They are shadowy figures just visible from the perimeter of the windswept airbase outside the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek - United States troops unloading supplies.
As the war in Afghanistan becomes a mopping-up operation, the US has stepped up troop deployments in the region, in what Russia and China fear is an effort to secure dominant influence over their backyards, a region rich in oil and gas reserves.
In the past weeks, diplomats and generals from all three countries have streamed into Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The war on terrorism has turned the Central Asian republics from backwaters into prizes overnight.
In a letter to the New York Times last week, former Iraq arms inspector Richard Butler warned that the 'Great Game' between Britain and Russia over the Indian sub-continent in the nineteenth century may now be replayed, with Russia and the US as the dominant players. 'Now the prize is oil - getting it and transporting it - and Afghanistan is again the contested territory,' Butler wrote.
U.S. President George W. Bush (R) welcomes Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev to the Oval Office of the White House, December 21, 2001. The two leaders discussed regional 'security issues'. REUTERS/Larry Downing
From Africa to the Philippines, South America and Central Asia, unease is growing over the way the US is flexing its military and political muscle.
In the Philippines, a dispute has erupted over the impending deployment of 650 US troops to help combat the Abu Sayyaf Islamic insurgency. In Saudi Arabia, too, public concern over the presence of US troops and Washington's future global ambitions has led officials to declare that the US may have overstayed its welcome.
What worries these countries is that when American troops come, they stay.
On a swing through the former Soviet republics last week, US Senate majority leader Tom Daschle confirmed Washington's long-term interests when he told Uzbek leaders that the US presence 'is not simply in the immediate term'.
Since October, the US has established open-ended military presences in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and is now understood to be negotiating with Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev to send Kazakh troops to Afghanistan and to construct a military base.
'It is clear that the continuing war in Afghanistan is no more than a veil for the US to establish political dominance in the region,' a Kazakh government source said. 'The war on terrorism is only a pretext for extending influence over our energy resources.'
Kazakhstan's oil reserves could be the third largest in the world. Moreover, the Afghan conflict has made the prospect of the US-favored route of a pipeline through Afghanistan and Pakistan a potential reality.
Over the past month, the Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji has signaled his country's wariness over a long-term US presence by sending delegations to the former Soviet republics, and by convening a meeting of the regional Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO).
Reacting to reports that the US was about to deploy in Kazakhstan, the chief of the general staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, General Fu Quanyou, warned such a move 'poses a direct threat to China's security'. Beijing is understood to be mainly concerned that instability caused by radicals among the Uighur Muslims on its western borders could derail its modernization.
Russia has also expressed unease about the growing Western presence - painfully aware that it does not have the resources to pit itself against the US.
'They are unhappy about the US presence, but not too publicly because [President Vladimir] Putin wants to be seen as an active participant in the coalition against terrorism,' says Margot Light, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. 'The speed at which the US established coalition-backed military forces in the region has served to make the Russian failure all the more spectacular.'
Last week on the ancient, frozen Silk Road over the Alatau mountains from Kazakhstan to China, it was easy to see how the US presence plays into Chinese fears: large lorries loaded with Chinese goods streamed across the border toward Almaty as high-flying US B-52s flew westwards towards home.
America has not sought to hide the fact that it intends to remain in the region, even after its 'battle against terrorism' has been won. To local Kyrgyz and Russians, the spectacle of beefy US soldiers opens a new perspective.
'They are making themselves at home, going to cafes, exchanging money, leafing through the newspapers,' one local resident said recently. 'They are the good guys, who beat the terrorists. They go to the village to stock up on goods. Local people hope for dollar opportunities.'
But some Russian leaders have begun to speak out. Last week the Speaker of the Russian parliament, Gennady Seleznyov, said Russia 'would not approve of permanent United States military bases in Central Asia'. And Russia's border guard commander, Konstantin Totsky, warned the US presence could only be tolerated for the duration of the anti-terrorist operation.
However, the Russian protestations have been undermined by allegations of influence-peddling in the area. Recent reports suggest that as recently as two years ago Russian forces aided members of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in guerrilla operations in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in order to foster insecurity and thus coax its former provinces into accepting protection.
Still, human rights groups are already complaining that in the rush to secure influence, the US is ignoring human rights abuses, corruption and weak democratic processes in the region.
There is further concern that active support of the US by Muslim countries with nascent Islamic fundamentalist movements serves only to inflame their problems.
'The Central Asian governments are being misguided because their own insurgency movements are likely to only grow with the presence of US military,' says Light.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002