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Plans to Close U.S. Air Base Threaten Military Supply Route to Afghanistan 


Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted last week to end U.S. access to a key logistical air base that services troops in Afghanistan.

Background

Most U.S. and NATO shipments into Afghanistan arrive by road through Pakistan, but those convoys have increasingly come under attack from Taliban and al-Qaida militants. Since 2001, the U.S. military has moved supplies into the region through its Manas air base, which is part of the international airport near Bishkek. It is the only U.S. military supply route in Central Asia, so the Kyrgyz order to close it within six months represents a major impediment to the conduct of operations in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev had complained that Washington was not paying enough rent for the base. And during a recent trip to Moscow, he announced plans to close it after Russia pledged to give Kyrgyzstan about $2 billion in loans and aid.

An American Perspective

Eurasia specialist Paul Goble says he thinks the motive for closing the U.S.-NATO air base was primarily political. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Goble says Kyrgyzstan’s decision not to allow the United States to continue the operation of its base at Manas reflects Bishkek’s calculation – under a great deal of pressure from Moscow – that it does not want to be too closely aligned with the United States, if that puts it in opposition to the Russian Federation.

Paul Goble notes this is not the first time a U.S. military base in Central Asia has been closed down. After criticism from Washington over the Uzbek government’s violent response to the May 2005 uprising in Andijan, President Islam Karimov closed the U.S. base at Khanabad. Goble says these incidents reflect the tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow over influence in Central Asia.

Furthermore, Goble notes that Russia says it will not support the transit of military goods to Afghanistan, and that other countries in the region – such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – have said the same. That means, Goble explains, “You could move food, you could move tents, but you could not move armaments.” It also means, he says, that Washington may have to do it from farther away – from Turkey, which is a NATO member, or the U.S.-controlled islands of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, or off American carriers, which is a “very expensive proposition.”

A Russian Perspective

Russian journalist Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center says this political development is actually suffused with symbolic meaning for Russia. According to Lipman, “Americans are coming closer to our boarders – whether as NATO or as U.S. military bases – and they are being told they should go.” Lipman observes that Moscow says there is no connection between the $2 billion aid package it has promised to Bishkek and the Kyrgyz decision to evict the American military, but she finds that “hard to believe.”

Masha Lipman suggests that the Kyrgyz government is trying to take advantage of its new bargaining power. And she agrees with U.S. officials who say the eviction of U.S. forces from the Manas air base is not a foregone conclusion.

A Kyrgyz Perspective

Kyrgyz journalist Alisher Khamidov agrees with Ms. Lipman that the situation is still fluid. He says, “What’s going on here is three-way bargaining – between Bishkek and Moscow, between Moscow and Washington, and between Washington and Bishkek.” Moscow is telling Washington, Khamidov says, that the road to Central Asia – especially to Kyrgyzstan – leads through Moscow. But, he adds, it is too early to say Bishkek will close the base completely.

Alisher Khamidov stresses that Moscow’s $2 billion offer to Bishkek is “just an offer,” and nothing has been signed. Furthermore, if the Kyrgyz government “kicks the U.S. base out” and Russia does not live up to its agreement, Kyrgyzstan will “end up with nothing.” So, it is in their interest to bargain, Khamidov says.

The Dilemma

Meanwhile, these political maneuverings place Washington in a bind regarding strategic supplies to Afghanistan, Paul Goble emphasizes. “It’s always better to have more than one route – for pipelines or for air supply,” he observes. According to Goble, “If you put yourself in a position where everyone can see that you desperately need X, then the price of X goes up and the willingness of people to prevent you from getting X in order to create problems for you in hopes of getting a trade-off somewhere else goes up, too.” And he adds, “We now have a Russian government that is willing to use force across military borders and that is willing to bribe countries to support it against the United States.”

Last week Washington reached a tentative agreement with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to allow the passage of non-military cargo bound for Afghanistan. Russia and Kazakhstan have also agreed to allow U.S. non-military supplies to be transported to troops in Afghanistan by rail.

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