want us gone or the US government wants us home,' said Captain Jason Decker, the base's public relations manager.

Last month, the US military announced that this year it would spend US$60 million at the base, replacing tents with more permanent buildings made from shipping containers.

'There is a significant number of people who would like us to stay permanently,' said Captain Decker. 'We've had a stabilising influence.' The base is welcomed by the Kyrgyz government, which sees it as a dampener on the ambitions of extremist Islamic groups.

Observers say its strategic benefit comes from it being west of China and south of Russia, which opened a Kyrgyzstan base last year. 'From an 'up-yours' point of view, Manas has huge propaganda potential,' said one western official in Bishkek.

An extra fillip for impoverished Kyrgyzstan is the cash that the airbase generates. Every day, it injects US$156,000 into the local economy, totalling about 5 per cent of the country's GDP last year - a figure expected to rise with the new construction plans.

Local employees include about 100 kitchen staff, 75 cleaners, 50 interpreters, and scores of shop assistants and construction workers. Most earn US$500 per month or more, about 20 times the national average income.

'The base has single-handedly created a middle class in Bishkek,' said an expat living in the capital. 'People don't resent it; they take it for all it's worth.'

A young Kyrgyz woman said most of the girls she knew who worked as interpreters at the base had left for the US to be with American fiances. 'That's a form of humanitarian aid in itself,' she laughed.

Most locals who work at the base are amazed at the food and facilities. The servicemen's tents are air-conditioned and there are gymnasiums, cinemas, a library, an internet cafe, restaurants, and a 'dry' bar on the site. The canteen serves Louisiana-style squash, Cajun meatloaf and rib-eye steaks flown from the US.

But it's not all roses. The airmen's families are left at home. Three terrorist attacks on the base by suspected Islamic militants were thwarted in the past year and a poster seen everywhere across the base reminds troops why they were pushed to this remote corner of the globe.

Beneath a photograph of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre in a ball of flame are two stark words: 'That's why!'