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.