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Establishing A Base In Central Asia

U.S. soldier in Tajikistan
CBS
It may be temporary, but already it's made history, reports CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer.

Manas airport is home to the first new U.S.-built base in a former Soviet Republic.

Right now the pressure is on to pitch enough tents for 3,000 people. In a few weeks, American and international coalition planes will fly combat missions to Afghanistan from here as well as transport humanitarian aid.

"Manas is strategically located," U.S. Air Force Col. Billy Montgomery told CBS News, "and it has excellent facilities."

This tiny mountain country also has a cooperative government, which invited the U.S. to build the base, even though Kyrgyzstan borders China, and for 70 years was a Soviet Republic — strictly off-limits to all American military.

The U.S. establishing an air base in a former Soviet Republic was a slap in the face for Russia, but the fact that the Kremlin didn't object is a tacit admission that the Russians no longer have the money or the influence to police this volatile region.

Click Here for Complete CoverageFor the most part, Kyrgyzstan is peaceful, but its moderate Muslims have been terrorized in attacks by Islamic fundamentalists with links to the Taliban.

The Kyrgyz government hopes that a U.S. base here will put an end to that threat, but there is a possibility that the base itself could be a target for terrorist attacks.

So every day, armed patrols tour neighboring villages.

"I've got to tell you I didn't even know where this place was until a month-and-a-half ago," admitted USAF Technical Sergeant Doug Austin.

It's partly a public relations exercise, and partly intelligence gathering.

However, not everyone is this pleased to see the Americans.

They're not going to leave, warns Parliamentary Deputy Adahan Madumarov.

Long-term, the U.S. wants to be able to flex its muscles here on the borders of China, Pakistan and India — all nuclear powers.

Regional politics aside, the 300 men and women here now are focused on the job of getting this base up and running, with all the snags out, by April.

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