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US Airbase in Kyrgyzstan Could Stay After All

Afghan leader pleads for extension for supply point used by international forces in war on Taleban.
By Urmatbek Tashmatov
Following Kyrgyzstan’s decision to close the United States airbase near the capital Bishkek earlier this year, there are signs a deal is emerging which would allow the Americans to remain there.

On June 4, Afghan president Hamid Karzai wrote to his Kyrgyz counterpart Kurmanbek Bakiev asking him to keep the base at Manas airport open as it was vital to the success of military operations against the Taleban.

Karzai’s letter is seen by analysts as part of Washington’s efforts to maintain the airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

Maxim Kaganer, deputy head of Kyrgyz president’s secretariat, confirmed the existence of the letter, in which he said Karzai voiced concern about the situation in Afghanistan and noted that “it could turn into a problem for the whole of Asia”.

On June 11, Kyrgyz officials said US President Barack Obama had written to Bakiev calling for increased bilateral cooperation, although apparently without referring specifically to the fate of the Manas base.

The US-led Coalition in Afghanistan acquired the lease of the base in 2001 to provide logistical support for its military operations. The base provides air refuelling and other services for operations in Afghanistan, and is used a stopping-off point for freight and personnel transporters.

The Americans plan to double their troop presence in Afghanistan to 60,000 this year, increasing the argument in favour of having air supply routes from the north, especially as roads into Afghanistan from Pakistan are under increasing pressure from Taleban attacks.

In February, the Kyrgyz parliament voted to close the base, arguing that the need for it had fallen away, more than seven years after the Coalition moved into Afghanistan.

Parliament’s decision followed President Bakiev's announcement that the base was to close, made on a visit to Moscow during which he secured pledges of loans and investment worth two billion dollars. Some analysts argued that Bakiev traded the US base for Russian financial and political support. (See Kyrgyzstan: How Imminent is US Base Closure?, RCA No. 565, 5-Feb-09.)

In principle, American forces should vacate the Manas facility within 180 days of the vote, in other words by August 18.

Analysts believe that despite what appeared to be an irreversible eviction order, the US presence is turning out to be negotiable after all.

What is not entirely clear is whether, as some analysts suspect, regional powerbroker Russia is also part of the Kyrgyz-US negotiating process.

The first clear signal that Kyrgyzstan was open to negotiation came on March 4, when president Bakiev told the BBC that “the door was not closed”, and his administration would listen any proposal made by Washington.

In an immediate reaction to the Kyrgyz parliament’s decision, US defence secretary Robert Gates told NATO defence ministers on February 19, “I continue to believe that this is not a closed issue and that there remains the potential at least to reopen this issue with the Kyrgyz and perhaps reach a new agreement.”

Analysts in Bishkek believe that as well as the letter from Karzai, the Americans have also engaged Abdullah Gul, president of NATO member Turkey, as a go-between in these delicate negotiations.

Although the US airbase was not officially a topic during Gul’s trip to Kyrgyzstan in late May, he did say afterwards that the situation in Afghanistan had been discussed, and that “we have to do all we can to stabilise the situation in that country”.

“Given that the Turkish president had not visited Kyrgyzstan in a long time, it may be assumed that the US asked him to talk to his Kyrgyz counterpart,” analyst Mars Sariev told IWPR.

Bakiev has suggested that “new terms” would apply to any future arrangements.

Political analyst Marat Kazakpaev told the news agency that he believed this meant that American armed forces would be still be withdrawn, but that Manas could still be used as a stopping-off point for non-military humanitarian freight going to Afghanistan.

Another issue up for renegotiation would be money. Until now, the Washington has reportedly been paying 17.4 million US dollars in rent as part of a 150 million dollar annual package of aid and fees.

A third factor prompting the re-opening of talks on Manas could be the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.

“Russian experts and also our own president previously stated that military operation in Afghanistan were drawing to a close, and that there was no need for the military airbase,” said security affairs analyst Orozbek Moldaliev. “As you can see, they were profoundly wrong. It’s now evident that it will take a long time to restore peace to Afghanistan.”

Bishkek-based political analyst Mars Sariev says the Manas base is really the only feasible option for air transport at the moment, despite a recent deal under which South Korea will lease an airport at Navoi in Uzbekistan, and use it to provide transit services for NATO planes carrying non-military freight to Afghanistan. (See Uzbekistan Opens Airbase to NATO Freight, News Briefing Central Asia 15-May-09.)

“This base is of crucial importance to the Americans. Manas is the only airport in the region that can service heavy cargo planes,” said Sariev. “The Americans are trying to set up a base in the Uzbek city of Navoi, but it will take two or three years to upgrade it.”

For some analysts, the Karzai letter is less a last-ditch attempt to get Bakiev to change his mind, than a sign that secret talks are nearing their conclusion.

According to this view, the Afghan leader’s plea for support would help Kyrgyz leaders explain their volte face to the public.

“The decision has been taken,” said Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asia Project Director at the International Crisis Group, a leading think-tank. “The Kyrgyz authorities faced the task of justifying it. Karzai’s letter, as part of this strategy, has put an end to it.”

Mars Sariev agreed that the letter indicated that a consensus had been reached by all sides, adding that “these sides are the US, Russia and Kyrgyzstan”.

“If the question of the Manas base remaining had been unclear, it’s unlikely anyone would have found out about Karzai’s message. The Kyrgyz government would have responded quietly via diplomatic channels,” he said.

Analysts believe a final decision on the future of the American base will be announced following a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation - a regional security block including Russia, China and four Central Asian states – which is due to take place on June 16 in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg.

Urmatbek Tashmatov is an IWPR-trained journalist in Bishkek.

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