Until yesterday, it seemed a fait accompli that the vital NATO supply base in Krygyzstan was closing, owing to a combination of geopolitics and a strong bid by Russia. Well into the eleventh hour, however, access to Manus Air Base was saved.
Michael Schwirtz and Clifford Levy report for NYT that “Kyrgyzstan has essentially reversed a decision to close an American air base that is central to the NATO mission in nearby Afghanistan, after the United States acceded to sharply higher rent and to minor restrictions on the site.”
The Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan has been used since 2001 as a refueling stop and transit hub for operations in Afghanistan. Thousands of personnel and roughly 500 tons of cargo pass through the base each month.
It has also been a focal point in the struggle between the United States and Russia for influence in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Russia pledged a $2 billion loan to Kyrgyzstan on the day in February that the Kyrgyz president announced that the United States would be evicted from the base.
It was not immediately clear what role the Russian government played in the new agreement between the Kyrgyz and American governments, but President Obama is scheduled to travel to Moscow next month for a summit meeting with Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, and the two powers have been seeking to improve relations in recent months.
The Kyrgyz and American governments both said the new arrangement would put limitations on the base. But neither side could point to any significant ones, and it seemed as if the agreement was written to offer the Kyrgyz government a face-saving way to undo its earlier decision.
For example, the base is to be renamed a transit center, as opposed to an air base. And the Kyrgyz will control security around the base; currently, American military personnel do. The text of the new agreement specifies few other restrictions on how the United States can use the base. There do not seem to be any prohibitions on shipping weaponry.
One major change, though, is the rent. It will rise to $60 million annually from $17.4 million, Kadyrbek Sarbayev, Kyrgyzstan’s foreign minister, told the Kyrgyz Parliament on Tuesday. Washington will also pay $36.6 million to expand the airport and will contribute tens of millions of dollars toward economic development and the fight against drug trafficking, Mr. Sarbayev said. He said the agreement would be for one year and would be contingent on the situation in Afghanistan.
This would seem to confirm Dave Schuler‘s assertion in early February that the Russians had simply outbid the United States for the base. Using a tactic popularized on eBay, the Obama administration apparently waited until just before bidding close to counter. As Thomas Barnett observes, “In the end, it was all about the money, so we paid up (and renamed it a transit center and now let the Kyrgyz do security), all of which is fine.”
While not dismissing the idea that this was mostly the Kyrgyz government shrewdly playing the Russians and Americans against one another, Wired’s Nathan Hodge believes the counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics aide are more than a sideshow.
Kyrgyz security forces said yesterday they killed five militants belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in a firefight in the southern town of Jalal-Abad. The IMU is linked to the Taliban, and there’s concern that the Ferghana valley, which straddles parts of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, could become a haven for extremists.
The Kremlin is reportedly displeased with the whole deal, but speaking yesterday to reporters in Namibia, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev put a positive spin on things. “Our American partners asked us to offer support in the transit of cargos,” he said, according to a transcript from Russia’s Radio Mayak. “We are helping them. If Kyrgyzstan is ready to do this, this will only aid in the struggle with terrorism.”
If nothing else, this affair demonstrates that, global recession or no, the United States can still outbid Russia when need be.