On top of its decision to close the U.S. airbase at Manas, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted yesterday to end agreements with eleven other countries that also use the base, including several European states, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea, Reuters reports.
Although the WSJ notes that Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has recently shown hesitation about the decision after coming under domestic pressure from political allies who doubt Russia’s commitment to carry through with $2.15 billion in promised aid following the closure, the U.S. is now steadily seeking to secure alternative supply routes into Afghanistan.
The closure of the Manas airbase is a setback. Some 90 percent of U.S. troops presently in Afghanistan transited through the base, and it housed midair refueling tankers for U.S. and NATO aircraft. Furthermore, according to the WaPo, the U.S. is planning to increase the amount of supplies to Afghanistan by at least 50 percent in order to accommodate the additional 17,000 troops Obama ordered to be deployed to the country this year. This comes in addition to officials’ concerns that already too many supplies are coming through increasingly vulnerable Pakistani entry points:
Up to 90 percent of American military ground cargo, which consists of nonlethal supplies such as food, fuel, water and construction materials, currently flows through Pakistan, defense officials said. Those supplies enter Afghanistan primarily through Torkham gate at the Khyber Pass and Chaman gate farther south.
“You very clearly have an issue of flow through a small number of choke points that seem increasingly vulnerable,” said Craig Mullaney, who served as an Army officer in Afghanistan before becoming a war adviser to the Obama campaign.
While all lethal supplies, sensitive materials, and personnel enter Afghanistan by air, diversifying ground supply routes for the above reasons has become a priority. Nonlethal cargo is now being shipped by rail across Russia, through Kazakhstan, and then into Uzbekistan to the border with Afghanistan. A similar agreement with Tajikistan, whose border with Afghanistan is closer to U.S. bases, is said to be close to completion also. The WaPo:
The military wants to open a significant new ground supply distribution route into Afghanistan through the north, primarily through rail lines in Termez, Uzbekistan, which connect with tracks that extend about 10 miles across the border into Afghanistan, officials said. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan also agreed last month to allow nonlethal U.S. military cargo to travel on their roads and rail lines, officials and experts said.
The goal is for the northern route via the Russian rail system to handle about 20 percent of the ground cargo destined for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, or about 100 20-foot containers a week, compared with about 500 a week through Pakistan, officials said.
New ground supply routes to Afghanistan are certainly welcome, but Manas is due to close in six months. An air base on its scale is sorely needed, and although a glimmer of hope is being held that Kyrgyzstan can be swayed in that time, prospects in Central Asia are looking unlikely:
Still, experts said they do not foresee other Central Asian countries allowing the U.S. military to station an air base on their territory. “If you define the region as the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, I don’t think there is a possibility at this time for an air base of the kind we had in Manas or in Uzbekistan prior to 2005,” said Evan Feigenbaum, a former U.S. envoy in Kyrgyzstan who is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “A fixed American military installation is a huge undertaking politically for them.”
“For Moscow, the absolute priority is holding on to their sphere of influence” in former Soviet republics in Central Asia, said Stephen Blank, a Russia expert at the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. “That overrides everything else. That means excluding the U.S.”
One option would be to conduct the refueling missions from bases in Bahrain or Qatar, but this would be incredibly expensive and consume much more time. As mentioned above, there is speculation the Bakiyev regrets his decision after being pressured by the Kremlin, especially since almost 80 percent of the pledged Russian aid is earmarked for a “Soviet-era hydroelectric-power project that experts say isn’t viable because Kyrgyzstan lacks the power lines and infrastructure to support it.”
However, this is by no means a sign that Kyrgyzstan is open to bargaining. If a replacement to the Manas airbase is not found by August, supplying and supporting operations in Afghanistan could become a lot more difficult.
Peter Cassata is associate editor of the Atlantic Council.