Obama Appeals Closure of U.S. Airbase in Central Asia, Drawing Mixed Signals From Kyrgyzstan

By Patrick Goodenough | June 12, 2009 | 4:31 AM EDT

U.S. soldiers unload and check their equipment at Manas air base on June 3, 2009. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Charles M. Wade)

(CNSNews.com) – The United States’ sole remaining military airbase in Central Asia, slated for closure in ten weeks’ time, may yet win a reprieve as President Obama looks to extend its use in support of stepped-up operations in Afghanistan.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s office said Thursday it was considering its response to a letter from Obama appealing for expanded cooperation.
Although not mentioning the Manas air base specifically, the Kyrgyz presidency in a statement said that Obama had thanked Kyrgyzstan for its efforts in stabilizing Afghanistan and fighting terrorism, according to the Kabar national news agency.
“Moreover Barack Obama expressed hope to further strengthen various forms of cooperation between the United States and Kyrgyzstan.”
Obama planned to send a high-level delegation to Kyrgyzstan for discussions in the nearest future, it said.
Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev, who was tasked to recommend a reply to the letter, told reporters in the capital, Bishkek, that the response would be taken on the basis of Kyrgyzstan’s national interests, “taking into account current situation in Central Asian region, in particular in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
He added that Kyrgyzstan “is interested in peace and stability in Central Asian region.”
Notwithstanding that hint at cooperation, however, Sarbayev also said that there was “no turning back” on the decision to end the agreement on using Manas.
The U.S. believes the Kyrgyzstan government’s decision to expel the U.S. from Manas, an international airport near Bishkek, was taken under pressure from Moscow, which seeks to reassert its influence – and counter that of the West – in former Soviet areas it considers “zones of privileged interests.” (Russia operates an air base at Kant, just 20 miles from Manas.)
There is now some speculation in the region that Obama will strike a deal with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, possibly linking Manas with the issues of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia and U.S. European missile defense plans, both of which the Kremlin strongly opposes. Obama is scheduled to make his first presidential visit to Moscow early next month.
Kyrgyzstan can also probably expect more money from the U.S. for the use of the base. For Bakiyev, revenues appear to be more of a driving factor than ideology, analysts believe.
When Bakiyev announced the shutdown decision last February, he did so standing alongside Medvedev, who had just offered Kyrgyzstan an aid package worth more than $2 billion.
How much the U.S. pays to use the base has long been an issue of contention. There were claims that Bakiyev’s predecessor had benefited improperly from U.S. funding. Since taking office the incumbent has pressed for better compensation, and in 2006 he won a rent increase to $17.5 million a year.
According to U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus, out of some $150 million in U.S. aid to Kyrgyzstan each year, $63 million goes towards leasing space at Manas, airport fees, and contracts to local companies and individuals. The base also employs more than 320 Kyrgyz citizens.
When the closure was announced, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell expressed optimism that a settlement could yet be negotiated, acknowledging that the amount the U.S. pays to use the facility was an issue.
Kyrgyz political scientist Alexander Kniazev, director of the regional branch of the Moscow-based CIS Institute think tank, told the Bishkek news agency 24.kg on Thursday, without elaborating, that he had information indicating that a new agreement for U.S. use of the base would bring in $350 million a year.
Kniazev said the final decision on Manas would likely be taken not between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan, but between Obama and Medvedev when they meet in July.
As matters now stand, the U.S. is meant to vacate the base by August 18.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported last week that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had written to Bakiyev, urging him to help Afghanistan by allowing operations at Manas to continue.
Alternatives sought
The U.S. began using facilities at Manas after 9/11 as it mounted operations against al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan.
Last year around 120,000 troops moved through the facility en route to and from Afghanistan’s Bagram air base. Manas houses some 1,000 military personnel and is home to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing. About 500 tons of cargo move through the base each month.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a grouping of Russia, China and Central Asian states, called during a watershed summit in 2005 for the U.S. military to leave Central Asia. Shortly thereafter Uzbekistan – at the time embroiled in a row with Washington over human rights abuses – gave the U.S. notice to vacate an important base there, Karshi-Kanabad (K2).
The move left Manas as the only U.S. facility in the region.
Next week the SCO holds another summit, in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. The future of Manas is certain to be discussed, as Medvedev and Bakiyev are due to attend, as is Karzai. (Afghanistan has observer status.)
Most of the supplies and fuel for the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan enters landlocked Afghanistan from Pakistan, but deteriorating security in that country has put pressure on the military to find alternative routes.
Rumors have periodically emerged – in Russian media and elsewhere – about the possibility of striking a new agreement with Uzbekistan, although the U.S. ambassador in Kazakhstan, Richard Hoagland, told reporters this week that a base in Uzbekistan “is not currently on the table.”
Despite the closure of K2, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov has permitted NATO forces to transport non-lethal cargo through his country.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow