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U.S. Base in Kyrgyzstan Provides Launching Point into Afghanistan

October 20, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan. Our report comes from the News 21 Project, a collaboration of journalism schools at five universities. This story was produced by two students at the University of California, Berkeley, Katya Kumkova-Wolpert and Patrick Farrell.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT, News 21 Project: This is Kyrgyzstan; not Kurdistan, the Iraqi province; not Kazakhstan, the oil-rich country to the north. Kyrgyzstan, a small and obscure former republic of the Soviet Union. It’s been independent since the early ’90s.

The global war on terror has taken U.S. troops to places most Americans have never heard of, let alone been to. It’s also taken reporters far from home, including me, though in my case it’s hard to say where home is. I was born in the Soviet Union and moved to the U.S. when I was a kid.

And that’s Patrick, my partner. He grew up in Nebraska. He’s as far from home as the rest of the people on this base.

It’s called the Manas Air Base. Everything and everyone that the U.S. sends to Afghanistan comes through here. Last year, planes that took off from Manas carried 59,000 tons of gear and 60 million pounds of fuel. They also brought over 100,000 troops to and from the war, for what everyone here calls “down range.”

SOLDIER: Were you down range?

PATRICK FARRELL, News 21 Project: Yes, I was in Bagram in Afghanistan.

SOLDIER: Yes, how was it?

PATRICK FARRELL: It’s a beautiful country.

SOLDIER: Do you say that without irony?

PATRICK FARRELL: Yes, it’s — I don’t even know if you consider it a third-world country. I’ve been to Haiti, and I think Bagram was actually — Afghanistan was worse.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: Manas has been here since the war in Afghanistan started. Just three months after 9/11, U.S. forces pitched a few tents at an old airport outside Bishkek, Kyrgyz capital. Their job: to support Operation Enduring Freedom.

Five years later, the base is still here, but the airmen could pick up and leave in a matter of weeks. Manas is a perfect example of the Pentagon’s new strategy of projecting American power. As an expeditionary base, it’s here for the war in Afghanistan. But if the war changes or if local politics shift, it could go somewhere else.

COL. JOEL REESE, Base Commander: Could we do it without Manas? Well, we’d find a way, certainly. If it becomes necessary, we will find a way.

Adapting to a new culture

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: But for now, the base is here. It's a long way from home, but they try.

LT. COL. JERRY REED, Head of Base Services: This is Shooter's. This is a recreation center that has a lot to offer for folks. People can check out movies, just kind of relax a little bit.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: Unlike older more established bases, like ones in Korea and Germany, the troops here are only allowed off base on supervised excursions. Some are still surprised to be here at all.

LT. COL. JERRY REED: You know, in the span of my Air Force career, to go from this being a Soviet Union-occupied territory to now being a coalition partner for us to do our operations, it's just absolutely remarkable.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: Kyrgyzstan is a strange place. It feels like the outer reaches of an empire, but the question is: Which empire? It shares no borders with Russia, but most people speak Russian. Many here look Chinese. And the main religion is Islam.

Chief of Security Major Mark Anuramo and his troops patrol the base's perimeters. Anuramo is as in tune with the local culture as anyone on this base.

MAJ. MARK ANURAMO, Manas Chief of Security: Sometimes we go to a meeting, and they expect you to drink with them. And if you don't, they don't trust you. So I've had vodka with my morning omelet.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: Kyrgyz politics are unstable. Last year, the old president was ousted in a coup nearly overnight. And this spring, demonstrators in Bishkek nearly ended the rule of the new president.

MAJ. MARK ANURAMO: But those demonstrations, they stayed peaceful, so we've never had a spillover here. But if the topic was ever the American presence, we're pretty sure that it would want to come in this way.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: Some of Anuramo's security forces come to the nearby towns on their days off as volunteers. As far as mixing with locals, this is about as far as it goes.

MAJ. MARK ANURAMO: I have four kids at home. A lot of our guys have kids at home. So doing something like a playground project, it's very therapeutic, you know?

KYRGYZ CHILD: Papa.

MAJ. MARK ANURAMO: Papa, da.

That's what I get, Papa Anuramo.

Effects of a changing society

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: There's a disconnect here. Maybe it's the language barrier; maybe it's because most airmen only stay for four months at a time; and maybe it's because people here still miss the old guard.

GALINA TERESHYUK, Mayor, Oktobersky Village (through translator): This is where we used to have a bust of Karl Marx, but somebody came and took him home one night, maybe out of nostalgia.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: Galina Tereshyuk is mayor of the town where the troops built the playground. She showed us old photos of how things used to be. One of them was of veterans who fought in the devastating Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; that war lasted most of the '80s and killed over a million people.

GALINA TERESHYUK (through translator): In the old days, we used to help the military. Our factory was rich enough to feed and clothe the soldiers. We could help anyone then. Today, we're standing with our hands stretched out like paupers.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: Americans on base pride themselves on hiring and buying locally.

SOLDIER: We've got some very important stuff. We've got toilet seats.

PATRICK FARRELL: Those toilet seats weren't expensive like those ones at the Pentagon a few years ago, were they?

SOLDIER: No.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: Last spring, the Kyrgyz president decided to raise the rent on the Manas base. And he didn't just ask for more. He asked for a 100 times more, $207 million per year. Four months later, when we were on base, a new rent deal still hadn't been struck. But for airmen and building contractors, it was business as usual.

STAFF SGT. JOHN DAVIDSON, Contracting Specialist: The political issue that's going on -- are we going to stay, are we going to leave -- with this location is kind of a temporary thing.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: One of the buildings that's in the works is a passenger concourse.

STAFF SGT. JOHN DAVIDSON: So you can take a busload of troops, you can drop them off right here at the front door.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: Army troops stay in this big tent where we met Garrett Napier, a National Guardsman from Oklahoma waiting for a flight to Afghanistan.

Rather not think about?

SPC. GARRETT NAPIER, U.S. National Guard: It's something you don't like to think about, but you have to think about it. I mean, I don't what to -- I don't want to get killed or come back less than what I left. You know, but that's just a part of the job.

SOLDIER: We don't just look at them like Army. I mean, they are. They're just a bunch of Army guys. But it's probably a good chance that they're not all going to come back the same way.

From the Air Force perspective

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: The next morning, Specialist Napier was on his way to Afghanistan and we were on our way down range, too. We were about to see the war on terror, Air Force-style.

SPC. GARRETT NAPIER: You sit right back there, and you'll be able to look out that window and these windows right here. That's what we're going to look through.

PILOT: We just passed the border of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: We went on a refueling mission in this KC-135. Originally built in 1958 for the Cold War, it's still making its rounds as a flying gas station.

For an hour and a half, we coasted over the Pamir Mountains, then over the massive U.S. base in Bagram, and over Kabul. This was as close as we would get to the war.

Then our mission. A B-1 bomber slid in behind our plane for refueling. After filling up, the B-1 was gone as quickly as it had appeared.

Less than 1 percent of the Air Force are actually pilots. They are the ones who get to see the war from this vantage. Back on the ground, Afghanistan felt far away, until we went to a hidden corner of the base.

LT. COL. JERRY REED: This is the mortuary where we will receive fallen warriors. Typically, they are casualties from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

All of these boxes are flags; most will arrive draped with a flag. We have these in case they don't. In the six weeks that I have been here, we have had quite a few. There has not been a week yet that we have not had a casualty come to us from Afghanistan.

MAJ. MARK ANURAMO: I remind our guys all the time: Our brothers and sisters are in much hairier places than this.

Longing for action

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: Manas is the only base that's part of Operation Enduring Freedom where you can have a drink, two drinks, actually. Pete's Place is named for a New York City fire captain who died during 9/11. It's also the place for some patriotic karaoke.

SOLDIER: ... red, white and blue...

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: Though Manas is an integral part in the war in Afghanistan, people here still long for the down range experience.

MAJ. MARK ANURAMO: The first three weeks I was here, I really felt guilty because I knew security forces guys everywhere were getting shot at. They were getting mortared. They were really in the middle of everything. And here we sit, and it's fairly quiet compared to other bases.

KATYA KUMKOVA-WOLPERT: In July, Kyrgyz and American officials signed a deal allowing U.S. forces to say in Manas as long as the war in Afghanistan continues. The price tag: $20 million a year.

Commander Anuramo finished the playground he built with his troops and celebrated its opening with the local mayors, but he won't be here for long. When he gets back to his native New Jersey, he'll be teaching a college course on security after 9/11. He'll have to talk about new, lighter bases like Manas, bases designed, at least in theory, to be here today and gone tomorrow.