The government of Kyrgyzstan says it will close the Manas air base to U.S. forces. But the decision still has to be approved by the country's parliament. The base is located in northern Kyrgyzstan, not far from the capital Bishkek.
Andrew Hoehn with the RAND Corporation says the United States has been leasing the air base for several years now. "This goes back to 2001 shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September of 2001 as the United States was contemplating action against the Taliban and al-Qaida inside Afghanistan. It needed to make arrangements to gain access to the region more broadly. And at that time, on a fairly urgent basis, relationships were forged with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan so as to be able to use air facilities, airfields in both countries. It was at Karshi-Kanabad in Uzbekistan and at Manas in Kyrgyzstan," he said.
Since 2001, the Manas airfield has played a critical role in the U.S. and NATO war effort in Afghanistan. "It moves about 500 tons of cargo and supplies every month and about 15,000 people transiting through there every month as well. And on the refueling side it is really, really important for aircraft that are flying over Afghanistan both for search and rescue missions, say for downed pilots and things of that nature, as well as for bombing raids," said Jason Lyall, with Princeton University.
Last year, more than 11,000 aircraft were refueled over the skies of Afghanistan by tankers based at Manas.
Analysts such as Michael Williams from the University of London, say in the past few months, Manas' role has become even more important. "Given the fact that the current supply routes run from Pakistan and they come from Karachi, from the sea, all the way up the country into southern and eastern Afghanistan. And given the insecurity, both in the provinces of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan and in southern and eastern Afghanistan, it has been quite difficult ensuring regularity of supplies. NATO has had several convoys attacked. Several hundred NATO vehicles were destroyed in a single ambush a few months ago," he said.
Manas is now the only base leased by the United States in Central Asia. In 2005, the Uzbek government, pressured by Russia, evicted U.S. forces from the Karshi-Kanabad airfield. And now the Kirghiz government is trying to do the same with Manas.
Analysts, such as Robert Legvold with Columbia University, say Russia certainly played a role in the Kirghiz decision to close the base to U.S. forces, a move that still needs to be approved by the country's parliament. "It would appear to be more than a coincidence that the decision was announced to the Americans in Moscow when (Kurmanbek) Bakiyev, the president of Kyrgyzstan, was in Moscow and immediately after he'd received this large package of aid, a $2 billion credit and a $150 million grant. That appears to be more than a coincidence, not the least since we know that the Russians have been urging both the Uzbeks and the Kirghiz to set a deadline by which the Americans should be removed from the base, or by which the outsiders should be pushed out of the central Asian facilities."
Russian and Kirgyz officials have denied any link between Moscow's aid package and Bishkek's decision to close the air field to the U.S. military. Many experts, including Jason Lyall from Princeton University, say Manas' closure comes at a bad time since the U.S. is increasing the number of forces in Afghanistan. "It is extremely poor timing. It's going to make the movement of the troops very, very difficult. And unless the United States can scramble and find some kind of other alternative, route perhaps through Turkey, perhaps through one of the other central Asian republics, this is going to seriously compromise the logistics," he said.
Many analysts say one of the key stumbling blocks is Kyrgyzstan's demand for a significant increase in the lease. The U.S. currently pays more than $17 million a year for the use of Manas - and that is part of an overall $150 million economic package to Bishkek. Experts say the issue may come down to how much more the U.S. is willing to pay to keep a vital airfield operational in its Afghan war effort.