WASHINGTON — Even as the air war in Afghanistan wanes and U.S.-backed forces hunt down pockets of al-Qaida and Taliban resistance there, the United States is preparing a military presence in Central Asia that could last for years, military officials say.
The United States and its allies are building an air base in Kyrgyzstan, a neighboring former Soviet republic, that the commander of the military campaign in Afghanistan described last week as a "transportation hub" to house up to 3,000 troops and accommodate warplanes and support aircraft.
Engineers are also improving runways, lighting, communications, storage and housing at bases in Uzbekistan and Pakistan where U.S. forces are stationed, signaling a long-term commitment or at least the ability to redeploy forces quickly.
"The job is still not done," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, senior spokesman at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. "There is great value, for instance, in continuing to build airfields in a variety of locations on the perimeter of Afghanistan that over time can do a variety of functions, like combat operations, medical evacuation and delivering humanitarian assistance."
The Pentagon has also approved a request by Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of the military operation in Afghanistan, to station two aircraft carriers and thousands of Marines aboard ships in the northern Arabian Sea through March, officials said. Navy officers expect that request could be renewed every three months.
In another sign that U.S. forces are settling in, each branch of the armed services has adopted policies to rotate troops through the region, typically every 90 days to six months, Franks said.
However many troops the Pentagon ultimately stations in Afghanistan and nearby, Franks and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are looking to expand U.S. military engagement by increasing technical support and training exercises with their counterparts in the region.
"Their function may be more political than actually military," the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, said in an interview. He said bases and exercises would "send a message to everybody, including important countries like Uzbekistan, that we have a capacity to come back in and will come back in — we're not just going to forget about them."
The willingness of the Pentagon to put a long-term footprint in Central Asia underscores a broader shift by President Bush. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he criticized the Clinton administration's extensive overseas troop deployments, saying the military was being stretched too thin.
Many military analysts argue that a significant U.S. military presence is needed around Afghanistan because the interim government does not seem intent on rooting out the remnants of al-Qaida and Taliban forces, and the British-led peacekeeping forces are clearly counting on U.S. firepower to back them up. But too large or too long-term a U.S. military presence could alarm Russia and China to the north and anger the Afghans, who often bridle at foreign military activity in their nation.
There is no better symbol of the long-term commitment of the U.S. military to Afghanistan than the recent arrival of the 101st Airborne Division at Kandahar airport to relieve about 1,500 Marines there.
Like the Marines, the 101st Airborne is intended for rapid deployment. But unlike the Marines, Army troops are typically dispatched to hold territory for long periods — months, if not years. Army units tend to establish more permanent bases and more extensive supply systems.
At Kandahar airport, the 101st is likely to set up a semipermanent tent city known as a force provider or, more colloquially, a "city in a box." These portable units include sturdy, pop-up canvas structures to house and feed hundreds of troops. Latrines, water-purifying systems and work facilities are included.
Similar encampments have already been established at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul and at Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan, where more than 1,000 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division have been helping to guard and repair runways.
Initial plans call for about 1,000 soldiers from the 101st to secure Kandahar airport, guard hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners and protect the airstrip for cargo planes carrying food, medicine and military supplies. But Pentagon officials said the 101st contingent could easily double in size if the number of prisoners grew sharply, or if American forces were needed to capture terrorists.
What remains to be seen is whether the encampments at Kandahar and Bagram will become as permanent as those in Kosovo, for instance, where the United States has 5,400 troops, or in Bosnia, where there are 3,100 American soldiers.
Two and a half years ago, Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo was little more than a village of tents. Today it is a small, self-contained city with wooden barracks and command centers, helicopter maintenance buildings, a water-treatment plant, a movie theater, gymnasiums and a hospital.
The military is patterning its deployments in Central Asia on that model.
The United States and Uzbekistan announced an accord in October that gave the U.S. military flexibility in operating from bases there in return for Washington's assurance that it would protect Uzbekistan's security.
But the Americans who arrived at Khanabad found a pitted airfield and insufficient runway lighting and traffic-control equipment. Extensive work was needed.
Much focus is now on an allied air base springing up on 37 acres near Manas International Airport, outside of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Since Dec. 16, about 200 American, French and British troops have been building a tent city to house 2,000 to 3,000 troops by next month and preparing for air operations by month's end. The tents have floors and are heated.
"We're establishing a mini-Air Force base from which we can fly a variety of military missions, mainly airlift, aerial refueling and tactical air," Brig. Gen. Christopher A. Kelly, leader of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing, said in a telephone interview from Kyrgyzstan.
U.S. transport planes from Europe have flown in firetrucks, cargo loaders, tractors and de-icing equipment. Kelly said the airfield itself was in good condition.
Early plans called for as many as two dozen fighter-bombers at Manas, including F-15Es, FA-18s and perhaps French and Danish strike jets.
But after a more detailed analysis of the taxiways, the 13,000-foot runway and the fuel system, Kelly said, he recommended a smaller deployment. The final size and mix has not been decided, but cargo and refueling planes could begin arriving within a week or so, military officials said.
Manas would give allied forces increased flexibility: U.S. warplanes would have a northern route into Afghanistan if tensions between India and Pakistan shut down southern air corridors for carrier-based warplanes, and the base could be used to ferry humanitarian supplies.
"The purpose is to be able to use this as a transportation hub, essentially to get closer to Afghanistan so that we can bring large airplanes in and then be able to change their loads into smaller airplanes," Franks said on Friday.
Unlike the arrangements with many other regional allies, the one-year agreement signed last month with the Kyrgyz government does not limit the type of aircraft or missions that allied forces can fly from Manas. "There are no restrictions," Kelly said.