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Central Asia - Is the US settling in?
December 23, 2001
By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Chief International Correspondent

Since Saddam Hussein was not toppled, a historian might say that the most important outcome of the 1991 Gulf War was to establish a long-term United States military presence in the Arabian Peninsula and to turn the Persian Gulf into an American lake. The same historian could now also argue that the most significant result of the Taliban war will be to establish a similarly prolonged U.S. military presence in Central Asia which we now know rivals the Gulf in oil and gas reserves.

Last week, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn said that President Pervez Musharraf had agreed to an American request to prolong its stay at the Jacobabad air base for the foreseeable future.

The article quoted local military sources and went into considerable detail: "The Americans had asked for 40,000 metric tons of concrete to renovate the base in Jacobabad, according to an aviation source. U.S. officials have asked that a wall surrounding the base be raised four feet, and they want to construct air-conditioned barracks for U.S. troops in time for summer."

Air conditioning and barracks, and 40,000 metric tons of concrete (which means a bigger, stronger runway) suggests that the U.S. is settling in for a considerable period, and that the military personnel will not be restricted to pilots and flight crews.

There has been no clarification from the Pentagon about the expected tour of duty in Jacobabad. (God help the troops stationed there. Jacobabad is one of the hottest places on earth, with summer temperatures soaring to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and local says one of the few pleasures is watching the scorpions die of heat.)

So far, there has been no equivalent reporting of plans for extended stays in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, where temporary U.S. air bases have been established for the Taliban war. Nor is there any suggestion that the airmen, or the troops of the 10th Mountain Division are preparing to pack up and go home.

There are obviously very good reasons for the U.S. to have established temporary bases in the countries around Afghanistan while the war against al Qaida and the Taliban was under way. There are similarly good reasons to stay on as the hunt for Osama bin laden continues and as the international community seeks to restore stability to the battered people and fabric of Afghanistan.

But at some point the question will be raised in the congress, which must vote for the funds to pay for it, how long should this American presence be maintained. And one factor that should figure in their deliberations is that however useful in military and geopolitical terms, American bases can impose some sobering costs.

Take, for example, the bases established since the Gulf War. The headquarters of the Fifth Fleet are in Bahrain. There are two big U.S. air bases in Kuwait, at Ali Salem and Ahmed al Jaber, and some 5,000 U.S. troops at Camp Doha. In Saudi Arabia, another 5,000 troops are at the Prince Sultan airbase at al-Kharj, just south of Riyadh.

We know why they are there. It's a dangerous neighborhood, with Saddam Hussein just the most immediately threatening factor. The U.S. bases have helped stabilize the region, safeguard the strategic asset of oil, and to put it charitably bought time for the less than democratic local regimes to broaden their political base.

At the same time, the U.S. bases have become a target. Remember the 19 U.S. troops killed in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia. And recall that in his fatwas, Osama bin Laden always put top of his complaints list the presence of the infidel Crusader troops on Islam's holy peninsula.

This is not just an Islamic phenomenon. This week saw riots in the South Korean capital of Seoul over the continued American presence at a military base in the heart of the city. The American bases at Okinawa are a constant irritant, however welcome the broader American security umbrella has been to Japan as a whole.

The presence of American troops and airmen in Central Asia came with a conditional Russian approval, which seems to have included an understanding on the Russian side that these would be temporary postings. Maybe the Russians would welcome an extension, if the current NATO-Russian courtship prospers.

Maybe, but two big questions remain. The first is the reaction of Beijing, which now sees American bases to the West, in Japan and South Korea, and now to the East, in Pakistan and Central Asia. Whatever may be the Chinese word for encirclement, they are probably using it in the Peoples Liberation Army HQ these days.

The second question may be more immediate. Last week's attack on the India parliament in New Delhi, and India's blame of Pakistan, has revived the worries about relations between those two nuclear-armed neighbors. Not that the presence of the American air base at Jacobabad guarantees any kind of U.S. protection or involvement, and it may even help to cool the situation.

But it certainly exposes American troops to a highly dangerous situation, before Congress or public opinion has had much chance to think about the implications.

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