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U.S. considers future military relations with former Soviet states

By ROBERT BURNS, AP Military Writer
Last Updated 4:22 a.m. PDT Tuesday, April 30, 2002

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Pentagon is considering ways to keep a military "footprint" in Central Asia after U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, though it has no plans for permanent military bases, officials say.

Before the United States launched the war in Afghanistan, it had no forces based in Central Asia.

Now it has thousands in Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan - infantry, special operations air and ground troops, military police and intelligence analysts, along with fighter aircraft, refueling and cargo planes, and reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft.

A less conspicuous toehold could be kept beyond the current war by, for example, working out long-term agreements with governments like Kazakhstan to allow access by the U.S. military to certain of their airfields or to periodically train with Kazakh forces, officials said Monday.

Another possibility is agreements that permit the U.S. military to store equipment for use in the event of a regional crisis. The Pentagon has had such deals with Persian Gulf countries for years.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon, with input from the State Department and other agencies, is drawing up a plan for a long-term military "footprint" in Central Asia. The plan has not yet been presented to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld toured Central Asia last week and met with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan - each a former republic of the Soviet Union - as well as Afghanistan.

In comments to reporters traveling with him, Rumsfeld alluded to possibilities for the future.

"Our basic interest is to have the ability to go into a country and have a relationship and have understandings about our ability to land or overfly and to do things that are of mutual benefit to each of us," he said. "But we don't have any particular plans for permanent bases."

When asked by U.S. soldiers in Kyrgyzstan how long they would be there, Rumsfeld gave his stock reply: As long as it takes to finish off al-Qaida terrorists and the radical Taliban militia.

Once that task is completed, would the Pentagon want to keep forces there, or nearby, to keep watch?

With the U.S. military already stretched to meet its commitments in the Middle East, the Pacific and Europe - not to mention a more demanding scale of effort to defend the U.S. homeland in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks - Rumsfeld seems disinclined to stretch them even thinner.

But even before Sept. 11, the Pentagon was quietly working with Central Asian nations to establish closer ties, in many cases through partnership with NATO.

Afghanistan and terrorism aside, the region is of strategic importance to the United States for geopolitical reasons, including its vast energy resources and historic links to Russia.

For those same reasons, the U.S. military presence in the region is watched carefully by Russia, China and Iran.

On a visit to Kazakhstan last week, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said the presence of American military forces in the region was a humiliation for those countries and a sign that America was exercising too much influence.

Uzbekistan, among the region's most politically influential nations, was the first to agree to U.S. requests for temporary basing rights. A document spelling out the legal rights and obligations of Americans based at an Uzbek airfield was signed the same day U.S. bombing in Afghanistan began.

More than 1,000 U.S. troops are still in Uzbekistan.

During his trip last week, Rumsfeld visited the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops who are at Manas airport outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, along with a similar number of allied troops. They are flying fighter, transport, refueling and other missions over Afghanistan - and, not coincidentally, pumping millions of dollars into the economy of that impoverished nation.

U.S. forces are at Manas under a one-year agreement that will remain in effect indefinitely unless either the United States or Kyrgyzstan gives six months' notice to end it, officials said.

Kazakhstan wants a broader long-term military relationship with the United States. Although no U.S. forces are based there, the Kazakhs are pressing the Bush administration to negotiate a legally binding defense agreement - possibly even a mutual defense treaty, officials said.

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