Air base flap reflects tension over US presence in Central Asia

But Pentagon officials say Kyrgyzstan's move to close a supply route won't impede operations in Afghanistan.

Vladimir Pirogov/Reuters
Supply route: A US serviceman guards the gate of Manas Air Base near Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. US troops have been asked to leave the base in 180 days.

The expected shuttering of a critical US airbase in Central Asia is forcing the US to come up with a Plan B just as it was to begin shipping more troops and materiel to Afghanistan.

The flap over Kyrgyzstan's move to close the Manas Air Base reflects that country's efforts to negotiate a better aid deal for itself, but also the growing tension over US presence in the region.

The president of Kyrgyzstan announced Tuesday that he would no longer allow the US to use the base at Manas, and gave the US 180 days to move out. That sent US officials scrambling to smooth over tensions but also review their options for getting troops and goods into Afghanistan.

The northern supply route is important to the US and NATO because supply routes in southern Afghanistan are often attacked by Taliban and Al Qaeda militants. On Tuesday, Taliban militants blew up a land bridge near Peshawar, Pakistan, cutting off a central supply route for US-led forces in Afghanistan. The next day, militants torched 10 supply trucks returning from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

But Pentagon officials say the US will be able to maintain operations even with the closing of the base. "While we value the relationship and the arrangements, the United States would certainly be able to continue operations in Afghanistan if we did not have that facility," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman on Wednesday.

"This is disruptive, not debilitating," said another military official.

The US may have other options including a supply route through Uzbekistan, for which a deal is said to be close.

The threat that the US could be shut out of the Central Asia region is not new. Concerns over US presence in the region have existed ever since the US opened Manas after its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. But the move comes at a time when the Obama administration is preparing to announce deployments of as many as 30,000 troops and materiel over the next year.

Currently, about 15,000 people and 500 tons of cargo transit through Manas each month, Mr. Whitman said. About 1,000 troops, most of them American, but some from France and Spain, are assigned to the base. The base was also used to transport relief supplies to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake there.

Bargaining tactic

In announcing the closing of the base, Kyrgyzstani President Kurmanbek Bakiyev indicated he did not agree with US aims in Afghanistan. And the country's prime minister said the closure of the base would not preclude nonmilitary cargo from being shipped into Afghanistan, which is landlocked.

Next week, Kyrgyzstan's parliament will vote on whether to shut down the base, but this is seen as only a formality.

US State Department officials say negotiations are continuing with Kyrgyz authorities over keeping the Manas base open – a point confirmed Thursday by Kygyzstan's Prime Minister Igor Chudinov. But Kyrgyz officials seem determined to distance their country from what they view increasingly as a war on Islam taking place in their Central Asia neighborhood.

Mr. Bakiyev's move is an effective bargaining tactic at a time when the US is poised to make more use of the base. The Defense Department now pays about $17 million per year for the use of Manas – part of a $150 million package of assistance to the poor former Soviet republic whose Gross Domestic Product in 2008 was $11.66 billion.

"Is this a negotiation? With them, it's always a negotiation," says an analyst in Washington who is close to the issue and asked not to be identified. But he added that the Kyrgyzstan government is mistaken if it thinks the US will bow to pressure and try to match the estimated $2.3 billion in aid, loan guarantees, and other assistance from Russia.

"We'll just walk away," the analyst says.

One alternative under investigation is a supply route through Uzbekistan, say US officials.

Officials in the region say a deal is close, but that route also would only be good for transporting "nonlethal" goods such as food, medicine, water, and building materials, according to demands from the Uzbek side.

The US had a military base in Uzbekistan until 2005, when the base known as "K2" was closed in retaliation for US protests of government handling of public protests. But recently, US-Uzbek relations have improved.

Russia's hand?

The problem the US faces in Kyrgyzstan stems from a broader regional tension to which the US may now be forced to pay attention. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan, a strong Russian ally, may be helping to carry Russia's water.

Russia is frustrated with the West for expanding NATO – including US-supported moves in Georgia and Ukraine. It also sees the US plan to base new missiles in Poland as a threat.

Russia has insisted it has no interest in hampering US and NATO operations in Afghanistan. But the prospect of a US troop escalation in Afghanistan, and the implications that would have for the area, appear to be hitting the region even as Russia is pressing its own designs.

The US has ignored the region in general and Kyrgyzstan in particular, says the Washington analyst. "We haven't devoted the kind of attention that we should have devoted to them."

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