My heart goes out to the poor people of Kyrgyzstan. They seem to be sliding into civil war. The current government of this small, poor central Asian country of 5 million people, in power for only two months, seems unable to contain the ethnic violence in the south near the Uzbek boarder and is appealing for outside help. Nestled between Kazakhstan to the north, China and Uzbekistan to the east and west and Tajikistan to the south (and Afghanistan just beyond), Kyrgyzstan provides a example of how it might look easy for the U.S. to help a friend—they have allowed us to set up an airbase there that we use for supplying our troops in Afghanistan to the south. The Kyrgyz Army is weak and its police corrupt. The new government just drove out a corrupt President, Kurmanbek_Bakiyev, who had come to power in March 2005 in the bloodless Tulip Revolution that replace Askar Akaev, Kyrgyzstan’s first President since its independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. They need help to survive.
When I first visited this little mountain country in February 1992, I referred to it as the Switzerland of central Asia. Like Switzerland its snow-capped mountains are spectacular and it has few natural resources. I suggested that like Switzerland it could become wealthy with free markets, good policies, and hard work. I lead the International Monetary Fund’s technical assistance to the National Bank of Kyrgyzstan and helped it replace the Russian ruble with its own currency, the Som in May 1993. A matched set of that currency with the serial number 000000011, personally signed by the then governor Kemelbek Nanaev, hangs proudly on my office wall. At a celebration of the 5th anniversary of the Som, President Akaev, whose match set of the Som has the serial number 000000001, personally presented me with Kyrgyzstan’s Certificate of Honor for my roll in introducing the currency. Some of the most exciting days of my life were in Kyrgyzstan. My strongely felt sympathies are with the new government. Yet it would be a tragic mistake for the United States to become militarily involved in restoring peace there.
Ms. Roza Otunbayeva, the interim leader until elections can be held later this year, has reaffirmed the U.S. lease on Manas Air Base after her deposed predecessor had tried to close it. She seems to be surrounded by pro market, pro freedom reformers. We have every reason to wish her government well. But a U.S. intervention would be taking sides in a potential civil war. Russia has bases in Kyrgyzstan as well and can hardly be indifferent to the fate of its neighbor and former fellow member of the Soviet Union. Russia has up until now wisely rejected Ms. Otunbayeva’s call for help and both Russia and the U.S. are exploring the possibility of international (U.N.) assistance. The U.S. Manas Air Base is an important U.S. air link to Afghanistan, but Kyrgyzstan is not critical to U.S. security. In any event, Ms. Otunbayeva asked Russia for help, not the U.S.
Were she to turn to us for help, it might look relatively easy to provide it. We have troops there already. But then for good or ill her problems would become ours and there is no knowing, really, what problems we might be taking on. The Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars looked very different when we got into them than they did at the other end of the process (when ever that might be for the later two). We need to try hard to imagine how it might look in a few years looking back. If there is a good case for external help, the U.S. and Russia should be able to make that case to the U.N. If and when the U.N. acts, it will clearly be doing so above and beyond the potentially conflicting national interests of parties to a new Great Game that we and the rest of the world can ill afford.
Warren Coats lead the International Monetary Fund’s technical assistance missions to the central bank of the Kyrgyz Republic in 1992-93 before retiring from the IMF in 2003 after 26 years of service. He resides in Bethesda MD.