Kyrgyzstan’s president said Tuesday his country is ending U.S. use of an air base key to military operations in Afghanistan — a decision with potentially grave consequences for U.S. efforts to put down surging Taliban and al-Qaida violence. A U.S. military official in Afghanistan called President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s statement “political positioning” and denied the U.S. presence at the Manas air base would end anytime soon.
The United States is preparing to deploy an additional 15,000 troops in Afghanistan and Manas is an important stopover for U.S. materiel and personnel.
Ending U.S. access would be a significant victory for Moscow in its efforts to squeeze the United States out of Central Asia, home to substantial oil and gas reserves and seen by Russia as part of its strategic sphere of influence. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev spoke on a visit to Moscow minutes after Russia announced it was providing the poor Central Asian nation with billions of dollars in aid.
Bakiyev said when the U.S. forces began using Manas after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the expectation was that they would stay for two years at most. “It should be said that during this time… we discussed not just once with our American partners the subject of economic compensation for the stationing (of US forces at the base),” he said on Russian state-run TV. “But unfortunately we have not found any understanding on the part of the United States. “So literally just days ago, the Kyrgyz government made the decision on ending the term for the American base on the territory of Kyrgyzstan,” he said.
Col. Greg Julian, the U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, denied there was any change in U.S. use of the base and he noted that Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, just recently traveled there. “I think it’s political positioning. Gen. Petraeus was just there and he talked with them. We have a standing contract and they’re making millions off our presence there. There are no plans to shut down access to it anytime soon,” he told The Associated Press.
A follow-up report from Leila Saralayeva suggests that this is more than a publicity stunt: “Kyrgyzstan’s government submitted a draft bill to parliament Wednesday that would close a U.S. base that is key to the American military campaign in Afghanistan.”
The government said the decision to order the closure of the Manas base was made because the base has fulfilled its purpose of supporting military actions in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, “state institutions have been created, a Constitution adopted, a president was elected, and government was formed. All the necessary conditions are in place for the stable functioning of a government in Afghanistan,” the statement said.
The Kyrgyz government also cited growing popular discontent with the U.S. military presence among its motivations for the closure. It also criticized U.S. obstruction of the investigation into the fatal shooting in December 2006 of a Kyrgyz truck driver by a U.S. serviceman during a security check at the entrance to the air base.
One suspects an accommodation will be reached, with the U.S. upping its payment for basing rights. Still, this underscores both the difficulty of staging a years-long military operation far from home and the need for Russian cooperation to achieve our goals in Afghanistan.
UPDATE: OTB’s Dave Schuler is less optimistic, titling his post “Russia Outbids U. S. for Manas Air Base.” He passes along Russian news reports that U.S. forces will in fact be out within 180 days and observes, “The Manas air base is the U. S.’s only base in central Asia. Losing it would make supplying our forces in Afghanistan, particularly if we increase the number of those forces, much more dependent on the Khyber Pass supply route through Pakistan. That, in turn, would strengthen the hand of the Islamabad government in dealing with us.” We shall soon see.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.