Rumsfeld Wraps Up Middle East, Central Asia Trip in Kyrgyzstan
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
MANAS AIR BASE, Kyrgyzstan, April 14, 2005 Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wrapped up a four-day whirlwind trip through the Middle East and Central Asia by telling U.S. troops here they're playing a significant role in the war on terrorism and in improving the lives of the Afghan and Iraqi people.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is greeted by Manas Air Base commander Col. Brad Pray and U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Stephen Young on April 14. Photo by Robin Hicks
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"The good Lord willing, those two countries ... will be on a path of freedom, a path where people have the right and privilege of helping to guide and direct their country, and the economic opportunities that come from free economic systems," Rumsfeld said. "And you'll be able to look back and know in your hearts you were a part of that."
Rumsfeld spent a little over an hour with the 800 U.S. servicemembers, predominantly airmen, and 100 Spanish air force troops at this key aerial-refueling and strategic-airlift hub on the outskirts of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
The U.S. military has maintained a presence here since December 2001, supporting coalition efforts in Afghanistan. The base is known informally as Ganci Air Base, after Peter Ganci, the senior New York fireman killed on Sept. 11, 2001. Air Force Capt. DeJon Redd, a base spokesman, explained the name can't be changed officially because the Air Force stipulates that bases outside the United States are not named after Americans.
The secretary met with the troops in "Pete's Place," a cavernous tent primarily used for morale, welfare and recreation activities. Redd said "Beer and Bingo Night" is an especially popular activity. U.S. troops here are allowed two beers each on Wednesdays and Saturdays, he said.
Servicemembers assigned here generally serve four-month tours and are mostly restricted to the base. "Our focus here is launching aircraft," Redd said. "So there's not a lot of off-base activities for our airmen."
Not far from Pete's Place, construction of prefabricated dormitories can be seen. Base officials hope to move airmen out of the tents they've been living in into the more permanent structures by fall. Redd said that timeframe isn't guaranteed because the area has had an especially harsh winter, delaying construction. The Tien Shan mountain range covers 95 percent of the country's area.
A cold rain was beating on the tent's roof and the roar of jets could be heard overhead as Rumsfeld looked out into a sea of tan uniforms and told the 400-plus troops assembled that their mission supporting efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq is vital.
"It's not an easy thing to move from despotism to a democracy," Rumsfeld said, referring to Iraq's efforts to build its first freely elected government. "But they're making good headway."
Before visiting Manas Air Base, Rumsfeld met with local leaders in Bishkek's "White House," which houses the presidential offices.
The secretary met with the country's acting president, Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who assumed the presidency March 28 after former President Askar Akayev fled the country to Moscow after a bloodless coup March 24. Rumsfeld also met with the acting ministers of defense and state. National elections are scheduled for July.
The White House had been looted after the March power grab. Little damage was evident, but the vast marble building appeared scantily furnished and was barely heated.
At a joint news conference after the meetings, Bakiyev said the United States will continue to have use of Manas Air Base. Through a translator, he said he assured Rumsfeld that "the Kyrgyz Republic will comply with all the international agreements we have signed."
The acting president dismissed a suggestion of expanding the U.S. base here and denied rumors circulating through local media that the United States is considering stationing Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft at Manas.
"I do not think there's any need to increase the presence of any military troops in the Kyrgyz Republic," he said.
Rumsfeld thanked Kyrgyzstan for continued support in the war on terror and said he told the country's interim leadership "that the United States is wishing them well in the important work that they're engaged in in building a stable and modern and prosperous democracy."
Rumsfeld flew to Kyrgyzstan this morning after spending the night in Islamabad, Pakistan. The previous evening he had met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. The two discussed the situations and Iraq and Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism.
Pakistan has been a strong ally in combating terrorism in the region and is strategically important because it shares a border with Afghanistan.
A senior defense official said Rumsfeld is encouraged by the evolving relationship between Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "It's a healthy thing," the official said, specifically referring to the "Tripartite Group" of representatives from the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan that meets regularly to discuss efforts to thwart al Qaeda and Taliban actions and other matters affecting the region.
Since leaving Washington April 11, Rumsfeld spent one day in Iraq and one day in Afghanistan, greeting U.S. troops and meeting with U.S. military and local government leaders. He also made an overnight stop and met with local leaders in Baku, Azerbaijan.