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Political Volatility Threatens Key US Staging Base for Afghan War Effort

  • James Brooke

In the past six months, Kyrgyzstan has seen one president toppled by a street mob, hundreds of people killed in ethnic pogroms, and rebellions by two regional politicians. Now, 200 parties are campaigning in an election set for October 10th that is to yield a new, parliamentary style government. In the middle of this political turmoil, the United States quietly runs an air base that fuels one-third of air operations over Afghanistan and is the single largest jumping off point for coalition soldiers flying into Afghanistan.

For American soldiers of the 101st Airborne, Manas Air Transit Center is a welcome patch of America in the heart of Central Asia.

Tankers from Manas fuel jets over Afghanistan, eliminating the need to ever land in the mountainous nation. And Taliban attacks on truck convoys through Pakistan make the air route through Kyrgyzstan increasingly valuable.

Colonel Dwight Sones, the Manas Center commander, said "Kyrgyzstan in itself is really the crown jewel of Central Asia, in terms of its location, its sphere of influence with the surrounding countries."

Manas Air Transit Center provides key location

Taliban attacks on trucks coming along the southern route, through Pakistan, have made the northern air route - through Kyrgyzstan - increasingly valuable.

Ethnic Krygyz and ethnic Uzbek turned on each other in Osh, the week Colonel Sones arrived in Manas, some 320 kilometers away. Hundreds died. In the past, Kyrgyz political passions have turned against the U.S. base. Last year, the Kyrgyz parliament voted 78 to one to expel the Americans. Washington turned the situation around by nearly quadrupling the annual rent, to $60 million.

Politics at play in region

Kyrgyz scholar Alisher Khamidov said, "Now these parties are agitating again for kicking the base out. They are arguing, 'Look, this western presence is the cause of all our troubles.' I have seen some politicians calling for the eviction of this base, with the hope, with the expectation that Kyrgyzstan will regain its stability, and its sovereignty."

Opposition also comes from Russia. Moscow ruled Kyrgyzstan from 1876 until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Today, Kyrgyzstan is the only nation in the world to host both an American and a Russian base. Leonid Bondarets is a Russian advisor.

Bondarets said the U.S. base opened in 2001 on a temporary, one-year lease. He sees it as part of a larger American plan to strengthen its position in the region, winning access to oil and gas in Central Asia and minerals in Afghanistan.

Russia retains a lot of influence here. Most people over 30 speak Russian. One-fifth of Kyrygz workers work in Russia. The money they send home to Kyrgyzstan is a valuable economic lifeline for this impoverished, landlocked nation of 5.3 million people.

US makes extra effort to help

Americans at Manas are working overtime to win local hearts and minds. American money is digging wells, roofing schools, buying local crafts, and building a women's shelter. Base commander Colonel Sones said, "We also have the social-cultural aspect of it where we take the uniforms off, and we get into sports gear, and if we have the chance to play volleyball or soccer or go down and see a ballet downtown, have the mayors come out for a fourth of July celebration - that is all part of that team building."

In the capital Bishkek, political analyst Valentin Bogatyrev said Kyrgyz' attitudes are softening toward the U.S. base. He said mainstream politicians are starting to value the base for contributing to the national budget, for development projects, upgrades to Bishkek's international airport and employing 900 local workers.

So, in the rollercoaster that is Kyrgyz politics, the U.S. is gambling that goodwill and dollars will carry the day,
keeping open this vital back door to Afghanistan.