Kyrgyzstan: Does it really want to close US base?

Pack your bags.

That's what President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan told about 1,000 US personnel who've been stationed at the Manas airbase since 2001. This is the last US military base in former Soviet Central Asia.

But President Bakiyev made the call under pressure from Moscow.

Does he really mean it?

The order came after Moscow extended a $2-billion loan and $150-million gift to Kyrgyzstan, and Mr. Bakiyev criticized the annual US rent of $63 million as too little.

"Eight years passed. We repeatedly discussed with the United States the issue of economic compensation for staying at the base in Kyrgyzstan, but we didn't find understanding," Bakiyev said.

One hour from Kabul

Manas, a sprawling installation that houses scores of US fighter planes and transport aircraft about 1-hour flight from the Afghan capital of Kabul, has been a key staging point for NATO operations in Afghanistan. Losing it would be a severe blow to Washington as it prepares to boost US forces in the region and searches for alternative supply lines to replace the troubled route through Pakistan.

The US is not without options.

As the Monitor reported yesterday, the attacks on US convoys in Pakistan are pushing the US to renew ties with Uzbekistan.

A US spokesman suggested Bakiyev's gambit is aimed at wresting more cash from Washington, since rent for Manas has been poverty-stricken Kyrgyzstan's biggest single source of revenue.

"I think it's political positioning.... We have a standing contract, and they're making millions off our presence there," Colonel Greg Julian, US military spokesman in Afghanistan, told journalists.

All Roads Go Through Moscow Now

But Russian experts say the message is that the US will have to talk to Moscow, not Bishkek, if it wants to operate in the former Soviet region in future.

The Kremlin, which assented to the base as a "temporary" measure following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, is miffed that the US appears to have settled down in Manas permanently, they say.

"The closure of Manas should be read as an invitation from Moscow to negotiate the whole spectrum of concerns about cooperation in Central Asia, but those talks will have to take place with Russia," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading foreign policy journal.

"Russia is positioning itself as the boss in this region once more."

If Bakiyev's decree is ratified by the Kyrgyz parliament, the US will have 180 days to vacate the installation.

In 2005, the US was forced to abandon a military base at Karshi-Khanabad, in Uzbekistan, after a Chinese- and Russian-led regional organization ordered it to leave.

Russian experts say Moscow wants to work with the US and NATO to defeat the Taliban, curb the rise of Islamic extremism in the former Soviet region, and fight drug trafficking.

But the same experts warn that the scramble for influence and oil by Western powers in Central Asia, as the Monitor wrote about in Tajikistan, threatens to undermine regional stability, and does not take account of Russian security concerns.

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