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Next stop: Central Asia

Silk Road to Ruin

  • Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense
  • Manas Air Base

Ted Rall is best known as a political cartoonist and columnist, but he is also a reporter who has covered Central Asia for nearly a decade. He broadcast live daily reports from Afghanistan during the 2001 war, and has written about the region for the Village Voice, POV and other magazines. Rall has collected his experiences in a new 300-page book, Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, which he describes as a blend of graphic journalism, travelogue and analysis. The author recently sat down with the Indy's J.P. Trostle (who was also Rall's editor on Silk Road), to discuss the disappearance of Henderson native Major Jill Metzger--and why the United States has a military base in Kyrgyzstan in the first place.

Independent: I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by this, but with all the newsworthy stories that come out of Central Asia, what is it that finally grabs the attention of our national media? A missing blonde, blue-eyed American woman.

Ted Rall: Which is, of course, the way our domestic news works as well. I did a cartoon years ago called "Murder Mystery Misses" about the same phenomena, about hot chicks getting killed or kidnapped and how that somehow always leads the news over seemingly more important stories, and Central Asia is no exception to this rule.

When I started doing "Stan Watch" on KFI radio in LA [a talk show in the late 1990s], I had a number of spoofs on the show that were meant to lampoon Americans disinterest in foreign affairs. So I chose news updates of the most remote part of the world that I could possibly think of--the Central Asian republics--and the joke turned on me because people really started following it and were really interested and really wanted to know what was going on. And so it ended up being revelatory to me that there were a lot of Americans who were very interested in international news, even from seemingly remote places, that weren't finding it in their local newspaper or television news.

The circumstances of Metzger's strange disappearance and reappearance are still being investigated, but there are some odd discrepancies in her story that no one has cleared up yet. What do you think happened?

Well, I have absolutely no idea. Certainly, it's possible that she was kidnapped by a criminal gang. Kyrgyzstan has disintegrated into chaos, anarchy and warlordism since the 2005 Tulip Revolution--which was backed by the CIA and deposed Central Asia's only democratically elected president--and criminal gangs have taken residence in a way they never were able to under the regime of [Kyrgyz President] Askar Akayev.

On the other hand, the fact she was released without a ransom demand, seemingly uninjured, makes me think she was out, that this was a lost weekend and she made up a story to explain her absence, but I really--I think it's one of those two things, I don't know which.

While much of Central Asia is inhospitable--both in terms of terrain and governments--wasn't Kyrgyzstan considered fairly safe for Westerners?

Yes, it was. I mean, Bishkek has had a dodgy nightlife for as long as I can remember, at least since the economic collapse in the late '90s. Certainly street crime was always an issue; muggings by ethnic Russians were a problem. But the Kyrgyz were a famously friendly people--Kyrgyzstan is known as the Switzerland of Central Asia--and anti-Americanism has no foundation there. Even today, I think very few Kyrgyz really are anti-American, though it's starting to change since the Tulip Revolution because the American role there was so pronounced in overthrowing Askar Akayev. And what followed has been so bad for the average Kyrgyz, certainly the politics have changed, but I doubt that has manifested itself in the anti-American kidnappings you see in Iraq.

Why did the CIA help overthrow the Kyrgyz government?

Akayev asked the U.S. when it was going to leave its airbase at Manas now that combat in Afghanistan--the original reason for the establishment of the base--was no longer valid.

So that was why we had a military base there in the first place?

Well, the official reason for the base in Kyrgyzstan--and the fly-in rights to Tajikistan and a military base called K2 [Karshi-Khanabad], which was closed recently in Uzbekistan--was ostensibly to service airplanes operating in Afghanistan as part of the war on terror. But most people, or more cynical people--of whom I would be included--would consider that part of a generalized American strategy to derussify the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia which are geopolitically important, and economically important, because of their access--either direct or indirect--to Caspian Sea oil, which are the largest untapped oil reserves in the world.

The first time I saw a map of the oil pipelines coming out of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, it all suddenly made sense.

Military bases certainly exist to exert American military power outwards, but they also serve to promote economic interests inward, because once the United States establishes a military base in your country, they have a level of political and economic influence they didn't have before--and you literally have military troops from a foreign government on your soil that can overthrow you if you don't do what they want. I think that's the primary reason why we have that Kyrgyz base.

Now, it's interesting about [Manas Air Base] because ever since the Uzbeks forced the U.S. to close K2 in early '06, the Kyrgyz have asked for a 200-fold increase in the rent the United States pays for their military base. And furthermore, the Kyrgyz have made a lot of noise in expanding their relationship with Russia, their former Soviet master, so the Kyrgyz are flexing their muscles now, and the Americans are threatening to take out the Kyrgyz regime that they installed in the first place.

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