BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), visiting amid political turmoil in this former Soviet republic, won assurances Thursday that the U.S. military will not lose access to a base it established here in support of the war in Afghanistan.
Ganci air base, which is situated at Manas airport outside the capital, is part of a network of facilities in Central Asia that still provides support for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Doubts were raised about the future of the U.S. military presence when Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev (search) fled the country last month after an uprising that has yet to play out.
The acting prime minister, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, discussed the base and other issues with Rumsfeld during a brief stop before Rumsfeld returned to Washington.
"The Kyrgyz republic will comply with all international agreements," including those with the United States, Bakiyev said during a joint news conference with Rumsfeld.
Bakiyev said, in response to a question about the possibility of expanding the U.S. military presence here, that he saw no need for any additional foreign forces.
Rumsfeld was speaking to U.S. troops at the airport before returning to Washington.
The Bush administration is eager to maintain a military presence in Central Asia, a traditional crossroads and lately a haven for terrorists and Islamic extremists. But it has yet to make final arrangements and faces political uncertainties in countries like Kyrgyzstan.
The U.S. military has nearly 1,000 troops stationed at Ganci, an important logistics and support base for the war. Air Force KC-135 refueling aircraft and C-130 cargo planes operate from there.
Rumsfeld, who visited Afghanistan on Wednesday and spent the night in Pakistan, is known to favor keeping the basing arrangement in Kyrgyzstan (search), but his vision for a future U.S. military presence elsewhere in Central Asia is not entirely clear.
A U.S. military contingent is based in Uzbekistan, another former Soviet republic that played a key role in allowing U.S. forces to use the staging grounds they needed for the war in Afghanistan.
These bases provide a significant economic lift for the host governments, and public opposition is not nearly as serious as it has been in some traditional U.S. partner countries like Japan and South Korea.
In Kabul on Wednesday, President Hamid Karzai (search) said he will make a formal request to President Bush for a long-term security partnership, making permanent a relationship that began when U.S. forces invaded his country in October 2001. He did not say when he would do so.
Karzai made the statement at a joint news conference with Rumsfeld, who was reluctant to discuss the Bush administration's level of interest in giving Afghanistan security guarantees and possibly keeping U.S. troops there indefinitely.
Pressed several times on this point, Rumsfeld said it was a matter for Bush to decide. He noted that the United States has pledged to remain a friend to Afghanistan and help rebuild the country.
But when it comes to a permanent military presence here, "We think more in terms of what we're doing rather than the question of military bases and that type of thing," he said.
In Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday that "discussions are ongoing" with Karzai on future security arrangements, but he would not comment on Bush's position on a permanent U.S. military presence or other long-term partnership.
It is unclear whether Rumsfeld would favor a long-term military presence in Afghanistan. Some believe he would prefer a more flexible arrangement for U.S. aircraft overflight rights and possibly access to an Afghan air base for occasional training, refueling and other activities. The Pentagon has already made such arrangements with other Central Asian nations, and Rumsfeld favors that approach because it is less rigid and less costly.
The U.S. military has been spending about $1 billion a month in Afghanistan, and the end of its mission there — which includes pursuit of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden — is nowhere in sight.
At the news conference with Rumsfeld, Karzai appeared eager to talk about his hopes for a permanent relationship with the United States, which he said would be built on economic as well as military pillars.
"The Afghan people want a long-term relationship with the United States," Karzai said. "They want this relationship to be a sustained economic and political relationship and, most importantly of all, a strategic security relationship to enable Afghanistan to defend itself, to continue to prosper