Author’s note: While we spent three weeks in Bishkek waiting for our Chinese Visas, we completed a story investigating reasons why the United States’ main supply base for the Afghanistan war is being shut down by the Kyrgyz government. The piece never ended up getting published anywhere, but we put a lot of work into it and wanted it to see the light. The following feature is the tale of how the US lost its key air base in Central Asia.
It was a routine procedure for Alexander Ivanov. The Kyrgyz truck driver approached the barbed wire gate, and waited for the soldiers to push it aside. The 42 year old regularly made fuel deliveries to the US Air Force Base in Bishkek. He worked for the Aircraft Petrol Management company, and was delivering a shipment scheduled for 3 o’clock PM on the 6th of December, 2006. When gate opened, Ivanov flashed his identification badge and was waved on to the next check point. There, he dismounted his truck and stepped into a security tent while American servicemen inspected his vehicle for suspicious cargo and bombs. Once inside the tent, Ivanov would encounter a 20 year old US airman named Zachary Hatfield. And what happened next depends on who you believe.
According to the bases’ spokesmen, Ivanov pulled out a knife and charged the young serviceman. Hatfield, responding as he was trained, unholstered his Beretta 9mm and “expended two shots to the upper torso, center mass, to ensure the highest opportunity to neutralize the threat.” There were no witnesses when Ivanov died, and a subsequent Article 32 hearing in the United States did not find evidence to bring Hatfield to trial. With a de facto ruling of innocence, the case was dismissed.
The Kyrgyz police cried murder. They claim Hatfield was waiting to shoot Ivanov as soon as he entered the tent. In May 2007, the prosecutor general of Kyrgyzstan declared Hatfield guilty of premeditated murder, under article 97 pat 1 of Kyrgyz Criminal Code. Influencing the decision were allegations that Hatfield was intoxicated on duty, and testimonies from Ivanov’s colleagues who said Ivanov sometimes carried a 4 inch homemade knife with him (made from a piece of hacksaw), but that the father of two would never threaten an armed American soldier. They accused the U.S. military of discriminating behavior towards Kyrgyz drivers.
What isn’t disputed is the media uproar the shooting caused in Kyrgyzstan. In the small, post-soviet country located between Kazakhstan and China, the shooting would become the centerpiece in a decade-long PR blitz against the base by Russian backed media. The bad press would turn public opinion against the base, eventually creating a political climate this June in which the Kyrgyz parliament voted 91-5 to deny a US request to extend its contract. Now the base must be closed by July, 2014. It is a significant setback to American interests in Central Asia.
The Manas Transit Center is a vital component of the Afghanistan conflict, serving as the transit point for 97% of all servicemen and the vast majority of fuel and goods. But soon after it opened in 2001, the base became a focal point in a neo-cold war battle between the United States and Russia. The Kremlin was allergic to a US base operating in its sphere of influence. For years, the powers skirmished over the Manas Air Base on two fronts – control of the Kyrgyz government through money, and control of Kyrgyz public opinion through media. Russian political influence would eventually tip the balance, but the Americans did have a chance to save the base on the PR front. They didn’t, and the Zachary Hatfield shooting is a case study in how the United States lost the media war. They never secured Kyrgyz public support.
It didn’t take long for the shooting to blow out of control. Soon after the incident, Marie Yovanovitch was worried. The former US ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic was confronted with a public calling for Hatfield’s head, and politicians and newspapers demanding a public trial. Their outrage doubled when the United States flew the serviceman home, citing his diplomatic immunity.
Even more pressing was the issue of Alexander Ivanov’s wife, Marina, who had become a poster child for American abuses of power.
“Local media reaction to the interim payment to the Ivanov widow has been almost uniformly negative.” Yovanovitch warned Secretary of State Clinton in a 2007 cable released by Wikileaks.
Soon after the incident, the base had delivered the Ivanov family a funeral expense check for $1000, and Russian-influenced media in Kyrgyzstan had a field day over the small sum. In the same cable, Yovanovitch tells Clinton how she encountered one Russian newspaper, Delo Nomer, writing “So, you can hunt a Kyrgyz man for $1000, while hunting a mountain goat costs $15,000″ (referring to the cost of a hunting license to kill the rare Marco Polo Sheep found in Kyrgyzstan).
Indeed, the base found itself in hostile media climate. As the only Central Asian state without serious restrictions towards Russian TV and Radio stations, Kyrgyzstan provides a powerful outlet for the Kremlin to broadcast its state-owned channels. There are over 10 major Russian television stations and newspapers in the capital of Bishkek alone, and the majority of Kyrgyz get their news from two of these channels — ORT and RTR – which are both state-owned by the Russian government. These stations, and other independent Russian publications like Delo Nomer, do little to hide their bias against the Manas Transit Center. Delo Nomer published a series of stories suggesting the American base was a secret conduit for international heroin trade.
The Russian government also influenced the media cycle by creating its own news. “The Russians met with [Mrs. Ivanov] in July and tried to convince her to come out in the press again, to denounce the U.S. and call again for the closing of the U.S. base” Maxim Bakiyev, the Kyrgyz president’s son, told Tatiana Gfoeller, the new US Ambassador, at a private lunch in September 2009.
Bakiyev was quick to assure Ambassador Gfoeller, however, that Marina Ivanov should be quiet in the future. His foreign minister had just delivered a US Department of Defense check to Marina Ivanov in the amount of $250,000. He expected it would satisfy her demands of recompense for her husband’s death.
The problem was no one in Kyrgyzstan found out about it. Rather than setting the record straight about how much was paid to the Ivanov family, the US embassy kept silent. It is only through State Department cables released by Wikileaks in 2010 that the quarter million dollar check is known. The result is that most Kyrgyz still believe the United States government only gave Alexander Ivanov’s surviving family members $1000.
It reflected the US’ main PR strategy, which was to lie as low as possible and say nothing. American soldiers were sequestered on base, and the problems of politics were handled with money, not public opinion. Suiunbek Syrdybaev, who was editor in chief of the news desk at Bishkek Independent Television, said the US seemed to be absent as a player in the local media. He also said they refused to play dirty in a press where stories were regularly up for sale.
“They don’t want to pay [for stories] or get involved in that struggle. They were outsiders. They did it like event management — setting up things like labor day events and just inviting journalists. It’s not a very strategic approach. They had no real communication strategy.”
Indeed, a quick look at the US embassy’s press releases shows they talked little about issues that mattered. During the 2010 revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the US embassy only released statements from Senator John Kerry and Ambassador Goeffler, urging the Kyrgyz people to “make the most of this new chance,” and announcing donations of $200,000 dollars in medical supplies to help those wounded by the violence. After the United States put the Manas base on lockdown, however, the Russian press angrily accused them of refusing to open the base hospital to Kyrgyz who had been wounded in the revolution’s violence.
But it was the fight over the Zachary Hatfield killing, the flagship event that would shape Kyrgyz perceptions of the base, that the US absence from the media was felt most acutely. It wasn’t just an issue of compensating the Ivanov family, but the conflicting investigative reports between the USAF and Kyrgyz police. After the Bishkek prosecutor’s office released their “guilty” verdict in May 2007, charging Hatfield with murder, the United States promised that it would release its own investigation.
The report wouldn’t come for two years, fueling perceptions of cover-up and secrecy. It wasn’t that the USAF ignored the case — 80 different investigators were dispatched, over 160 witnesses interviewed, and a four star general assigned to make the final decision on whether to submit the case to court martial. It was that nothing was said to a demanding public, and no progress reports given.
Ambassador Goeffler grew exasperated. The issue did not go away with time. It festered. On Halloween of 2008, with the US report finally compiled and Hatfield’s case dismissed, Goeffler sent a long cable to the State Department concerning Kyrgyz opposition to the base. It claimed that the “2006 shooting is issue #1,” and the ambassador expressed her concern that “the nearly two year delay in concluding the investigation has fueled Kyrgyz suspicions that our inquiry is a whitewash.” She continued by adding “the draft investigation report the Embassy has seen does not make a strong case that the command action taken was commensurate with the findings in the case… should we be unable to demonstrate a credible legal process, we can expect that the Kyrgyz people, from President Bakiyev on down, will react with emotion and could take steps to close down the Base.” Last, Goeffler mentioned that the base was coming under “strong domestic opposition,” and recommended additional payments totaling 15 million dollars a year to silence complaints from air traffic controllers, politicians, and farmers affected by fuel dumps.
Her advice went unheeded; there would be eight more months of silence. In the meantime, the base’s lease hung precariously. President Bakiyev, facing mounting Russian pressure, would force a vote in parliament to terminate the lease. That time, the base was saved only by an intervention of the President’s son, Maxim, who quadrupled the rent and asked the US to change the base’s name to a more innocuous “Transit Center.”
Finally, in June 2009, the US report came through. A cable coming directly from Secretary of State Clinton enumerates the exact “talking points” for disclosing the report, largely ignoring Goeffler’s plea for a solid demonstration of the legal process. The points are as opaque as diplomacy gets. Clinton authorized Goeffler to disclose only the results: that the case was dismissed, and that General Lichte dismissed it, but only “if pressed.” The last talking point is “The US will not make public statements about this case.”
Indeed the US did not, and in the absence of those statements, public opinion was cemented. To date, most Kyrgyz think that Hatfield is guilty of first degree murder, and got away scot-free.
In the wake of its terminated lease, some analysts argue that the ensuing loss of the Manas base isn’t a big deal: the US is leaving Afghanistan in 2014 anyway, and won’t need it any more. But the US wanted to keep the base as a foothold wedged in between great powers—allowing it to project power through Central Asia, Russia, China, and Iran. It will be hard to find another opportunity like it. In 2011, the former USSR states that make up the CSTO – a kind of Central Asian version of NATO that includes Kazahkstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia – passed a resolution that no new foreign military bases could be built in their territories without the unanimous consent of the member states. In short, the United States needs Moscow’s blessing to build another base in Central Asia. Crucially, this restriction didn’t apply to existing bases, and a solid PR campaign in Kyrgyzstan was the United States’ chance to counter Moscow’s influence and keep Manas open. The cultivation of a few allies in Kyrgyzstan’s press, whether by money or good stories, might have helped put out the Hatfield fire and done just that.