Threat to Close Central U.S. Air Base in Central Asia Could Impede Afghanistan Plans
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell during a press briefing described Manas in Kyrgyzstan as “a hugely important air base for us” and voiced optimism that a settlement could be negotiated, acknowledging that the amount the U.S. pays to use the facility was an issue.
The U.S. Embassy in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, added Wednesday that talks on the future of the base “will continue.” It said the U.S. had received no formal notification of a closure decision.
An expert on the region noted that the Kyrgyz government has in the past used threatened closure of the base as a negotiating tactic aimed at securing more money for the lease, but said this time could be different.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the decision in Moscow, where he had just secured a generous financial aid package.
The Kremlin has not hidden its aversion to what it calls outside meddling in neighboring former Soviet republics. Russian business daily Kommersant, citing a “source close to the negotiations” with Bakiyev, said Moscow made the U.S. base closure a “strict condition” for granting the financial assistance he sought. Bakiyev’s announcement comes just weeks after U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus visited Kyrgyzstan for talks on the future of the base, the key air mobility and refueling hub for coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Petraeus said afterwards that his discussions about Manas had left him reassured about future cooperation and that closure had not been discussed.
He reiterated the important role played by the base in the flow of U.S. forces, as well as those from France and Spain, to and from Afghanistan.
The U.S. began using facilities at Manas, an international airport near Bishkek, after 9/11 in support of the operation against al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan. There are regular flights between Manas and the Bagram air base in Afghanistan – flying time around 90 minutes – and last year some 120,000 troops moved through the installation, which is home to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and 1,000 military personnel.
“Everyone raves about this facility and those that run the facility,” Petraeus told airmen during his visit. “I’ve never heard a discouraging word about this place.”
With the Obama administration planning to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan to shore up the campaign against a deadly Taliban insurgency, Manas had looked set to become even more important.
The bulk of supplies for the U.S. and NATO missions, including 40 percent of fuel, moves through Pakistan. But attacks on convoys and deteriorating security – militants in north-western Pakistan blew up a bridge along the supply route Tuesday – have highlighted the need for alternatives. With landlocked Afghanistan’s other neighbor, Iran, not currently an option, Central Asian nations to the north are the obvious answer. Russia’s longstanding opposition to U.S. military presence in the resource-rich former Soviet republics has proven a sticking point, however.
Russia, which itself maintains an air base at Kant, just 20 miles from Manas, has been keen to block U.S. military presence in a region which it regards as a continuing sphere of influence.
In 2005 the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional bloc comprising Russia, China and four Central Asian countries, signaled that it was time for the U.S. military to leave the region. Officials in Washington suspected a Russian hand behind the move.
Shortly after the SCO call, Uzbekistan gave the U.S. notice to vacate what at the time was its most important military base in the region, Karshi-Kanabad (known as K2). Earlier that year operations at the base had been restricted following U.S. criticism of a violent crackdown against anti-government protestors.
The K2 shutdown left Manas as the only U.S. facility in the region. Its future has since then frequently been debated – the subject of hard bargaining by the Bakiyev government, with rumors periodically surfacing that it would ask the Americans to leave.
A Kyrgyz Islamic organization recently launched a petition campaign demanding that the U.S. facility be closed, and communist lawmakers were pressing to have the matter discussed in parliament.
Bakiyev’s announcement Tuesday came in Moscow during a visit to secure financial aid to prop up his politically volatile country’s struggling economy. Russia agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with $150 million in aid and $2 billion in loans, and to write off debt worth $180 million.
After meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev, the Kyrgyz leader told reporters that his government had taken a decision to end the U.S. presence, and complained that the U.S. military refused to provide “better compensation” for using facilities at the base.
He also cited negative public sentiment about the base, fueled in part by a fatal checkpoint shooting of a Kyrgyz man by a U.S. soldier in 2006.
Bakiyev did not give a date for the planned closure, although Kyrgyz media earlier reported that he would sign a decree ordering it to happen within six months.
For his part, Medvedev did not comment on the U.S. air base issue, saying it was a matter for the Kyrgyz government.
According to Petraeus, speaking in Bishkek on January 19, the U.S. pays $63 million a year for leasing space at Manas, in airport fees, and for contracts to local companies and individuals. More than 320 Kyrgyz citizens are employed there.
Petraeus also said an investigation into the 2006 shooting incident had been reopened, and that he had assured Bakiyev he would brief him on the outcome.
Room for maneuver
Dr. Kirill Nourzhanov, a Central Asia specialist at the Australian National University’s Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, said Wednesday that although Bakiyev had referred to differences over compensation and the 2006 shooting, the real reason for the announcement “appears to be a generous economic package offered by Moscow that is conditional on the removal of the U.S. base.”
He said both Bakiyev and his predecessor had over the years used the tactic of leaked rumors of an imminent base shutdown “to exert pressure on the U.S. government with the view of securing more funds for their struggling regimes.”
But they had invariably backtracked, he said.
This time appeared to be different, however. Bakiyev had announced the decision publicly, indicating that an official order would be issued within days.
Nourzhanov said that while the U.S. was not in a position to make a better offer than the one Moscow had put on the table, there was some room for maneuver.
The withdrawal period could be extended beyond the expected six months, the status of the base could be changed or downgraded, or a deal could be negotiated that would enable U.S. personnel to return easily in the future, should the circumstances change, he said.